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Wine & Cheese Pairings Venture to Marin County & Sonoma Coast

Beautiful Sonoma Coast

Our latest venture seeking Wow! pairings of specific wineries’ wines with specific cheeses unexpectedly turned into a delightful two-day event. This time our approach was to purchase three superb wines from the domestic wine section of our local CVS store, which we paired with six delicious cheeses purchased at two artisan cheesemakers in Marin County.

Then, with wines and cheeses secured in a cooler, we drove north on Highway 1, enjoying magnificent views of Tomales Bay and the Pacific Ocean, to Sonoma County.

Just north of Portuguese Beach we pulled off the road and walked down an easily accessible, flower studded path to a quiet, unnamed beach. There, we watched the sun set over graceful waves, breathed deeply of the salt air, and enjoyed part one of our wine and cheese pairing.

We decided to have another tasting of the same wines and cheeses the next day at home to answer a question that came to us while we were at the beach: “Had the salt air at the beach modified our tasting sensations? Will the wines, cheeses, and pairings taste the same at home?”
As a special bonus, several family members joined in the at-home tasting and described their Wow! pairings, too.

Here are the highlights of this venture in our quest for pairings that give our taste buds and olfactory nerve cells that exhilarating experience of “Wow!, this wine and cheese combination is fantastic!”

Buying wine

Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station

We began our adventure with the following wines: Clos du Bois 2007 California Riesling (off-dry style with aromas and flavors of fruits, floral & citrus), Kenwood Vineyard 2009 Sonoma County Chardonnay (complex fruit & oak), and Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2007 California Meritage (intriguing blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec & Cabernet Franc).

Buying cheese

Heading west from Highway 101, we passed through beautiful hills and valleys of farmland pastures and soon arrived at Marin French Cheese Company at 7500 Red Hill Road in Petaluma. Also known as The Cheese Factory, and as Rouge et Noir, this historical artisan cheesemaker has been handcrafting soft-ripened cheese since 1865.

In the cheesemaker’s store we were greeted by Elizabeth Delgado who described and served us a flavorful array of cheese samples. For our soon-to-be pairings we decided on the soft, creamy, cow’s milk Camembert and Le Petit Bleu, a cow’s milk triple-crème brie with blue veins. For an extra treat, we also purchased three containers of delicious Quark (soft curd cheese flavored with wild blackberry, strawberry, and jalapeño) to enjoy at home, spooned directly from the package or spread on crackers, bagels and toast.

Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Station, California
Again heading west, we soon arrived at Cowgirl Creamery at 80 Fourth Street in Point Reyes Station and as we entered the building we were treated to a view of artisan cheesemakers at work fine-tuning curds and whey while hand-mixing that stage of the cheesemaking process. We then met Cheesemonger/Manager Michael Zilber who

Michael Zilber & Jennifer Luttrell at Cowgirl Creamery

gave us fascinating insight into the Cowgirl Creamery cheeses as well as general artisan cheesemaking philosophy. Cheesemonger Jennifer Luttrell served us mouth-watering samples and we purchased the following cheeses made from the Straus Family Dairy organic cows’ milk: Mt. Tam (smooth, creamy, elegant triple-crème cheese ), Red Hawk (hearty flavored, triple-crème with brine-washed-rind), & Batch 35 (mild, Asiago-type table cheese). “Batch 35” refers to the current iteration in the 2010 version of what will be Wagon Wheel cheese when it is released in June.
We also purchased some Inverness cheese, which is a surface-ripened-rind cheese with a tangy, dense, creamy mouth feel. This cheese is made from John Taverna’s Chileno Valley Jersey Dairy cows’ milk.

Making Red Hawk cheese

Our Wow! combinations discovered in our current venture to Marin County and the Sonoma County coast
As we sat near the ocean waves and swirled, sniffed and sipped these elegant wines, savored these delicious cheeses, and then tested our responses to the various combinations, we discovered four Wow! experiences that we want to tell you about.
(As an aside, there are no “wrong answers” in Wow! pairings. One person’s individual taste buds, olfactory nerve cells, and mind-state can produce a Wow! response to the interaction of specific wines with specific cheeses while another person may not get the Wow!ness of that combination, but does experience a Wow! effect from a completely different wine and cheese pairing. Therefore, all Wow! pairings are valid.)

Ready for tasting on the beach

Norm and Barbara each experienced two “Wow!” interactions in pairings near the ocean: Barbara’s were (1) Le Petit Bleu cheese paired with the Meritage wine and (2) the Red Hawk cheese with the Riesling. Barbara described the interaction as producing an exciting, long-lasting, spicy effervescence. Norm’s Wow!’s were for (1) the Camembert with the Chardonnay which formed a perfect balance of parallel flavors and (2) Le Petit Bleu with the Chardonnay which created a very pleasing immediate new flavor with a long evolving aftertaste.

Our Wow! combinations discovered at home the next day with several family members
By the way, in repeating the pairings at home (35 miles east of the ocean), Norm & Barbara concluded that the ambient salt air at the ocean had not appreciably altered our tasting experiences. One exception was that the Chardonnay alone in the salt air seemed to be without complexity, but away from the salt air the wine was abundantly complex.

Here are some Wow! pairings that we discovered at home:
Norm: Camembert with the Chardonnay produced a surprising and rich new nutty taste sensation. Wow!
Barbara: Inverness with the Chardonnay evolved into a luxurious creaminess melting on the tongue at the front of the mouth. Wow!
Rhonda: Mt. Tam with the Chardonnay created a dramatic, mouth-coating taste explosion at the back of the mouth. Wow!
Cynthia: Batch 35 (aka Wagon Wheel) with the Riesling enlivened a new extremely-pleasing buttery flavor. Wow!
Serena: Le Petit Bleu with the Meritage. The wine dramatically enhanced the butteriness of the cheese for an exquisite taste sensation. Wow!
David: Mt. Tam with the Meritage were perfectly balanced taste sensations with a special long-pleasing aftertaste.
Another Wow! recommendation

Michael Zilber indicated that a Wow! combination for him is pairing Red Hawk cheese with Sauternes, which produces a completely harmonious tasting experience.

Bonus: A terrific restaurant in Jenner, California
After our pairing venture at the ocean, we craved a good clam chowder before heading home. We set our sights on Jenner with the hope of finding a purveyor of clam chowder … and MUCH to our delight, we discovered Jenner Bistro (Jenner Inn & Cottages, 10400 Coast Route 1) whose chef and restaurant manager Helena Giesea welcomed us, even though we were there before she officially opened the restaurant for dinner service. Helena served us a wonderful white clam chowder with roasted vegetables and other creative ingredients and flavors, scrumptious, freshly baked breads, tempura fruit & vegetables, and an exotic, curry-enhanced chicken and noodles entrée. Another Wow! experience.

On to future Wow! pairing discoveries
So that’s our report on this venture. We are thoroughly enjoying our visits to wineries and cheesemakers/cheese vendors in their picturesque locations, and we continue to encourage you to try your own ventures focused on finding your special Wow! wine and cheese pairings. When you do, please let us know what you have discovered by leaving a comment for us.

Here’s to your exhilarating quest!