Cheese + Grappa, or The End of Pairing
What Spotify Wrapped can and cannot tell us about taste and the ineffable.
It’s that special time of year, when Spotify Wrapped gets released and the data reveals all of our strange, intimate, embarrassing tastes in music—which we’re then peer-pressured to share publicly. This year, I’m slightly alarmed to see how much reggaeton I’ve consumed in 2023. I am also intrigued that something called “French Indietronica” is among my top genres. As usual, I racked up many hours listening to random techno and trance during days-long writing binges. According to the data, I listen to a lot of Karol G, Kid Francescoli, French 79, and Nina Kraviz (and yes, I’m aware that Nina was criticized last year for not denouncing the invasion of Ukraine strongly enough).
Beyond that, an erratic array of music appears in my top songs of 2023: “Jungle” by Fred again.., “Quiéreme Siempre” by Los Cincos Latinos, Sir Chloe’s “Sedona,” Morgan Wallen’s “Whiskey Glasses,” Mazzy Star’s “Halah,” Rosalía’s “Despechá,” the White Lotus theme song, Lorde’s “Stoned at the Nail Salon, a flamenco classic, Yellow House’s “Love in Time of Socialism,” and “Dile” by Don Omar (which could be my walk-up song if I was a baseball player).
Are there any conclusions, any pattern or reason, to be drawn from my Spotify Wrapped (beyond that I am a deeply peculiar person)? While I may quibble with the results (I feel like I consciously listen to much more 1980s skate punk, early 1990s grunge, and old-school reggae than is reflected in my list), the data seems to be the data.
I guess I would ask you, dear reader, the same question: Are there any conclusions to be drawn from your own weird Spotify Wrapped? What does this annual rite of taste quantified by data tell us? This is where I would lean on ol’ Susan Sontag who, in her famed essay “Notes on Camp,” states: “Taste has no system and no proofs.”
We talked about heady ideas of taste a few weeks ago, in my post “The Great Beauty of Viognier and Parsnips.” I cited critic Ted Gioia’s assertion that there is currently a grand rebellion against cultural institutions and gatekeepers and toward individuals pursuing the things they find beautiful, whatever and however that may be. “Like falling in love, your attachment to the desired object requires no reasons or arguments,” Gioia writes. Immanuel Kant was even dragged into that discussion.
Not to reference Kant twice in less than a week, but as he says in Critique of Judgement: “In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion.” We’re all chasing our own obsessive, intimate relationship with the cultural objects we find beautiful.
So maybe that basic human thing we already know—beauty is in the eye of the beholder blah blah blah—is the simple, banal takeaway from Spotify Wrapped. But I’d like to push a little deeper, as Sontag does. Taste may have no systems or proofs, says Sontag, but “there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste. A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable.”
Almost, but not quite, ineffable.
All of which is a meandering way of saying: I’d like to once again broach the thorny topic of food-and-drink pairings. This is not the first time we’ve discussed pairings here. Most directly, last year, I bluntly asked “Are Food and Drink Pairings Ridiculous?”
To be clear, none of this is bad. Underlying it is an attempt to move wine communication away from talk about soils, carbonic maceration, skin contact, malolactic fermentation, or any of those other things that make normal people’s eyes glaze over when the sommelier comes to the table. It’s an attempt to use food to forge a deeper connection to wine and vice versa.
What’s unclear is whether normal people even care about this pairing advice. More than a decade ago, I wrote about an industry survey, which found that more than 60 percent of wine consumed by “high-frequency wine drinkers” (the people who drive 80 percent of the market and buy almost all the wine over $20) is consumed without a meal. I don’t believe much has changed.
Some critics, such as Alder Yarrow of Vinography, have long dismissed pairings as a “big scam.” During the height of the pandemic, Yarrow published an anti-pairing article titled “Food and Wine Pairing is Junk Science,” in which he does not mince words: “The so called ‘rules’ of food and wine pairing are bullshit.”
Maybe the problem with food-and-drink pairing is it suggests we can direct and organize pleasure—and, therefore, anything at all. Like so many other things in the culture, declaring whether Sancerre pairs better with goat cheese or Flamin Hot Cheetos conveys a Main Character Energy that feels false at a time when so much is beyond our control.
Pairings are no more bullshit than any other of life’s pleasures. But pleasure so often comes at times that are unexpected, fleeting, and complicated, and we recognize it mostly in hindsight.
I still believe what I posted last year. But I attended a tasting in September that has further complicated my already complicated feelings on pairings.
This tasting happened at the biennial Cheese extravaganza put on by Slow Food in Bra, in Italy’s Piedmont region. It’s an amazing event, with cheesemakers from all over the world lining Bra’s charming streets, offering samples to thousands of visitors. This is the second time I’d gone to Cheese (the first time I covered the rise of U.S. cheese for the Washington Post).
The array of formaggi at Cheese is frankly overwhelming—Bra becomes a veritable Spotify of the world’s cheeses. It’s especially overwhelming for someone like me who barely passed Cheese School. But I can say that a few memorable cheeses made a serious impression, among them: the unique mozzarella nella mortella, raw milk caciocavallo cheese wrapped in myrtle from Campania; Rogue River Blue from Oregon (which I guess I had to travel to Italy to finally taste); the famed British blue cheese, Stichelton, which made a tasting companion exclaim, “I think I’m getting emotional here. This is an autobiographical cheese for me.”
Cheese people are warm, friendly, and easy going, and I met mongers and makers from Berlin, Reykjavik, Guatemala, and elsewhere. I’m also thankful I got to spend some time with some real cheese luminaries, such as nomadic cheesemaker Trevor Warmedahl (who publishes the terrific Milk Trekker newsletter) and Martin Gott, who makes the legendary St. James cheese from sheep milk in England’s Lake District.
I spent quality time sipping dark beer along with incredible blue cheeses, orange wines with stinky bloomy rind cheeses, and vermouth di Torino with sharp aged cheeses—all A+ pairings. There was even a little impromptu tasting in the park with cheesemakers unwrapping things they’d brought from home. My friend Isi Munita, a cheesemaker from Chile, even brought a cider made with quince and apples to drink with her cheese.
Which is to say that the concept of “pairing” was very much in the air at Cheese. Within the official program, there were tasting workshops on Parmigiano Reggiano and Barbaresco, Sardinian pecorino and cannonau, robiola and German beer, Comté and Brunello di Montalcino, even one on pairing cheese and coffee.
Then there was the tasting workshop I attended: “Grappa and Cheese: An unexpected pairing!” A few dozen people crowded at tables inside a tent for a panel moderated by Bruno Penna, director of Piedmont’s grappa consortium, along with cheese producer Sandro Gallina and grappa producer Alessandro Soldatini of Distilleria Gualco.
“Is cheese normally paired with grappa?” asked the moderator, rhetorically. “Well, no. It’s quite rare to pair the two. It’s very provocative to pair grappa and cheese.”
The fourth panel member was a guy named Carlo Catani, president of an association called Tempi di Recupero. The association’s mission is a bit diffuse but revolves around raising awareness about food waste and on cultural traditions of “food recovery” and the reuse of ingredients such as vegetable scraps or whole animal butchery. “Grappa is the ultimate example of how you can use everything,” Catani said. It’s true: the spirit is made from grape pomace, the by-product of winemaking: the skins, seeds, and pulp that are left after the juice has been extracted.
We were served samplings of four Piemontese cheeses and four Piemontese grappas. Before I talk about the pairing, I want to say something about grappa. I wrote extensively about it in my book, Boozehound. A dozen years ago, grappa was still climbing out of its poor image as a rough, rustic, low-quality spirit.
The challenge with making grappa has been always about how the pomace is handled and stored. The pomace must be stored in airtight containers to stop the fermentation process, and it must be kept fresh, moist, and free of mold. Where the pomace comes from, and how long from pressing to distilling, and how you deal with the seeds and stems, are all factors in quality. As Antonio Guarda Nardini, whose family is one of Italy’s largest grappa producers, once explained to me:
In the glass, what separates a bad grappa from a good one? First, a bad grappa often has what could be described as a “pet shop” aroma. At a dinner on my trip, we tasted a very poor grappa, and my tablemate said, “I feel like I can hear puppies barking when I sip this.” That is often the telltale sign that moldy or stale pomace has been used.
To check quality, Nardini suggests a simple test: when a grappa is served, dip your finger in it and rub the back of your hand. When you smell your hand, the aroma should be instantly fresh and at least hint at grapes. Just as important, the grappa shouldn’t feel oily. There is always some oil in the pomace because of the crushed grape seeds, but good producers filter and distill in a way that minimizes it. Poorly made grappa contains a high percentage of oil. “The oil is what makes it hard to digest and gives you a headache,” Nardini says. “That’s the grappa that makes you say, ‘Ugh, I could feel that grappa going up and down my system for three days.’”
The four grappas poured at the Cheese pairing session were all exceptional, some of the best grappa I’ve ever tasted. All were made from single grape varieties: Marolo Grappa di Arneis, Revel Chion Grappa di Erbalice di Caluso, an aged malvasia-based grappa from Magnoberta, and an aged timorasso-based bottling from Distilleria Gualco.
The young arneis-based grappa was poured with the first cheese, Testun di Vacca, a soft tangy cow milk cheese (which means “stubborn in local dialect"). After a moment of tasting, a vibe of consternation washed across the room. “Well, this pairing is quite peculiar,” said one of the panelists. “The persistence of the cheese is overwhelming. The taste of cheese lingers longer than even the grappa!”
This seemed to be a surprise to everyone in the room, mostly Italians who likely had some experience with the rough, rustic, pet-shop grappas of old. “Be gentle when you smell the grappa,” the moderator felt the need to tell the audience. “It’s not wine. The volatile alcohol might hit your nose too strongly.”
We forged onward. The erbaluce-based grappa was poured with Toma d’Vutignasc, a blend of cow and goat milk. This grappa was maltier, richer, almost saké-like, and stood up slightly better to the cheese. But overall impression was still that of a funky cheese finish.
“This is an experiment,” Catani told us. “Let’s not be too technical here. Let’s be carried away with our emotions and feelings as we taste.”
For the third pairing, we got Casteljersey, a grainy, crumbly blend of cow and goat milk, along with the aged malvasia-based grappa. The grappa was bright and high-toned, with pretty citrus, pepper, and green tea notes. “We were quite confident this pairing would be successful,” said one of the panelists. It wasn’t bad, but somehow the 84 proof-grappa was still a bit lost by the rich cheese.
Finally, we got a super creamy, six-month aged blue cheese to be paired with the 18-month-aged timorasso-based grappa. The cheese, Blu Vej, had won an award as the best cheese in Piedmont. The grappa was gorgeous: spicy, full of fennel, anise, and pepper. Both cheese and grappa were individually amazing. Together? “The cheese always wins,” said one of the panelists, his tone incredulous and deflated.
As we wrapped up the tasting, I chatted with the people at my table. We all agreed it had been an interesting exercise, but ultimately cheese and grappa was not going to be a pairing any of us repeated any time soon. The universe of food and drink pairings may be as vast as the Spotify music catalog, but cheese and grappa would not be appearing on anyone’s Pairing Wrapped.
Beauty most certainly is in the eye of the beholder. And if you find cheese and grappa to be beautiful, I will never change your mind. But I’m starting to think taste may not be as absolutely ineffable as I once did. Almost, but not quite, ineffable.