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What I've Learned About Tasting Cheese by Lou Zant

What I've Learned About Tasting Cheese by Lou Zant

The most recent episode of Major Crush (S5/EP3) featured a Wine Country experience that pushed Mere and me right to the very edge of our normal world!


That’s because it was all about pairing Mezcal — a type of tequila — with cheese!

I will say I know enjoyed the whole pairing experiment more than Mere because I tend to like spirits, in general, more than my pod-buddy does! But I have to give Mere all the credit in the world for going for it and making room in her life for this unique experience. It’s what makes doing our show together so cool for me. The two of us lead with a genuine willingness to explore together and then we both love to share our discoveries with our listeners!

But I also thoroughly enjoyed myself because for the past year, I’ve been working a couple of days a week at the Sonoma Cheese Factory. Originally, I was brought on to curate wine and wine stories for the customers of this hugely popular local institution, but instead, I took a bit of a detour so I could learn as much as I could about cheese.

If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, then you might recall an interview Mere and I did with James Ayers, the cheesemonger, culinary arts entrepreneur, and wine pairing genius in Season Four. But these days, I feel lucky to be able to call James my friend and cheese mentor, too.

And sometimes, I have to stop and marvel at how much I’ve learned in the past year from him.

So when Mere and I sat down to do this very unusual tasting, I was already all-in on some of the cheeses James planned to test out with a few varieties of this smokey and moody Mezcal. Each cheese he had laid out — in a clock-wise tasting pattern — was somewhat familiar to me and I had already logged a few details in my mind about each cheese. So I knew those details would already help to inform my experience along the way.

That brings me to an important point I’d like to share with you. I think the most valuable thing James has taught me so far is that it’s essential to really taste a piece of cheese and make my mental notes about it outside of a pairing to appreciate the cheese on its own before I try to appreciate it in a pairing. This is such an important rule of thumb when you’re getting into tasting wine and/or cheese because it’s your mental database of smells, flavors, and textures that will assist you the most whenever you are doing a tasting experience of any kind. And here’s probably the most valuable tip of all:

Your database is unique to you!

That fact right there is going to let you off the hook whenever you’re tempted to wonder if you are tasting wine or cheese the “wrong” way. There is no truly wrong way because tasting experiences are first and foremost personal! So what you smell…what you feel on your tongue…and what you taste on every side of your palate is specific to you. 

Whenever James pulls out a new cheese for me to try at the Sonoma Cheese Factory, he always lets me taste it before he tells me too much about it. He already knows how important my archive of flavors will end up being for me. Of course, we often have very similar references and experiences as we progress through a cheese tasting, but it’s when I freely express my reactions to the smells, textures, and flavors that our exchange and shared experience takes on a whole new layer of fun. 

I don’t want to get too cynical here, but the wine industry has a lot of tricks and nuances to it — which is partly why many people find it to be too complicated or elitist to enjoy. But if I can speak plainly about myself, the times when I enjoy the experience of tasting wine and/or cheese, it’s when I give myself all the permission in the world to be completely honest about what I smell, taste, and feel. Even if my initial reaction to a cheese isn’t positive, when I honestly cull out the reasons behind my reaction, it’s then that I can make space to add more to the experience that may turn my first impression into one I want to repeat!

I wanted to blog about this in the aftermath of our Mezcal tasting because I feel like it’s so valuable for people to know that an honest reaction is a safe reaction when you’re exploring with us at Major Crush! The archive of flavor experiences you already have inside of you — even if you’re new to wine, as well as the glorious world of cheese — is the most valuable piece of any tasting experience you will ever have!

Cheers!

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