In the few short months since the Tasting House — a new wine bar and bistro in Los Gatos, Calif. — opened in late May, it’s already proven to be a contender in the wine world, having received an auspicious recognition: Wine Spectator’s 2022 Award of Excellence. Among the handful of industry experts like wine director Ryan Fillhardt and wine expert Jeffrey Perisho who are shaping Tasting House’s promising program of approachable wines from France, Italy, and California, certified sommelier and executive fromager Cesar Olivares occupies the modern tavern’s more snackable side.
The Torréon, Mexico, native’s two decades of cheese expertise spans cutting wedges and wheels at community co-op cheese counters, hands-on cheesemaking at Midwestern dairies, and cheese-buying trips throughout Europe. Such nomadic, boots-on-the ground training predates Olivares’s formal wine education at the International Sommelier Guild under sommelier Michael Muser, not to mention an informal, but nevertheless influential, chocolate training at the behest of former roommate Bobby Schaefer, previously the pastry chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and now the owner of Lost Larson bakeries in Chicago.
In the wide world of luxury provisions (a microcosm of which can be found in Tasting House’s adjacent épicerie), wine, cheese, and chocolate are certainly pillars, but Olivares obligingly roots any talk of food finery in the hard work of agriculture — gritty background that often goes untold, but nevertheless deepens the taste of just about anything. “You can’t get away from the stinky, unromantic parts of food production,” says the fromager. “I’ve seen people faint from the ammonia in cheese caves. Every time I visit a dairy, I’m like, ‘Yep, smells like goat shit!’ Tasting food better means understanding all the parts of how it came to be.” VinePair chatted with Olivares about where the flavors of wine and cheese converge on the palate, how chocolate fits into the taste spectrum, and how France became an unwitting matchmaker for Stilton and port.
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1. Do you find that fromagers naturally segue their tasting talents to wine?
I feel like a lot of cheese people stay in the cheese realm, and more than anything end up being beer people. Nice wines are expensive, and beer tends to be a more affordable match. I’ve never heard of a cheesemonger getting rich off being a cheesemonger. For the record, when I’m not at work, I hang out at breweries to relax. There are a bunch in Santa Cruz, where I live.
2. How does your palate for cheese translate to wine?
I started my fromager training two years before I ever entered a wine classroom. Fun fact: I wasn’t able to get my professional food vocabulary for cheese until I studied wine. During wine education, you go to the grocery store and smell everything in the produce section, and that’s how you develop a basic palate for aromatics and flavors. There are all these charts for aromatics in wine that help you recognize everything from, say, berries to yeast to tobacco. For cheese, it’s a similar structure — you go from very basic creamy, milky notes, to cooked dairy notes like crème brûlée, to weird stuff like dirt and barnyard. I wasn’t able to pinpoint the cheese vocabulary until I had the wine charts in front of me.
I know the average person doesn’t think about food in these terms. But now that I can dissect flavor, there are some textbook aspects I can tell people to look for and trust. Syrah, for example, almost always tastes like bacon fat and chocolate. Sauvignon Blanc has notes of lemon and grapefruit. It’s the same with cheese. Goat cheese always has a higher acid than cow’s milk cheese, so it’s going to be more lemony — in this way, fresh chèvre from Australia is going to taste similar to fresh chèvre from the Loire Valley. The same for Burgundy Pinot Noir and Burgundy-style Pinot Noir made in different regions — they are going to be similar, as long as there’s no sulfur, no intervention, neutral oak barrel aging, etc. If you think of food scientifically, it sets you up to taste better.
3. What are the basic rules for pairing wine and cheese?
First, what grows together goes together. A lot of wine and cheese come from the same region. Since they were produced from the same land, theoretically, they’re wired to go together. Crottin de Chavignol (grassy with hints of sweet cream and a lingering finish of lime zest and citrus) and Valencay (mild notes of dry hay and barnyard funk) are two classic goat’s milk cheeses from the Loire Valley, and both would pair well with Sancerre, which is also of the region and generally has complementary flavors akin to fresh-cut grass, gooseberry, and a flinty minerality. This would also be an example of the acid-to-acid rule.
Another rule you could follow would be “opposites attract.” A classic duo would be English Stilton, which is salty, and port, which is sweet. There’s a history lesson in that pairing: When Portugal sided with the English during the Spanish War of Succession in 1703, Portuguese wines imported to England were taxed one-third less than wines from France, which is how port became popular in England.
4. How does chocolate fit in with wine and cheese?
Chocolate, olive oil, coffee, bread: All of these things include fermentation processes, so they are similar to cheese and wine. Also, these products contain ingredients that are grown out of the dirt by people, many of whom have been doing it forever, or whose families have been doing it forever. So it’s in their blood and in their soil. I think chocolate becomes most interesting and exotic when you think about how cacao mostly grows in equatorial regions. The terroir of chocolate can be as romantic as wine. When you taste a piece of unconched chocolate, which is never cooked, you can taste the actual soil. It can be transformative, but all the hallmarks of chocolate are the same as cheese and wine — acidity, bitterness, and sweetness.
5. Pairing cheese and chocolate seems less common. Do they play well together?
Cheese and chocolate can be a great pairing, as great as bread and cheese. At Tasting House, we carry a fabulous brand of unconched chocolate from Medici, Italy, called Sabadi. The producers use cool fermentation, allowing all of the original flavor profiles from the Ecuadorian beans to really shine through. This chocolate also has grit and pairs well with a triple cream cheese like Nancy’s Hudson Valley Camembert, which is so rich that the texture of the chocolate becomes a really nice complement. You’ll also get a lingering finish of cream and berry notes.
However, I think wine — which can have a bitter aspect — can complement dark chocolate’s bitter notes better than cheese. Bitter notes can be detected as raw almonds or bitter greens in wines with stronger pyrazines. Say you pair a Raaka 100 percent Cacao bar with the 2015 Château Boyd-Cantenac “Josephine de Boyd” Margaux Bordeaux blend: The chocolate has a fruity finish that tingles the palate long after you take a bite, and its flavors are further lifted by the wine’s green pyrazine notes and bright acidity. The chocolate and the wine are simply more exciting when they’re together.
6. With your palate for cheese, wine, and chocolate, would conquering the flavor spectrum of coffee or beer come more easily?
I believe so. Even now, I like to think I can hold my own with just about any food nerd out there.
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