Register Staff Writer
By L. PIERCE CARSON
With year-end holidays rapidly approaching, it's time to plan for festive gatherings accommodating family and friends.
While we schedule holiday meals at home or with relatives during the yuletide season, we often plan smaller gatherings for friends and work associates in the days leading up to Christmas and the New Year.
A fun option for which minimal preparation is needed is a wine and cheese reception, held in the warm glow of the carefully decorated, well-lit Christmas tree.
To that end, we contacted Kathleen Madsen, cheese buyer for the four Oakville Grocery stores in Oakville, Healdsburg, Palo Alto and San Francisco's Cannery.
Madsen loves cheese — so much so that she makes some of her own at home here in wine country. For a decade, she worked in architecture and design on the Peninsula. After she relocated to the valley, Madsen felt commuting to work was out of the question. She wound up working with Napa Valley cheese guru John Raymond and, the rest, as they say, is all curds and whey.
While she oversees both cheese and charcuterie departments in all four Oakville Grocery outlets, Madsen is also eager to talk cheese with customers. "I love the stories behind the cheeses and love to share them," she said the other day as she walked a couple of Register staffers through a virtual wine and cheese pairing.
There are a few basic rules in pairing wine and cheese, Madsen points out. "The saltier the cheese is, the sweeter the wine should be (that is paired with it)," she declared. "And tangy cheeses should be matched with dry and crisp wines."
Madsen said the challenge of matching certain cheeses to one's favorite wines can be daunting. "The topic itself is a moving target," she added, "because both cheese and wine are continuing to evolve.
"I always tell people not to be afraid to experiment. Once you hit the right combination (of wine and cheese), you'll know…your palate will tell you."
Examining the cheese display at Oakville Grocery the other day, Madsen singled out some cheeses that ideally pair with certain grape varieties.
For example, Fleur de Maquis — a sheep's milk cheese from Corsica — is an herbaceous match for chardonnay, she said. Then there's a goat cheese covered with macerated raisins — perfect for a crisp Sancerre.
Sauvignon blanc meets its match with either a young goat cheese or sheep's milk cheese, adds Madsen. Other complementary pairings would be an aged Crottin or a buttery Tom's Camembert from the Hudson Valley.
"One of my favorites with cheese is sparkling wine," she noted. "I think a double or triple cream Brie, like St. Andr, goes best. But I also like a smelly cheese with orangy red rind, like Soumaintrain."
Adding his two cents to the challenge of wine and cheese pairing was Michael Blasquez, Oakville Grocery's wine buyer. Blasquez pulled the cork on a tasty new Oakville Grocery brand cabernet sauvignon from the 2003 harvest, made by the wine team at Swanson Vineyards. At $18.95 it's a great value cabernet, ideally paired, Blasquez says, with "blue vein cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano or a substantial cheddar, like those from Neal's Yard (England)."
Madsen seconded her co-worker's recommendations, adding another English option — Wyfe of Bath - a cheddar-style cheese that comes with an amusing "Canterbury Tales" history. "And I love a fantastic Spanish cheese called Garrotxa, a Catalan goat cheese with the mild flavor of hazelnuts."
The recommendations for cabernet could also be applied to merlot, Madsen added. Another cheese she'd pick to pair with a fruity merlot is Valencay, an ash-covered goat cheese tower from the Loire. For pinot noir, try a rustic Italian sheep's milk cheese with bits of truffle, Caciolla al Tartufo, she advised.
"You don't always need a strong cheese to pair with big and bold zinfandel," the Oakville Grocery cheese expert pointed out. "I think a full-bodied zinfandel should be supported from behind by an Appenzeller, a Swiss cheese made from cow's milk. Another soft, rich, creamy cow's milk cheese I'd recommend for zinfandel is St. Marcellin. That would also stand up against the pepperiness of syrah."
Madsen feels that the strong, assertive flavors of blue cheese most often pair best with dessert wines. She prefers Ports and Sauternes — particularly a blue with a rind washed in Sauterne, called Fourme aux Sauternes. Eisweins and late harvest rieslings from Germany, such as auslese and beerenauslese, also match well with blues.
Spending most of her time at the Oakville Grocery here in the valley — on average 3 1/2 days each week — Madsen said she'd be more than happy to confer with area residents interested in putting together a wine and cheese pairing.
And she noted that other shops in the valley carrying an extensive cheese inventory also have personnel on hand to familiarize customers with cheeses from all over the world.
In fact, she suggested those interested in conducting a wine and cheese pairing at home first hook up with someone who is cheese savvy. Then, she added, putting together a pairing on your own at some future date can be approached with much less anxiety.
Located at the intersection of Highway 29 and Oakville Crossroad, the Oakville Grocery is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.