The Wine and Cheese Party

The wine-and-cheese party is a staple of middle-class and gentrified living. Wine and cheese for the vernissage at an art store. A church holds one to raise money for repairs. A new book is out on climate change. A winery is touting a new release. Call in the wine and cheese.

While hardly fashionable in the way vegan food is, or sustainably sourced fish, wine and cheese is a permanent part of the culinary scene. It’s no trouble to find advice how to hold one. Here is an good suggestion, from the website Big Girl Small Kitchen.

Unlike one-time vinous stalwarts such as Blue Nun or crackling rosé, or cheese sensations of the 1950s and 60s (Blue Roquefort, Camembert), wine and cheese, the event, is evergreen.

How did it start? Old school practice held that wine was to be drunk, mainly, with meals. Champagne proverbially goes with anything and stands on its own for celebrations, but traditionally wine was not consumed sans a meal context.

Is pairing cheese with wine an old stand-by of the Paris or Lyon wine bar that transplanted here intact? No it’s not. The French never drank plain wine as an aperitif. They didn’t hold cocktail parties, either. Cheese ends a meal, or it used to, in France and wine is consumed with food there. True, in the bistro one can order a plate of charcuterie or cheese to nibble with wine, but the food is an afterthought, there is no sedulous attention given to “what with what”.

The English drinks writer Frederick Martin, in An Encyclopaedia of Drinks and Drinking stated c.1970:

The habit of drinking wine as a beverage, largely unaccompanied by food, has much grown up in Britain and has been fostered by the trade through promotion of “wine and cheese” parties, which I personally find the dullest social events imaginable. Wine and cheese by all means, at the conclusion of a good dinner, but not as an end in themselves.

So what changed? Martin lays it at the feet of the wine agencies, they came up with it to woo a larger market to wine. He may be right but I think in any case the Americans must have started it. They were the first to consider wine an aperitif, or “drink” in other words, a custom now seen everywhere.

Before you can think of wine to be consumed with a tidbit you have to accept it can stand as a drink, like whiskey, beer, or Coke. As Martin says, wine on its own is not part of traditional social habits.

Maybe Germany had something to do with it since Moselle and other classic German whites are on the sweet side and traditionally drink well on their own. The taverns in the Rhine offer such wines between meals, for example. And Germans long had influence in New York and other parts of the U.S. as I’ve discussed in other contexts, including in winemaking.

Maybe wine-and-cheese started in California wine country. Wine probably always had a larger social role there than in more settled parts of the East subject to European usages. The “jug” idea is consistent with that, you take the jug to a poetry reading, a folk concert, a picnic, and snacks will be found.

Maybe this migrated to New York from San Francisco or other parts of California, perhaps before Prohibition. But at bottom wine-and-cheese started in America, and thence to places like London, Montreal, Barcelona.

We can trace it in formal terms to the Thirties. The Wine and Food Society of New York, of which I have written earlier including viz. my recreation of a 1944 beer tasting it held at the Waldorf Astoria, hosted a wine and cheese party in 1936. It was enough of a “set piece” to get press attention.

It was an odd combination of epicurean and down-home with fine vintages, many inappropriately sweet, paired with cheeses that included Limburger.

A quasi-precedent to the 1936 event is perhaps this tasting of cheeses with wine in 1890 as reported in a magazine reprinting the original New York Tribune story. It’s interesting that Limburger appears here as well, but in this case divided into two classes: imported (“rank”) and domestic (much superior).

Yet even the domestic version was thought best to taste with beer. The New Yorkers of 1890-1939 seemed to have had a fondness for German cheese, probably due to the large German element that formerly dominated in the Yorkville quarter. In the 1890 event numerous toothsome cheeses are reported, most familiar to us today. Clearly wine was drunk with them, yet a formal meal was not reported.

What may have been an occasional Eastern foodie practice, tasting cheese with wine (or vice versa) or a California wine country custom, seems finally to have been formalized in 1936 at the New York Wine and Food Society’s event.

Read the droll report of the New York Times, “Wine Tasters Test Talents on Cheese”, here.

Was that the first event one can properly call a “wine-and-cheese”? It may have been, or one of the first. The Limburger the reporter fled from shows the cheese assortment was later given more thought. Still, the essentials of the modern wine-and-cheese are there, as perhaps for the 1890 event.

I think wine with cheese is okay, beer with cheese too. But are these really “natural” combinations? You could as well combine such drinks with cold cuts, a salad of moderate substance, biscuits, or breads. Sweet wines go with even a broader range.

Stilton and port do have a long association in English culinary history, but that alone can’t have started wine and cheese as a reception offering or special event. The fact that cheese has been eaten with wine or beer as a course in a fixed meal, or for a casual snack, and probably for a long time, is not the self-conscious modern wine and cheese tasting.

Someone hit on the notion early in the U.S. and the Wine and Food Society of New York helped democratize it, not intentionally though. The Society then was an elite group. At its next event in 1936 a dinner commemorated the great Escoffier’s work and was chaired by the brother of President Taft…

But as often happens influential small groups do something and it spreads from there. It doesn’t matter what it is, guitar feedback, bacon-infused cocktail, cloudy beer, free verse, Buffalo wings, poutine, somewhere somehow something starts and it grows.

Many food and drink trends have short lives, yet the wine-and-cheese is a hardy survivor.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced from the clip-art website, here, and is believed in the public domain. The second image was sourced from the New York Times story linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.










3 thoughts on “The Wine and Cheese Party

  1. Interesting, Gary! I dislike drinking wine without food, so I like wine and cheese just fine. I looked at two newspaper archives and found that wine and cheese parties began in the 1960s in the US and became really popular in the 1970s, as you thought. But I also found an announcement of an “annual” wine and cheese festival in wine-producing Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1941.

    • Very good, thanks Jan. The 1941 reference, taken with the 1936 event in New York, shows that the idea was in the air before WW II. As for some other consumer trends, widespread acceptance was delayed by the war, demobilization, Cold War, etc. It’s very similar in other fields, for example the poetry scene in the Bay Area in the 50s including the famous 6 Gallery Reading – where jug red wine was consumed, Jack Kerouac bought it after taking a collection – was preceded by readings, some poltically oriented, in the 40s in the same area, it started even during the war, people like Robert Duncan. Things begin like acorns and big oaks grow from it.

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