What's great in wine, beer, fine dining,
places to stay, & places to visit
in California State

American Cheese Society Comes to Sacramento

Rate this item
(0 votes)

Best of Show cheese 2nd place PicmonkeyPt Reyes Bay Blue, judged 2nd Place in Best of Show competition

by Dan Clarke

Sacramento, CA August 2, 2014 - Never have I seen so much cheese. By the time I left Exhibit Hall C in the Sacramento Convention Center it was filled with tasters. Most seemed to be involved with cheese in some professional way, but there were media types and folks who just liked cheese.

Last night's tasting was the culmination of the 31st annual meeting of the American Cheese Society (ACS). Any organization which brackets several days of academic sessions with a Tuesday evening California Cheesemaker Pubcrawl and Friday's concluding Festival of Cheese is ok in my book. As with winemaking and brewing, substantial science is involved in cheesemaking, but the products of all these endeavors are designed to give pleasure to the end users. Cheesemakers, I discovered, are every bit as fun-loving as their brewer and winemaker cousins. Maybe even more so.

A Keynote Chat

California is home to a substantial dairy industry, but until recent years it has lagged behind other states like Vermont and Wisconsin in its attention to cheese. Two fellows who know as much as anyone about the evolution of food in this state open Wednesday's sessions with what is billed as a “Keynote Chat.” Narsai David is a former restaurateur, PBS television personality and current KCBS radio commentator. Darrell Corti is owner of Corti Brothers, a retailer of wine and specialty foods. They trace the evolution of California's cuisine over the last half-century in a low-key and anecdotal style. “I don't know what we can tell you,” Darrell begins, “You're the experts.” Indeed, the banquet room is filled with cheesemakers with great knowledge of technical processes. However, few, if any, have the perspective on America's changing food scene that Darrell and Narsai can provide.

Darrell and Narsai PicmonkeyDarrell and Narsai--a wealth of experience

It may be a given that California can produce food and wine of world standard. But that's now. It wasn't always the case. Narsai references a blind tasting at his Pot Luck restaurant in the early 70's. Eight wines from Chardonnay grapes were poured—four great Montrachets and four Sonoma Chardonnay from Hanzell. “None of us could say which wine was which,” he reminisces. “We had a great Chardonnay that was every bit as good as great white Burgundy.” In that era Gourmet magazine observed that Pot Luck and Chez Panisse were doing “California Cuisine,” he says. “We were doing what we felt like doing. We simply were not (constrained by) the rules and limitations that burdened French chefs.” Such freedom may have led to some fads and excesses, but it also provided a sharp learning curve.

Darrell Corti is celebrating 50-years as a professional in food and wine retailing, but his experience predates that, as he grew up in the family business. “Cheese, much like winemaking, has changed. Sometimes for the better, “ he observes. “And sometimes not.” As the breadth and diversity of American cheesemaking has expanded, so have the problems and opportunities for marketing these cheeses. Noting that California wine names have evolved from European place names such as Burgundy and Chianti to wines labeled by the grapes used (Pinot Noir, Sangiovese) or by proprietary names, Corti suggests that American cheesemakers might want to develop nomenclature that wouldn't imply their products are copies or derivatives of time-honored European cheeses. If quality is good we should want our own identity, he suggests.

“We are doing things now that are the envy of the world,” Narsai David concludes. “And you are to be applauded for the direction that the American Cheese Society and all of you are a part of.”

Tbl Setting CA wine and cheese PicmonkeyThe why of wine with cheese

Wine and Cheese

The pairing of wine and cheese is accepted as tradition. But maybe not all combinations are equal. A seminar entitled “California Wine & Cheese: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why” brings experiential learning, as well as academic. Anita Oberholster of the Viticulture and Enology Department at UC Davis and Kirstin Jackson, a wine and cheese consultant, author and educator, take a sold out room through a tasting of four cheeses and four wines—two whites and two reds. Opportunity to taste a wine with the cheese likely to be the most complementary, as well as one less likely to work, is a palate-opening experience, especially when accompanied by explanation of the chemistry involved.

Winners, but Maybe no LosersBleating Heart cheesemakers PicmonkeySeana Doughty and Dave Dalton took blue ribbon for Bleating Heart's "Fat Bottom Girl"

A big part of these annual meetings is the awards. This year there are 1685 entries from 248 companies. Submissions come from 39 states of the US, four Canadian provinces and even the nation of Colombia. Ribbons are awarded to 325 of these entries. The awards ceremony is held Thursday afternoon in the ballroom of the adjacent Hyatt Regency Hotel. Waiting for the doors to open, cheese people gathered in the lobby and seem in remarkably good humor. An award can make a big difference. A cheesemaker from the Midwest tells me his fairly new company was out of money a few years ago when a blue ribbon was such a spur to sales that they turned the corner and are now stable in their eighth year of business. Once inside the room the audience whoops, hollers and waves pennants. They're having a great time and are partial to entrants from their own states, but they seem genuinely happy for every winner.

Festival of Cheese

Steve Graham pours at cheese tasting PicmonkeySteve Graham pours J Lohr Pinot NoirOrganizers have arranged for the media to have a half-hour head start to check out the displays at this finale. We may enter at 5:30. In this staged admission, ACS members are welcome at 6:00 and the general public from 7:00 forward. Vendors of complementary products, such as charcuterie, crackers and beer line the perimeter of this room and provide samples, but the centerpiece of this event is the cheese. Displays are attractively presented, all products are identified as to the category entered, the name of the cheese and the company that produced it. Those who've received honors in Thursday's judging proudly display their ribbons. Thirsty, I scan the tables beyond the cheeses and notice a friend of mine. Steve Graham, a wine steward for Nugget Markets, is pouring medal winners from the recent California State Fair wine judging. Nugget also has cheeses displayed and can make suggestions of which to sample with each wine. At the other end of the Nugget table are beer experts pouring tastes similarly paired with different cheeses.

All the cheeses taste good to me. Their quality is excellent and the variety is endless. I have a good time, but almost envy the cheese professionals who're here. They're so much more cheese-savvy than I am and I hope that they're enjoying the moment, more than analyzing too closely. Cheesemaking—it sounds like a pretty good gig. Sort of like a writer whose work requires he sample foods and wines.

Copyright © 2005 - 2019. Taste California Travel. All rights reserved. | Phoenix Website Design by CitrusKiwi