“Wine and Cheese” Catches a Wave
[Text lightly edited for clarity April 26, 2021].
In 1939 a pioneering wine and cheese event was held by the Wine and Food Society of New York. This group was an early branch of the International Wine and Food Society, founded in London, U.K. in 1933. The event was reported on by journalist Charles B. Driscoll in the San Bernadino Sun, in his column “New York Day By Day”.
Driscoll, out in sunny California, was mildly amused by this foodie foray in New York. (The New York Times was even more arch when it reviewed a similar event in 1936, see here).
The 1939 tasting was at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a posh Manhattan venue favoured by the New York Wine and Food Society.
I discussed the New York group earlier including its important 1940s beer tastings at The Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
The New York group’s menus, stored digitally at the New York Public Library (www.nypl.org), are rich in both cultural detail and food and beverage sophistication. Today’s lively and variegated food scene owes not a little to these early dinners and tastings, and similar events held by other branches or gastronomic groups.
Charles Driscoll explained to laid-back West Coasters:
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 events were hardly impromptu. Tickets were likely sold to the public as it seems unlikely (though possible) the New York group had 400-500 members so early. Perhaps an analogy is to the many whisky and large-scale beer festivals held today.
Driscoll was clearly taken with the novelty of a wine and cheese tasting. Writing in southern California, I suspect his coverage helped promote the “wine and cheese” idea locally. It was a “natural” for California given the restoration of commercial winemaking with Repeal in 1933 and California’s ample, year-round agriculture and viticulture.
WW II hindered the revival of the American wine industry, and hence, of gastronomic interest in wine with cheese. By the early 1950s interest had returned, encouraged by the postwar boom.
Around 1950 California newspaper ads start to appear advocating cheese and wine as part of a meal. This 1951 advertisement in Healdsburg offered free recipes to pair wine and cheese including for parties. They are described as “flavormates”, quite accurately of course.
Using cheese and wine in a recipe, a Swiss fondue say, or paired for an appetizer or dessert course, is not quite the “wine and cheese” though.
In 1954 California supermarkets are selling cheese platters and the wine to go with it. For example this ad advised “wine and cheese”, to “taste their ‘go-together goodness’ at dinner tonight”.
Wine and cheese are advertised in California newspapers (1951) for “snacktime”. Such snack pairings are closer to a stand-alone event where each cheese is paired with a particular wine.
About the same time, wine with cheese is the subject of lectures by industry professionals or publicists. A film was shown at such an event held in 1951 by the Sausalito Womens’ Club. It is not clear if samples were tabled but I think this likely. The club likely assisted to introduce the wine-and-cheese notion to a broader audience in California.
In effect, the wine-and-cheese nationally, at least in certain circles, became an off-beat cocktail party, as Charles Driscoll concluded early on.
A similar idea was afoot in postwar England, according to the British drinks writer Frederick Martin,* whom I quoted the other day. Culinary London would have known, via the London Wine and Food Society, say, food happenings in prewar Manhattan. The international branches probably shared programming ideas including via Andre Simon’s monthly journal.
A 1954 Kappa Nu wine-and-cheese in Buffalo, New York is part of this picture. Not coincidentally it occurred on the fringes of another American wine region, the Finger Lakes. This event, together with the early Manhattan tastings and California stirrings, are at the origins of the “wine and cheese” for American entertaining, in my opinion.
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 nom de plume for John Doxat, the well-known English drinks writer.