A Cheesetastic Evening with Cheesetique
by Whitney Babash, Dame de la Chaîne
The Bailliage of Greater Washington, DC, gathered on-line on September 17, 2020 for an exploration of cheeses and wines of the United States’ east and west coasts. Jill Erber, aka the Cheese Lady, is the proprietor of Cheesetique and led the virtual session. Jill graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in computer science and began her career in Northern Virginia in software development. But her dream was to work for herself, surrounded by the cheese and wine she loved. That dream became reality when she opened Cheesetique in the Del Ray area of Alexandria, Virginia, in 2004, followed by a second shop/restaurant in the Shirlington neighborhood of Arlington in 2011.
For this tasting, Jill selected four cheeses and two wines to represent the two coasts, along with accompaniments. Cheesetique staff delivered the bounty to each of the twenty participants’ homes, all elegantly presented in the shop’s distinctive black and white baskets.
Even virtually, you could sense the anticipation as bailliage members and guests gathered on Zoom to catch up with each other as they prepared their cheese boards and opened the wines. Jill then took everyone on a freewheeling trip through the cheeses and wines, encouraging questions and comments from the attendees, who were happy to engage.
Setting the scene for the tasting, Jill noted that regional differences in US cheeses stem from the backgrounds of settlers: English on the east coast, German in the midwest, and Spanish in the west. Each brought their respective cheesemaking and winemaking traditions to these regions.
Attendees began with the 2018 Forge Cellars Navone Vineyard Dry Riesling from Seneca Lake, New York, of which only 125 cases were produced. Forge is a small, artisanal producer focusing entirely on dry riesling and pinot noir. This varietal is slowly fermented in old, large format wood – a technique used for centuries to make riesling. Reflecting its gravel, silt, and loam terroir, this wine balanced a slight sweetness with steel and stone flavors and high acidity that went well with the cheeses. The grapes, from the east side of Seneca Lake, are hand-harvested, sorted, and whole-cluster pressed; the juice is fermented with indigenous yeasts.
The first cheese was Appalachian, from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virginia, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the southwest part of the state. It is a semi-firm, 100% raw cow’s milk Alpine-style cheese that has been aged for at least 90 days. When sniffing the rind, some attendees picked up on a faint trace of ammonia, which Jill explained is from the mold that naturally forms the rind. The cheese itself smelled of meadow grass, with subtle grainy and toasty notes, the nuttiness of which carried over into the taste. The suggested pairing was piparra peppers, from the Basque region of Spain, which brought a bit of heat that nicely complimented the cheese.
Next was Mt. Tam, a triple crème from Cowgirl Creamery in California, just north of San Francisco. Named for Mount Tampalpais in Marin County, this luscious cheese is made from 100% organic, single-source, forage-based cow’s milk from a dairy in nearby Petaluma. Cutting through the soft, mild rind revealed a buttery, creamy cheese that coated the knife and smelled of sweet cream and mushrooms. Dried apricots revealed a delicious grassiness in the cheese that was not apparent on first taste.
Before moving to the next cheese, Jill had the diners pour themselves a glass of the Failla Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2018 from California. The area’s steep hillsides, rocky soil, and cool temperatures make it an ideal location for cool climate varietals, such as this pinot noir, which is aged for eight months in French oak. Ehren Jordan founded the vineyard with Anne-Marie Failla after perfecting his winemaking craft in both the Rhône Valley and California’s Zinfandel country. Their first pinot noir was produced in 1998 and the 2018 vintage shines with notes of bright fruit and herbs.
The bailliage stayed on the west coast for the next cheese offering, Sleeping Beauty from Cascadia Creamery in Washington, in the foothills of Mt. Adams. This 100% raw milk cheese is made completely by hand from the milk of pasture-fed cows and is aged for three months in ancient lava tube caves with their unique microflora. This cheese is smooth and buttery with a subtle sharpness reminiscent of cheddar. Jill’s suggested pairing of black cherry and licorice preserves, which amplified the outstanding qualities of the cheese.
It was back to the east coast for Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont to round out the evening’s offerings. A raw cow’s milk cheese, it is robustly blue but its saltiness and range of intriguing flavors keep the mold from dominating. One taster noted a hint of the farmyard on the nose, in this case a good thing! Marcona almonds from Spain added a nice crunch as a counterpoint to mouthfeel of the indulgent cheese.
Throughout the evening Jill’s passion for cheese was evident as she generously shared her knowledge of the cheeses and cheesemakers, answered questions, and ensured that everyone had a delicious and fun experience. Bailli Judy Mazza thanked Jill by presenting her with a Chaîne wine coaster (which had been delivered to her earlier in the day). It was another successful virtual event in this age of coronavirus!