I’m the first to admit it. I’m not an expert in the nuances of cheese. And I am a far, far, far cry from calling myself a wine enthusiast, let alone a sommelier. You didn’t by chance notice those ice cubes in my Chardonnay, did you? Hang my head in shame, but that’s how I roll.
But I do love cheese, and I do love wine. So throwing a casual party that marries my love of the two really isn’t that hard of a thing to fathom. Especially after I learned a thing or two to set me on my way thanks to my friends at Wisconsin Cheese.
A few weeks ago I was in Miami, Florida for the yearly Blogher Food Conference. It’s a get together where a bunch of us foodies on the web emerge from our blogging caves to network with one another, meet sponsoring brands, learn how to better our craft, and basically be forced into the open air of society—aka, a great excuse to go shopping for new clothes! You can read more about my trip here.
One of my favorite parts of the Blogher conference was going to the Wisconsin Cheese Bloggers By the Bay cocktail party. For the past two years I’ve been fortunate to work with Wisconsin Cheese in creating recipes, photography and videos, and I’ve even been a judge for their Grilled Cheese Academy Recipe Showdown. I’m a judge again this year so watch for my Instagram feed to be melting down in ooey goodness later this month. Ha. Melting down. The puns are flowing today. Brace yourself.
The Bloggers By the Bay party certainly lived up to what all of us had imagined Miami should offer. A killer ocean sunset just steps from the home’s party, palm trees that swayed in the warm ocean breeze and wine flowing freely as cheesy appetizers were passed by a particularly attentive wait staff.
Yep, this is what they call livin’.
One of the highlights of the night was a cheese and wine pairing presentation delivered by Rob Bleifer, the Executive Chef at Food Network and Rupa Bhattacharya, Food Network’s Culinary and Beverage Editor alongside Heather Porter-Engwall from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Cheeses vary in body, sweetness and acidity depending on their aging processes and for how long they’ve been aged. And so does wine. That’s why they’re the perfect partners for a pairing tasting party.
These experts showed us that wine and cheese pairings are far from stuffy. In fact, the pairing noshes border on the line of junk food. In fact, some of them ARE junk food.
Yep, this is what they call eatin’.
Inspired by what I learned, I took some of their wisdom home with me, along with their permission to combine some unusual snack pairings (Corn Nuts and potato chips with wine and cheese!) and try them out on my friends.
Here are a few tips to wine-d up and get cheesy and throw your own pairing party.
You don’t need a fancy home on the ocean or tuxedo-ed waiters hanging on your every whim to throw a fun pairing party. All you need is: friends, a few bottles of wine and of course, cheese.
Keep It Casual
I pulled my cheese and wine pairing party together in an afternoon with just two shopping stops: my grocery store’s cheese case and the wine store.
I sent out a few text messages and invited friends over for a Sunday evening of adult cheese and wine tasting while the kids built fairy houses in the back yard before dinner hit the grill.
Make sure your friends know this is a casual affair. My friends had been at the pool all day so had glowing, tanned skin. The smell of sunscreen was really the only perfume they needed.
Choosing the Wine
I took the advice of Food Network’s Beverage Editor Rupa Bhattacharya and kept my wine choices affordable. I chose 4 different wines at about $12-$15 a bottle and stayed with the basics.
For the whites I picked up a medium-bodied Chardonnay and a lighter, brighter Pinot Grigio. Perfect for summer. For the reds, I chose a fruity Merlot to compare against a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon.
I chilled the white wines and opened the reds to let them breathe before the guests arrived. The Merlot doesn’t often require breathing time, but I had my opener in hand, so I went with it.
I had ice-water on hand for cleansing the palate, but nobody really bothered with it. Too much good wine to be had!
Choosing the Cheese
Head to a specialty cheese shop or a grocery store like Whole Foods who carries a decent cheese selection. My favorite local grocery store for cheese is Harmon’s. Of course I first look for cheeses made in Wisconsin. But if I can’t find exactly what I’m looking fo I always ask the cheesemonger for their recommendation of what’s comparable. If it’s not Wisconsin, but it is local, that’s my pick.
Choose cheeses with different textures and pungency. For this tasting I followed the suggestions we enjoyed at the Wisconsin Cheese party (listed on the downloadable printable place cards at the end of this post) and chose a 12-month aged cheddar, a blue cheese that was both creamy and tangy, the Bellavitano Gold that is a dry, nutty white cheese and finished off the cheese quad with a smooth Alpine-style cheese.
Choosing the Pairings
This is where it got fun. Once again, I took the sage advice from the Wisconsin Cheese party and replicated their pairings.
I set out salty bites like Corn Nuts and kettle fried potato chips for crunch. Take that you high-brow, wine tasting snobs. This is real life and real eats and just you try to keep the kid’s hands out of the potato chips.
I chose a sopressata salami from SLC locally produced Creminelli Sausages (they’re everywhere these days!!) and bought pita chips and hummus (sprinkled with a little paprika for color) from the grocery store.
As usual, I never follow directions to the letter so I added my favorite fig jam, a plate of kalamata olives, pickled asparagus spears, a bowl of grapes and bowl of Doritos to the mix and my friend brought some chips and salsa. I did set those on a different table so not to confuse my tasting guests.
Setting the Scene
Simple is key. I pulled my favorite West Elm table out to the deck and plucked a few flowering peonies from the yard for the table setting. I thought about putting a covering over it, but liked the simplicity without.
I had two ice buckets on hand for the white wine (I love these chillers from OXO), and set out cocktail plates and napkins plus two wine glasses for each person. I used a combination of stemmed and stemless. Whatever you have the most of, use it or be like me and mix and match.
I used basic white dishes for all of the pairing bites. Some matched, some didn’t. It doesn’t really matter and it’s more interesting when they don’t.
I put the cheeses on two wooden cutting boards then lined up their respective pairing bites with the boards. I set the cheeses out on the kitchen counter for about 2 hours before my guests were to arrive per the rec of Wisconsin Cheese’s Heather Porter-Engwall. This allows the cheese to bring out their fullest flavor (like corking red wines to allow them to breathe.) Be sure to that each cheese has it’s own knife so gooey cheeses don’t get mashed into the others.
These downloadable printables were my saving grace and completely pulled the party together. I printed the pairing cards out on cardstock, cut them and notched wine corks to hold them as place cards. The wine corks didn’t want to stick to my table but with some tenacity and double stick tape they finally quit falling over.
Get the Wisconsin Cheese pairing place cards when you download here.
So, what were the faves? I’ll always be an unoaked Chardonnay kinda gal, although that Pinot Grigio was perfect for the summer night. And it was really fun to see the usual beer-loving boys break out of their molds and get their wine on. I was surprised how into it they all were and they pretty much set their mark in the sand and didn’t leave the cheese table all night.
The creamy blue cheese was an all-out favorite but the Alpine-style wasn’t far behind. In fact, there really wasn’t much left of any of them by the end of the eve. And while Corn Nuts offer that “say whaaaat?” factor, the potato chip bowl was unceremoniously emptied and nearly licked clean. Of course the dogs picked up every remnant of dropped morsel so clean up was a breeze.
And, what about our dinner? Let’s just say that once again, my mom was right.” Heidi! Quit snacking or you won’t be hungry for dinner.”
That’s okay. I’ll be in the corner with my wine and cheese.
For suggestions on particular cheese pairings, this interactive tool is really cool.
Not sure what makes one cheese different from the next? This guide to different cheeses answers all of your questions.
And I found this cheat sheet delivers a more in-depth, but quick read, on cheese and wine pairings.
This post is in partnership with Wisconsin Cheese. As always, thank you for reading and supporting companies I partner with, which allows me to create more unique content and recipes for you. This post contains affiliate links. As always, all opinions are my own.