After 17 years at his Uptown shop the Wine Seller, Ben Lazich knows his regulars' tastes and preferences pretty well. Lately, however, even the most familiar faces have been bringing unfamiliar selections to his register, and sometimes a lot earlier in the day as well.
"They've been getting more adventurous because of the cheese shop next door," says Lazich.
The shop in question is St. James Cheese Company, which opened in November. Wearing white lab coats and armed with a sommelier's knowledge of their vast, pleasantly stinking inventory, owners Richard and Danielle Sutton and their employees operate behind hills and slabs and cases of imported and American artisanal cheeses, wrapping cheese to go, arranging tasting plates and assembling the most delicious cheese sandwiches this side of Provence. Starting around lunchtime and continuing through early evening, people drop into the Wine Seller, pick up a bottle of wine and make the 20-foot journey to the front deck or shady courtyard of St. James, guided by something that must be akin to a homing instinct.
Sipping wine from one merchant and nibbling cheese from its neighbor, they're taking advantage of one of the greatest symbiotic relationships in New Orleans since the first Lucky Dog vendor parked a cart outside a French Quarter barroom. But while the idea of enjoying wine and cheese together might seem like a mathematical given, the art of actually pairing them successfully turns out to be a tricky proposition.
"I really think the only wine and cheese pairing I feel 100 percent confident about is Roquefort and Sauterne," says Richard Sutton, who served as manager of the oldest cheese shop in London before moving back to New Orleans to open St. James last year. "That works all the time. With everything else, you can never really be sure because you're dealing with two things that have so many complex flavors and complicating factors."
Sutton's dread, he says, is the friend who brings in a list of wines purchased for a party and asks for a cheese that will compliment each.
"It's not like chocolate and peanut butter," says Danielle Sutton.
Richard thinks there are three basic scenarios for a wine and cheese pairing. One is the perfect moment when both combine for a new and wonderful taste, something greater than the sum of its parts, like Roquefort and Sauterne. A more common result is for the wine and cheese to happily coexist on the palate, like a red Burgundy with a hard sheep's milk cheese or a Pecorino. And behind door No. 3, Richard says, is "everything from mediocre to truly horrific."
"Take the mold in cheese and couple it with the age in the wine and you can get some really terrible combinations, absolute manure," Richard says.
Yes, there are pitfalls, and Sutton says the huge variety and varying quality of both wine and cheese make any hard and fast rules suspect. But there are some guidelines to help and some classic pairings that, while perhaps not as reliable as Roquefort and Sauterne, will generally steer you clear of the worst problems.
Champagne paired with a triple cream cheese is one example Sutton recommends, as is port and stilton. And if you have a robust wine, try a simple cheese and vice versa. For instance, Richard says gouda, while full-flavored, is one dimensional and would work well with complex wines. Another practical tip is to look for cheese and styles of wine that originate from the same region.
"Cheese makers typically make cheese that goes with the wine in their region," he says.
Pairings aren't limited to wine either. Customers will often bring a few bottles of beer over from the Wine Seller to St. James and Richard says good brews can often reveal different characteristics in cheese. The same holds true with some stronger stuff. For instance, Epoisses, a pungent, salty and creamy cheese from Burgundy that Danielle describes as her husband's "first cheese love," pairs beautifully with the heady French brandy called marc, leaving a delicious, fruity, vanilla flavor in the mouth.
Perhaps it's no surprise coming from a man who presides over a stock of more than 100 cheeses on any given day, but Richard's final advice is to experiment.
"If you're trying these things together, you'll discover more delicious characteristics by accident than on purpose," he says.
- Ian McNulty
- Danielle and Richard Sutton pair wine and cheese at their Uptown shop St. James Cheese Company.