Matthew Rubiner: Pairing wine and cheese is a losing game

Gastronomes have taught us for centuries that cheese and wine are ageless companions. Their marriage is fabled, they say, up there with history's great unions, like Napolean and Josephine, John and Abigail, Matthew and Julie Rubiner, Genghis and Sylvia Khan (OK the last one is made up. And stolen).

But if you ask me, wine and cheese shouldn't even be married. Friends maybe, with occasional benefits, but not married. I mean, sometimes cheese and wine get along OK, but mostly they just quarrel. And sometimes they try to kill each other. Way less George and Martha Washington, way more George and Martha "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf."

I know this is the biggest cheese and wine-related heresy since the Artotyrites*, but I have to speak my conscience. In my starry-eyed youth, I set out to create a grand compendium of cheese and wine pairings. A seminal work. My legacy. A gift to future generations. For 25 years, I've labored, pairing thousands of cheeses with thousands of wines. It's been grueling work. Grueling. But in the end, I've come to the disappointing conclusion: Cheese and wine together? Eh.

Not that great.

What do we even mean we say "go together," or "perfect pairing"? Do we mean simply that the wine does not harm the cheese, and that the cheese does not harm the wine? At minimum, I guess. But I set a higher bar. I'm an idealist and a romantic in matters of cheese and wine. I believe that in a great pairing — a truly Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward-grade marriage — the wine and the cheese will support and complete each other, smooth rough edges, accentuate charms, forgive flaws and create in their union a synergy of new and wonderful flavors, neither entirely of the cheese nor of the wine alone.

It does happen. Stars align. Atoms collide. Monkeys type Shakespeare. I find my car keys. But it's really, really rare. Mostly, when you put wine and cheese together, someone's gonna get hurt. That big Napa Cabernet — dark, brooding, full of alcohol and raspy tannins — will trample that poor delicate flower of a chevre. And the vengeful chevre — fatty, acidic, and goaty — will, in its death throes, emasculate the Cab, gutting its fruit, leaving it thin and astringent.

Epoisses will render shrill the liveliest, fruitiest Beaujolais, and lose it's own delicate sweetness in the bargain. And blues wreck everything. Seriously, praying mantises have better marriages.

White wines make better companions. They're free of those quarrelsome tannins, they're cool and refreshing, and they cleanse your palate. But marriage material? Rarely. They're just flings.

If despite my pessimistic findings, you're still hell bent on achieving cheese and wine marital bliss whatever the odds, the matchmaking advice of the more thoughtful wine and cheese yentas will at least help narrow the field (Stop by, we'll talk). But most recommended pairings are bound to disappoint. Many just appeal, unquestioningly, to the geographic authenticity model, recommending, willy-nilly, cheeses and wines from the same region, based on no other criteria than that they're from the same hometown. I get the logic — same sky, same soil, same traditions — but it's far from a guarantee. I mean, I grew up in the same place as Kid Rock and we don't get along at all. And what if you're eating Gouda. Some tasty Dutch wine?

Plus, the goal posts keep moving. Remember my clever and witty Heraclitian riff from the last episode about how you can't sink your teeth into the same cheese twice? (Go back and read it. I'll wait). Even a wine or cheese from the same maker is different from season to season, vintage to vintage, wheel to wheel, bottle to bottle. There are just too many variables to generalize. Once, years ago, I paired Comt , a sweet French Gruyere, with Santenay, a white Burgundy.

The match was sublime, a perfect marriage. But it only lasted a moment. For years, I tried to recreate that pairing, but it never quite worked. The wine had changed. The cheese had changed.

And then there's the very notion of a one-to-one "pairing." Wine and cheese monogamy looks great on paper, but who eats that way? The same dispensers of pairing advice also instruct us to serve our guests an array of cheese, of different shapes, milks, textures, flavors and aromas. Good luck finding a wine that goes with all that stuff.

I'm not saying you shouldn't drink wine with cheese, just don't get your hopes up.

And if its any consolation, who cares? If you're eating cheese and drinking wine, you're probably hanging out with friends, or at some cocktail party or some Tuscan picnic, and you're not paying that much attention to what goes with what anyway. And how bad could it be? It's just cheese and wine. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, I think, on a different but related subject: even if it's bad, it's still pretty good.

*A Second Century heretical sect that introduced cheese into the Eucharist. Sounds delish!

Matthew Rubiner is a cheesemonger and the owner of Rubiner's Cheesemongers & Grocers and Rubi's Coffee & Sandwiches in Great Barrington. He was the inaugural champion of the U.S. Cheesemonger Invitational, and is a "Gard et Jure" of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers.


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