The Wine and Cheese Party

The wine-and-cheese party is a staple of middle-class and gentrified living whether in town or country. You see it all the time: wine and cheese for the vernissage at the new art store in Rosedale; the Unitarian Church holds one to raise money for an extension; a new book is coming out on climate change; a winery wants to tout a new release; call in the wine and cheese.

 

While hardly fashionable in the way, say, vegetarian food is today, or sustainable fish, wine-and-cheese is a permanent part of the culinary scene. It’s no trouble to find advice on how to hold one, here is an excellent suggestion from the website, Big Girl Small Kitchen.

Unlike one-time stalwarts of popular wine culture such as Blue Nun, say, or crackling rosé, or of the cheese world – Blue Roquefort, Camembert (unless deep-fried but that’s passé too now, isn’t it?), wine-and-cheese as an event is evergreen.

Why is this? How did this start? The old school used wine to accompany meals with the partial exception of Champagne, which goes with anything or nothing, for any reason or none.

Is it an old stand-by of the Paris or Lyon salon which transplanted here with its two components? No, it’s not. The French never drank plain wine as an apéro. They didn’t hold cocktail parties, either. Cheese ends a meal, or it did, and wine is consumed with food.

Frederick Martin, in An Encyclopaedia of Drinks and Drinking said this circa 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 promote wine to a larger market. He might be right, but I think in any case the Americans must have started it, as they and now everyone consider wine an apt aperitif, “a drink” in other words. Before you can think of wine to be consumed just with a tidbit, you have to accept that it can stand as a drink, as a whiskey, or beer, or Coke. And as Martin says, wine on its own is not part of traditional social habits.

Maybe Germany had something to do with it since the Moselle and other classic whites there are on the sweet side and drink well on their own. The taverns in the Rhine offer such wines between meals, at least I’ve always understood this. And Germans had a long influence in New York and other parts of the U.S., as I’ve discussed in other contexts.

Maybe it started in California wine country. Wine there probably had a larger social function than at formatted dinners. The “jug” idea is kind of consistent with that, you take the jug to a poetry reading, a folk concert, a picnic. Maybe it migrated to New York from San Francisco.

Someone should study this, but at bottom wine and cheese must have started in America, and thence to places like London, Montreal, Barca.

It sounds, too, in temporal terms, like a 1960s idea.

In fact, it’s older, reaching back at least to the Thirties. The Wine and Food Society of New York, of which I wrote in connection with my recreation of a 1944 beer and food tasting it held at the Waldorf hotel, held a wine and cheese party in 1936. You can read the droll report of the New York Times, “Wine Tasters Test Talents on Cheese”, here.

Was that the very first one? It may have been, or one of the first, e.g., the Limburger the reporter fled from to remote corners of the Starlight Room is not really suitable for a wine and cheese. They were working the kinks out.

I think wine and cheese is okay, beer and cheese too. But it’s not really a “natural” combination. You could as well combine wine with a selection of cold cuts, or salads, or biscuits and breads.

Stilton and port have had an association in English culinary history, but that alone can’t have started the “wine and cheese” of the modern era, i.e., a party or reception – an event – where wine and cheese are tasted and nothing else. The fact that cheese has been eaten with wine or beer as part of a fixed meal, or as a casual snack, probably for a very long time, is not the modern wine and cheese “tasting”.

Someone hit on it and the Wine and Food Society cum New York Times helped democratize it, not intentionally though. The 1930s Wine and Food Society was an elite group, e.g., its next event in ’36 was a dinner to commemorate 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. Doesn’t matter what it is: guitar feedback, bacon-infused cocktail, cloudy beer, free verse, somewhere somehow something starts and it grows.

Many food and drink trends have short lives. The wine and cheese is a hardy survivor.

Wine and cheese. Think about it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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