Wine and Cheese Catches a Wave
A pioneering wine and cheese tasting was held in 1939 by the Wine and Food Society of New York. The group was an early branch of the International Wine and Food Society, founded in London, U.K. in 1933. The event was reported on that year by Charles B. Driscoll of the San Bernadino Sun in his column “New York Day By Day”.
Driscoll, out in sunny California, was mildly amused by the foodie foray in New York. The New York Times was even more arch when it reviewed a similar event in 1936, as I discussed here.
The 1939 soirée was at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a posh Manhattan venue favoured by the New York Wine and Food Society for its events.
The New York Society’s menus, stored digitally at the New York Public Library (www.nypl.org), are rich in cultural detail and both menu and beverage sophistication. A review of the period from the mid-1930s to about 1970 makes clear that today’s lively and variegated modern food scene owes not a little to their early dinners and tastings.
Driscoll explained to laid-back West Coast burghers:
The Wine and Food society is one of the interesting organizations of New York. It has grown from a nucleus of a few gourmets. Recently I attended a tasting at the Ritz-Carlton, and was astonished to find four or five hundred people filling the grand ballroom as they noseyed about, tasting a sliver of cheese here and a thimbleful of port wine there. On an occasion of this kind, there may be as many as 30 or 40 tables or counters, each numbered, and each dispensing only one kind of wine or food. The most accomplished gourmets sit at tables with rows of samples of wine and cheese before them, comparing, whiffing, making notes. The general membership and guests make a social affair of it, milling about and gathering in small groups, wine-glasses and cheese slices in hand.
With hundreds of attendees, these pre-war wine and cheese tastings were hardly impromptu affairs. Tickets were perhaps sold to the public as it seems unlikely, although possible, the Manhattan group had that many members so early. Perhaps a current analogy is the whisky, and large-scale beer, festivals that occur regularly in North American cities.
Driscoll was clearly taken with the novelty of the event. Writing in southern California, he probably stimulated interest in the idea locally, a “natural” given the restoration of commercial winemaking in California from 1933 and its ample, year-round agriculture and husbandry.
The 1941-1945 war hindered the revival of the wine industry, and hence of gastronomic interest in wine with cheese. However, by the early 1950s interest was reviving, encouraged by the postwar boom.
C. 1950 in California newspaper ads start to appear advocating that cheese and wine be paired, either as a course for a meal or for casual entertaining. This 1951 advertisement in Healdsburg offered free recipes to pair wine and cheese which are described as “flavormates”; quite so.
Wine and cheese was the subject of lectures by industry promotional associations, with a filmed accompaniment in the case of a 1951 Sausalito Womens’ Club meeting. It’s not clear if samples were proferred but I think they must have been. This club appears to have been instrumental in introducing the wine-and-cheese to a broader California audience.
By 1954 California supermarkets were selling cheese platters and the wine to go with it, as seen in this ad (“taste their ‘go-together goodness’ at dinner tonight”). Wine-and-cheese suited the informal style of West Coast entertaining, in turn encouraged by the balmy climate, but the idea was gestating nationally.
Cheese and wine in a recipe, a Swiss fondue, say, or pairing them for an appetizer or dessert course, is not quite like a wine and cheese party. Still, connections are evident especially as wine and cheese was being advertised for “snacktime”, which probably bridged the two ideas. A snack opportunity was likely the springboard to a stand-alone event where different wines and cheeses are offered for palate and educational purposes. In effect the wine and cheese was an off-beat American cocktail party, as Driscoll concluded early.
A similar idea was afoot in England according to the 1960s-70s English drinks writer Frederick Martin whom I quoted the other day.* Culinary London, the posh side, would have known the kinds of events trending at parallel level in prewar Manhattan. International branches of André Simon’s Wine and Food Society would have shared event programs and ideas, if only via the organization’s monthly food and wine journal.
A seemingly pivotal 1954 Greek Society (Kappa Nu) wine and cheese in Buffalo, NY is of interest in this picture. Not coincidentally it occurred on the fringe of another American wine region, the Finger Lakes’. This event, together with the early Manhattan tastings and the California stirrings mentioned, are among the earliest “wine and cheese” gatherings I am aware of in the United States.
Note re image: The image above was extracted from the 1954 news article linked in the text, available via the California historic newspapers digitized resource. All intellectual property in the source belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*Later, I was informed on Twitter that Frederick Martin was a nom de plume for John Doxat, a well-known English drinks author.