The Eternal “Wine and Cheese”

The wine-and-cheese party is a staple of middle-class and gentrified living. Wine and cheese for a vernissage. At a church to raise money for repairs. For a new book on climate change. Call in the wine and cheese.

While hardly fashionable in the way vegan food is, or sustainably sourced fish, the wine and cheese is ever-present on the culinary scene. It is no trouble to find advice how to run them. Good tips are offered in the website Big Girl Small Kitchen, just one example.

How did this start? Old school practice was wine with meals, apart some regional wines taken between meals, usually lower-alcohol as in Germany or Portugal.

And true, Champagne is for any occasion, but traditionally red and dry white wines belonged to a dinner context.

Was pairing cheese and wine a stand-by of the French bistro, later transplanted here? Not really. The French did not drink dry wine as an aperitif. They didn’t hold cocktail parties either. Cheese ends a meal in France, or used to, and of course has many uses outside the vinous.

In the bistro or brasserie one can order cheese to nibble with wine, yes, but the food is secondary. There is no careful balancing of palates and usually (in my experience) not a great selection of cheese offered.

In the 1970s U.K. drinks writer Frederick Martin* wrote in An Encyclopaedia of Drinks and Drinking:

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.

While I don’t agree with Martin about dullness, what changed? Clearly he felt commercial wine interests came up with the idea. The trade promotion origins is probably undoubted, but culinary societies were involved as well, or in tandem, as I discussed in other posts.

Take the wine and cheese party held by the New York Wine and Food Society in 1936. The novelty was such that the press descended to learn.

It was an odd combination of epicurean and down-home. Fine vintages, some inappropriately sweet, were paired with cheeses like Limburger.

More on 1936 in a minute, but yet an earlier tasting, in 1890, should be noted. Limburger appeared there too, both imported (held “rank”) and domestic-made (considered superior). In the pre-pasteurization days, a lot of imported raw milk cheese must have required an iron palate.

Clearly wine was drunk with the cheeses, yet it was not a formal meal. Thus an early wine and cheese.

The droll report of the New York Times in 1936, “Wine Tasters Test Talents on Cheese”, is instructive:

Was this the first event one could properly call a wine and cheese? Probably one of them. The essentials of the modern wine and cheese are there, perhaps even for the 1890 event.

Someone hit on the notion early in America. Certainly the New York Wine and Food Society helped democratize it. Tickets were sold to hundreds for some events albeit the Society was run by a social elite.

As often happens, small groups of independent thinkers ended by changing the culture, even internationally. We see this in music, fashion, art, drinks, everything.

Many trends are fated to have short lives. The wine and cheese is eternal.

Note: Image above was sourced from the New York Times news account identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*It appears this was a nom de plume used in Canada by well-known English drinks writer John Doxat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Eternal “Wine and Cheese””

  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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