The California Way of Entertaining

Wine-and-Cheese Catches a Wave

In 1939, a second (at least) wine and cheese tasting was held by the Wine and Food Society of New York. It was reported on by Charles B. Driscoll, who wrote a column for the San Bernadino Sun in California, “New York Day By Day”.

Driscoll was mildly amused by this early New York foodie scene but isn’t as skeptical as the New York Times for a similar event in 1936, as discussed here.

The 1939 tasting was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York, one of the posh venues where the Wine and Food Society held its events. I have discussed earlier the Society’s early events, with a specific focus on its historic 1940s beer and food tastings at the Waldorf-Astoria, see also hereThe Society had a pivotal influence on American food and wine culture –  gastronomy if you will. And it is still going strong in New York, to this day.

From the Driscoll piece:

 

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, the Wine and Food Society’s wine and cheese tastings had become sophisticated affairs. I’d think tickets were sold to the public. It seems unlikely, although possible, that the Society counted that many members at the time. Perhaps a current analogy is the whiskey festivals which occur regularly in large Western cities.

Driscoll was clearly taken with the novelty of the thing. Writing about it in sunny southern California must have boosted the idea locally, a “natural” given the restoration of commercial winemaking in California. The war would have interrupted the development of the wine industry and gastronomic interest in wine and cheese. By the early 1950s, consumer interest in these comestibles was patent. The notion of wine-and-cheese was spreading but not necessarily as a stand-alone event.

Cheese and wine are referred to in news ads as pairings for different courses in meals or for casual home entertaining. This 1951 advertisement in a Healdsburg newspaper offered free recipes for wine and cheese pairings. The wine and cheese are described as “flavormates”. The book: “The California Way of Entertaining With Wine and Cheese”.

Wine and cheese were the subject of lectures by industry promotional associations, with filmed accompaniment, at a 1951 Sausalito Womens’ Club meeting. It’s not clear if samples were made available at the event but I’d think they must have been. This Club appears to have been instrumental in introducing the wine-and-cheese idea to a broader audience.

California supermarkets were selling cheese platters and wine to go with it if they had a license, as shown here in 1954 (“taste their ‘go-together goodness’ at dinner tonight”). Wine-and-cheese suited the informal style of West Coast entertaining, but the idea was germinating nationally.

Once again: cheese and wine in a recipe, or pairing them as an appetizer or dessert course, is not like a wine and cheese party, but the connection is evident especially as wine-and-cheese were advertised for “snacktime”. It is a hop and skip from there to organizing a formal tasting where more thought is given to the types of wines and cheeses, and their suitability as pairings.

Clearly, a similar idea was starting in England about the same time, per the drinks writer Frederick Martin whom I quoted the other day. The Wine and Food Society in New York was a c. 1934 offshoot of a London group founded by Andre Simon (I’ve reviewed this earlier). Culinary London, the posh side, would have known the kinds of events in parallel Manhattan in the 1930s. Possibly the London parent group was organizing similar ones on its own.

The 1954 Kappa Nu tasting in Buffalo, NY, together with these California stirrings, are some of the earliest wine and cheese tasting events which appear after the landmark 1930s soirees in New York, at least to our knowledge. Kappa Nu’s may have been the first one post-WW II on the East Coast, or the first to be documented. It would be interesting to check manuals on entertaining and catering c. 1950 to see if the idea was already current in the country.

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.