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Want cheese with that wine?

An award-winning author guides pairings


A FINE PAIR :  Treana winemaker Austin Hope provided the cellar selections for a seminar by author Laura Werlin - KATHY MARCKS HARDESTY
  • A FINE PAIR : Treana winemaker Austin Hope provided the cellar selections for a seminar by author Laura Werlin

“I’m a cheese person first, followed by a wine person,” said cheese expert Laura Werlin, upon greeting a small crowd of enthusiastic and hungry guests attending her seminar with Treana Wines at the Paso Robles Inn Restaurant. Author of the James Beard award-winning, “The All American Cheese and Wine Book,” Werlin’s guide/cookbook profiles 50 cheesemakers and winemakers, providing in-depth lessons on understanding the eight styles of cheese, pairing cheese with wine, and offers enticing recipes, like the caramelized onion, bacon and Gruyere fondue. “When I wrote “American Cheese” I traveled across the country to meet cheesemakers and winemakers,” she explained. “Now I’m trying to change people, one mouth at a time.”

The quick-witted author, who has written four books on cheese, won’t have any problem helping Americans learn to appreciate farmstead cheeses. Werlin’s expert-yet-casual presentation of pairing eight cheeses with five Treana wines was as tasteful and entertaining as it was an exceptional learning experience. Her latest book “Cheese Essentials” has also been nominated for the James Beard Book Awards (winners will be announced June 8). This special cheese-and-wine tasting was arranged by Barbara Smith, director of communications for Treana Wines in Paso Robles, who’s a consummate wine and food aficionado.

Smith, who first met Werlin several years ago, said she uses “American Cheese” as a “bible of sorts,” for planning wine-and-cheese tastings at Treana. “I was intrigued by the book because it was specific to artisan cheeses produced here in the U.S.,” Smith explained. “I finally contacted her with some questions and since then I’ve had the chance to attend her seminars a number of times.” Smith invited Werlin to conduct the seminar during the annual Paso Robles wine-festival weekend and sent her the wines in advance so she could select the cheeses she wanted to pair with them.

“With Laura this was an opportunity to focus on hand-crafted, artisan products, many of which were farmstead,” noted Smith, adding that her work with the Hope Family who owns Treana, Liberty School and Austin Hope wines, is always focused on quality in farming and vineyard practices. Smith also recommended a local cheese: Pozo Tomme, a farmstead (cheese made exclusively from the cheesemaker’s own animals) sheep’s milk cheese from Rinconada Dairy by cheesemaker/owner Christine Maguire. “I love partnering with like-minded food producers,” Smith noted.

Werlin began her tasting by explaining there are 10 basic guidelines for wine-and-cheese pairing. “Cheese is usually the stronger influence,” she said pointedly. “It has the amazing ability to screw up the wine (should you choose the wrong combination).”

In the chapter “Bringing Cheese and Wine Together,” in “American Cheese” she wrote: “The texture of a cheese – be it soft, hard, or somewhere in between—is probably the most important characteristic to gauge when you are looking for a compatible wine.” One sampling of her recommendations for matching textures: “washed-rind cheese and Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon (older), Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir (fruity) or Zinfandel.”

During the seminar the cheese plate contained eight styles of cheese: fresh, semi-soft, soft-ripened, semi-hard, hard, blue and washed-rind, plus French baguette slices, Marcona almonds and dried apricots. The most complimentary pairing was the Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam with the rich, full-bodied Austin Hope 2005 Roussanne, to which Werlin said “The rich wine and creamy cheese meet well.” She noted that soft-ripened cheese is best with wine that’s not heavily oaked.

When we tasted the local Pozo Tomme (semi-hard), Werlin described it as: “balanced, grassy and buttery, floral notes, bright and lively in the mouth – this cheese has it all.” Pointing out the granular texture, she explained that it’s typical of sheep’s milk cheeses. Werlin suggested we taste it with the Austin Hope 2005 Syrah then admitted, “It was a little overtaken by the powerful, ripe Syrah, like a Mac truck.” She suggested eating one of the Marcona almonds to help bridge the cheese with the wine, which worked well. But I preferred the Pozo Tomme with the softer Treana 2000 Red (60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Syrah, 10 percent Merlot), which was aging beautifully after nearly eight years, and could still age several more years.

After you read through the basic guidelines in “American Cheese” Werlin provides a section she describes as “perfect pairs.” Here are some highlights you’ll love with local wines: fresh goat cheese with Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris; Fontina, Havarti or Muenster with Riesling, Barbera or Dolcetto; Cheddar (not sharp) with Gewurztraminer, late-harvest Riesling, Viognier, Zinfandel, or Cabernet Sauvignon (light to medium bodied); sharp Cheddar with Grenache, Merlot, Zinfandel, or late-harvest Gewurztraminer; Gorgonzola with Riesling or Gewurztraminer; and pungent blue with Riesling, Gewurztraminer, late harvest Orange Muscat or Muscat Canelli.

You can learn more about Werlin on her info-crammed website,, a great source for quick advice. You’ll find her books at the Novel Experience, Barnes & Noble, Monterey St. Wine Co., or online. Following the weekend festival I called Werlin to inquire about her visit to Paso Robles. “I’m very impressed by what’s going on in this region and I enjoyed myself getting to know some new wines over the weekend,” she said, complementing the popular festival. “I hope I get back there sooner rather than later.”




INFOBOX: Recipes from “The All American Cheese and Wine Book”

Apricot Coins

This easy appetizer tastes terrific with Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc or dry Riesling:

4 ounces fresh goat cheese

2 tsp. milk, more if needed

40 dried apricots (6 ounces), preferably Turkish

2 tsp. honey

1 T. fresh thyme, finely chopped

40 candied walnut halves

In a stand-mixer with paddle attachment whip cheese and milk 5 minutes or until smooth and creamy. If cheese is crumbly add more milk 1 / 2 tsp. at a time beating until smooth.


Spread 1 / 8 tsp. of cheese mixture on each apricot, drizzle with a little honey and sprinkle of thyme. Place walnut half on top and arrange on platter to serve.

Candied Walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 F

1 / 4 cup powdered sugar

1 / 8 each salt and cayenne pepper

4 ounces walnut halves (not pieces)

In medium bowl, mix together sugar, salt and cayenne.

In a saucepan of boiling water blanch walnuts for 3 minutes, drain well and immediately roll in the sugar mixture until thoroughly coated (sugar will melt slightly). Line a baking sheet with parchment or silicone mat, transfer walnuts to sheet and bake 12 – 15 minutes stirring occasionally until deep golden brown. Watch carefully to avoid burning walnuts. 

Served on their own (sans apricot) these versatile nuts pair well with fresh or aged goat cheese, blue cheese or Gruyere.



You can reach New Times’ Cuisine columnist at [email protected].


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