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Throw an Amazing Wine and Cheese Party

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By Jill Hammond

It’s been a trying year all around, so we’re finding ourselves looking for a bit of joy in everyday moments.

Something that takes us out of the time warp and into the experience of sharing things we love with a handful of the people we love during the pandemic. We asked our friends at Stepladder Ranch & Creamery https://www.stepladdercreamery.com/  to give us some tips and tricks on how to throw an awesome cheese and wine party!

Setting the stage

Let’s start with some good, local cheese and wine, an outdoor area with plenty of room to spread out, and a selective group of willing friends to get us out of the Groundhog’s Day routine. It’s the perfect time to host an intimate wine and cheese gathering and we assure you, there is nothing to be intimidated by.

Safety should be your first priority, so set your group up with a socially distant setting outdoors, with hand sanitizer (or a hand-washing station if you’re one of the lucky ones with an outdoor prep area), disposable plates and cups (I opt for the palm leaf small plates and biodegradable tumblers), and have masks available to offer your guests. It’s a strange time, but creating a comfortable space for everyone will make all the difference. 

I suggest capping your group at ten invitees, depending on the size of your space, to ensure everyone has enough space to relax and settle in. Give your guests at least a week’s notice to plan for your gathering and shoot for a 2-hour window before it’s dark out (I personally will always say “yes” to a 4pm-6pm cocktail hour event).

The wine and cheese will, of course, play center stage, but it never hurts to add some decor to make it feel like a real party, because why not? I’ll take any excuse to celebrate these days. Grab a couple of simple floral arrangements or pick some wildflowers for the tables. If you have outdoor furniture already set up, toss in a few throw pillows and blankets for guests who may get cold being outdoors. You don’t need much to dress up a space, so get creative, set the mood with some background music and warm lighting (string lights always add a little something special without breaking the bank), and sit back to soak up some much-needed social time.

The cheese

As for quantities, I plan for two or three ounces of cheese per guest and at least three different styles of cheese to pair with the different wines, giving people a variety of textures and flavors to sample. To avoid grazing on a shared platter, assemble 10 individual plates with a little bit of everything you’re serving (cheese, crackers, dried fruit, nuts, fresh fruit, jam/honey, and cured meats).

Think about incorporating different variations:

  • Texture: Hard, medium, and soft cheese.
  • Animal: Cow, goat, sheep, or a blend.
  • Shapes: Cut the cheese into different shapes like chunks, triangles, sticks. Give the plate variety.
  • Locations: Buy cheese from different areas, like Stepladder Ranch & Creamery in Cambria.
  • Flavors: Some cheese will be coated in herbs, smoked, or even have truffle added to it. Choose some unique flavors to add to your board.

Use different varieties of cheese:

  • Aged: Gouda, Parmesan, Gruyère, Cheddar, Goat.
  • Crumbly: Goat, Blue Cheese, Feta.
  • Creamy and Soft: Brie, Burrata, Triple Cream, Fresh Mozzarella.
  • Medium to Firm: Manchego, Provolone, Cheddar, Sharp Cheddar, Monterey Jack.

Cheese Accompaniments:

Since this is the main course of the party, make sure the board is filled with other options other than cheese. Here’s a list of our favorite additions to a cheese platter. Guests love snacking on all these goodies!

  • Charcuterie: Soppressata, Prosciutto, Cured Salami, Capicola.
  • Nuts: Marcona almonds, candied walnuts, roasted almonds, pistachios.
  • Olives: Pitted Kalamata olives, black olives, Castelvetrano olives. Quick tip, some grocery stores have olive bars which is a great place to get different marinated olives!
  • Dried Fruit: Dried blueberries, dried cranberries, dried pineapples. freeze-dried fruits like strawberries and raspberries are great too. They even make a pretty powder when crumbled over cheese. Quick tip, you can make this seasonal board with seasonal fruits.
  • Honey & Jam: Natural honeycomb and little jars of sweet jam are a must for a cheese board!
  • Pickled Vegetables: Cornichons and any pickled vegetables are a great addition to a cheese platter.
  • Dips: Light yogurt or cheese dips are great.
  • Crackers: Choose your favorite crackers.
  • Sliced Fruit: Use seasonal fruit for the board.
  • Edible Flowers: Truthfully, guests don’t usually stack on edible flowers, but they look stunning on the board so I always add them.

The wine

Pairings are always subjective to personal taste and preference, so stay on the safe side if you are hosting a less-than-adventurous crowd. If you have a group of people who enjoy trying just about anything, spring for oysters as an accompaniment and a selection of cured meats to try alongside the different wines as well – it’s a fun way to explore your palette and taste the different nuances of the wines. Cheese and wine pairings are based on similarities rather than contrasts, so match the flavor and texture by pairing delicate cheeses with light wines, robust cheeses with full-bodied wines, and mature cheeses with older wines.

As you get ready for your tasting party, you’ll want to decant your red wine(s) for at least 30 minutes. Even pouring it into a pitcher will do the trick to introduce oxygen and get rid of any immediate funky flavors that the bottle may carry with it.

You’ll select three different wines (two bottles of each wine for a group of 10 people), which should give everyone a two to three ounce tasting per wine and an opportunity to revisit for a full glass after the teaser. Make sure you have enough crackers and bread to keep people snacking throughout the event, so people are satiated and nobody gets too sloshy to get home safely.

Paso Pairings

Suggested Paso Robles Pairings from the pros at Stepladder.

Field Recordings Shell Creek or Lone Madrone Petillant Natural with Stepladder Creamery’s Ragged Point – Chenin paired with a peppery, creamy triple cream brie is subtle and delicious, with notes of cultured butter, citrus, and cellar. Once you try the cheese and wine together, upgrade the pairing with sourdough flatbread crackers and apricot jam. Serve at room temperature to capture the full flavor of the cheese.

Robert Hall’s Sauvignon Blanc or Fulldraw Vineyard’s Drift (72% Clairette blanche 28% Grenache blanc) with Point Reyes Bay Blue or A tika from Tomales Farmstead Creamery – these funky, earthy cheeses are the perfect match for the paired fragrant natural wines. Add a slice of fig or pear and honey for a balanced bite.

Herman Story Late Bloomer Grenache or Lost Blue’s Good Fences with Vella Dry Jack or Central Coast Creamery’s Seascape for a rich, nutty, cozy combo. Add in some spicy coppa and some crusty rosemary bread for a mouthwatering experience.

 All in all, guests love to be fed and a casual wine and cheese pairing party is an excellent excuse to bring people together in a safe, informal setting with all the fixins. The pandemic is forcing us all to think outside the box when it comes to social interactions, so be mindful of everyone’s comfort level and don’t take it personally if people opt-out of attending. What’s important is creating an opportunity to soak up the simple pleasures, share an experience, and celebrate what we can in the moment.

Many wineries have their own cheese selections in-house and offer outdoor seating to host your own small picnic party, so grab a couple of friends and head to the Copia Vineyards & Winery tasting room in downtown Paso for a wine tasting paired with local cheese. Other wineries offering great cheese and wine pairings include Hunt, Mitchella, Jada, and Le Vigne – who also has a large cheese shop on-site! Or bring your own selection to the gardens at Castoro Cellars to pair with one of their many award-winning wines.

Editor’s note: Jill Hammond is a Paso Robles-based writer who suggests that more about the area can be found at https://pasowine.com

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