BY NICK BOWMAN
It’s wetter, it’s colder, it’s darker these days in Georgia. Maybe it’s time for a trip to Europe. Or California.
But you’ve been saving up for that new boat or hiding cash under your mattress to finally replace those kitchen counters you’ve grown to loathe, and you couldn’t even get the time off anyway.
So forget the airfare — and the nine hours spent crammed into one of those trans-Atlantic tin cans — and do some olfactory and epicurean travel instead aboard ships of cheese and seas of wine.
On this boat your captain is Don Waara, who for the past 25 years has been guiding locals into the world of European wines and cheeses through his business on Thompson Bridge Road in Gainesville.
Born into a Finnish home in Chicago, the proprietor of Vine and Cheese was raised around a kitchen table overflowing with soups, stews and flavors from across the sea — flavors that lend themselves to fall, winter and, of course, wine.
Waara cut his teeth in the early 1980s working in one of the Atlanta wine shops owned by James Sanders, called the “father of wine” in Georgia’s capital who even sold wine to Martin Luther King Jr.
Waara has picked out a few European reds that, with the right cheese, will bring a little magic to the dinner table this season.
“There was always somebody who knew more about it than the rest of us,” Waara said of his days working for Sanders in Ansley Park and, later, Paces Ferry. “That’s where I really had my ‘aha’ moment that there’s something neat here — there’s something really neat.
“The reason I got into the business is because I got a taste of just how good red wine and cheese can be, and it’s an eye-opener at the very least when it works right.”
Bleus from France, bries from Germany, French mimolette, farmer’s cheese, hard cheese aged by Italian riversides: Combinations of flavors give the taster a little peek at cultures and flavors that have developed through centuries of practice — and there’s a wide world to explore on the old continent.
“The acidity in the wine cuts through the fat and it just — it’s like a little bit of magic,” Waara said in between chopping at blocks and wheels of cheese at his shop on a sunny, cool November day. “A lot of this is kind of magical.”
For those who don’t put much stock in magic, dull though they may be, the success of pairing wine and cheese often comes down to salt in cheese, which dulls bitter and acrid flavors while enhancing our ability to detect the sweet and earthy.
Whether magical or chemical, wine and cheese were a pair meant to be — so let’s get on with the tour.
Andiamo a Piave
From the Veneto region of northern Italy, along the Piave River, comes Piave vecchio (vecchio meaning old or aged). The hard cheese has a strong, nutty flavor and will draw up comparisons to parmigiano-reggiano.
It makes a classic companion for another Italian product: Barbera d’Asti. Throwing some more Italian at you: Barbera refers to the type of grape, while d’Asti means the wine is from Asti in the Piemonte region — the Italian piedmont, a wine region becoming increasingly popular in the United States.
“Everybody talks about French wine and French food, but I think the Italians do it as well as anybody,” Waara said, pausing a moment to add, “with the appropriate food.”
Barbera is a less expensive alternative to the other Bs grown in Piemonte: Barbaresco and Barolo, which use the Nebbiolo grape — a finicky, demanding grape that makes for a pricier bottle.
At Vine and Cheese, Waara has a Barbera from Carlin de Paolo called Cvrsvs Vitae. The fruity, acidic wine pairs well Piave, its neighbor from the Veneto.
The family-owned winery also recommends the wine with game meat or beef.
“That’s what the people in the wine industry drink because they can’t afford the Nebbiolos,” Waara said.
This next trip is a bit of a haul: Waara set up a wedge of Champignon mushroom from Germany — a brie-like, triple-cream cheese — with Briarstone, a cabernet sauvignon from Hill Family Estates in California.
“My cheese customers are more fanatical than my wine customers,” he said. “I got everybody on a list, and I’ll call these people when certain cheese come in — and they come running. It’s really something.”
A little piece of mushroomy cheese was just the thing to bring a few people hustling to the store, it turns out.
From the Allgäu region of Bavaria in southern Germany, the Champignon mushroom cheese is made by combining chopped mushrooms — called white or button mushrooms in the States — in the early stages of the cheese-making process, giving the whole wheel a strong, earthy flavor.
And strong cheeses need strong wines.
Cabernet is a heavy red wine grape that is most often eaten with steak or other salty red meat. Briarstone is produced in Yountville, California, in the center of Napa Valley.
Waara recommends opening the bottle and airing the wine for a while before eating to improve its flavor.
From the Rhône region of southern France, the cheesemonger pulled a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, the name for the regulated wine region of Rhône, produced by the Saint Andeol winery.
The region sits within the wider Provence area in the southeast corner of France near its border with Italy. Wines produced with the Côtes du Rhône label are a blend usually dominated by the Grenache grape, and the bottle from Saint Andeol has a fruity, acidic flavor that Waara said is best paired with a high-fat cheese — especially farmer’s cheese.
In the United States, farmer’s cheese is often made by pressing cottage cheese and adding rennet — you don’t want to know what this is — and bacteria to solidify and give flavor to the cheese.
The result is something akin to cream cheese but with more texture and flavor.
“When you get either a fatty cheese, like a brie, or a strong cheese with a good acidic bite to it, those are the kind of cheese that seem to work for me,” Waara said.
In the case of the already-acidic bottle of Côtes du Rhône, opt for fatty goudas or — if you want to stick to France, as gouda is traditionally Dutch — look for Neufchâtel or Camembert.
The mold-ripened cheeses produced in Normandy are some of the oldest in France. Neufchâtel has a saltier, more earthy flavor than the lighter Camembert, but both have the high fat quantities that complement the fruity bottle of Saint Andeol.
Portugal a cabra
To end the journey, it’s off to Portugal and the Alto Douro wine region to hit the Herdade do Esporão winery. The hills and valleys of gravel soils of the area, which sits in eastern Portugal near its border with Spain, have been used to cultivate wine for centuries.
And Esporão has used them to produce its Reserva Red, a big, powerful wine that should be opened and left to air for a good while before tasting.
All of the wines and cheese pitched by Waara benefit from having some time to get acquainted with a room — meaning you should open both and give them a bit of time to air out and warm up — but this pairing would especially benefit from having some time to relax together.
Waara had a bottle from 2014, a popular year that won high praise from the wine community. Following his advice, the strong, spicy wine needs a strong cheese — try it with room-temperature goat cheese on crackers or crusty bread.
“I want long, winey flavors and I want them to linger after I’ve swallowed and exhaled,” he said. “I want to be able to have a pleasant memory of all that came before. That’s the way I am with red wine and with cheese, also.”
Like jewelry, wine can be as expensive as you want. There are plenty of wineries in California to pocket your $85 per bottle, and there’s a well-fed winemaker in Burgundy who’s waiting on three times that if you want to visit.
And, if you have the money to spend, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy the pricey stuff.
“When I got into this business 40 years ago, there was this assumption that you had to work your way up; you had to drink the drek before you could appreciate the great wines,” Waara said. “I don’t think that’s true anymore — you can jump in anywhere if you have an open mind and if you have the desire to like these things.”
But he reckons the best money you can spend is between $12 and $20, after which most wine drinkers will begin to see diminishing returns.
“That’s where most people live,” he said.
Waara’s personal favorites are Swiss gruyere cheese and pinot noir wine — a lighter wine that goes from light and fruity to earthy and more complex as it ages.
But why all the fuss — the research and the care — when anyone could get a nice buzz and some flavor from a Miller and a burger? (Not to say that both of those choices don’t have their places).
More than most foods, wine and cheese capture the spirits of the land and the people who made them.
The slightest changes in soil — from how it drains to its mineral content to even subtle slopes in the earth — affect the finished product of the wine. The diets of the cows or goats who produced the milk, and even the elevation at which they live, have huge consequence on the cheese eventually produced.
Both are often the result of centuries of embedded knowledge learned through trial and error that can better tell the story of the culture that produced it than any written history.
And the enormous variation in the world of wine and cheese give the taster near-endless opportunities to find something magical.
“It’s primal,” Waara said, lifting a crumb of cheese from the granite countertop. “You just know right away, ‘Oh, that’s it!’ I love it when I see that on a customer’s face — when I can tell that this is it, this is the one, this is where his life changes.”