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Pour Man: Wine and cheese — and memories

Is there better pair culinary world than wine cheese? We think not.

Is there a better pair in the culinary world than wine and cheese? We think not.

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Updated: October 5, 2012 10:54AM

Back in college, in the midst of my eternal search for yet another plastic cup of beer, I took a weekend visit to a bourgeois university with a group of beer-chugging friends.

On Friday night we hit the local bars and turned some heads with our … enthusiasm. The next afternoon we shook our hangovers with a few games of basketball and headed to a party— a girls’ party. The air wasn’t just electric; it was nuclear.

We arrived and everything looked great. College women everywhere. Dressed like they were on their way to a dance. This was a place we could hang for a while, yessir.

But wait. Those cups are tiny. And they’re clear. And why isn’t there any foam — oh, sweet charity, this is a wine and cheese party! The phrase itself was an indictment to us, as in:

“How was the party?”

“Oh, man, it was like a wine and cheese party!”

“Gosh, sorry you had such a horrible night.”

But this was an actual wine and cheese party. Full of 19-year-olds. My buddies and I looked at each other as if we had just witnessed a crime. What do we do now?

The Me of Then would not believe how much the Me of Now loves wine and cheese. Had I known then what I know now, I would not have stuffed a fistful of cheese into my mouth and gulped a cup of warm Coke before bolting to a bar with a pitcher special and a hot dog cart out front. (Actually, yes, I still would have had the hot dogs.)

But first I would have nibbled on that cheese and considered its consistency, its many rich flavors. I would have followed that with a sip of wine and paid attention to how the flavors changed. I would have talked to a well-dressed, well-on-the-way-to-being-well-educated young woman.

Years passed and eventually I turned into a wine-and-cheese-loving adult. I’m a red-blooded American so it’s rare that I would substitute cheese for actual dessert but if you want to tide me over with some fromage until the chocolate arrives, I’m game.

Every once in a while, though, cheese is enough. Some years ago, at the Hotel Cala del Porto in the town of Punta Ala on the Tuscan coast (it’s like a little poem, I know), I sat outdoors with my sister and nephew, blissfully recounting the magical Italian feast we had just enjoyed. Perched on a seaside cliff, we marveled at the moonlit Gulf of Follonica beneath us. When you’ve got all of that, a slice of chocolate cake isn’t essential. So when our waiter suggested we top things off with a cheese plate, we smiled and nodded. We would have smiled and nodded at anything.

Each of us had half-full wine glasses but we wanted more. Avoiding the role of gluttonous, buzzed American in our temperate host country, I gently asked the waiter if we should perhaps have just another glass of wine, or maybe a half-glass. Or maybe a shot glass full — just to go with the cheese.

The waiter hesitated, probably stunned that we had room for more wine after polishing off a bottle and maybe starting the meal off with a glass or two of prosecco, but who was counting? Being more loyal to his customers’ enjoyment than his country’s customs, he waved his pen in the air and said, “Just have another bottle — you’ll drink it like water with the cheese.”

He was right. We drained that bottle without even trying, and we cleared the cheese plate and its fresh juicy figs as if we hadn’t had any other food that night. It wasn’t my first wine and cheese pairing but it was one of the most memorable. Damn we were European that night!

Bring wine and cheese into your life, into your home. Usually a wine and cheese that come from the same general place pair well together, like Champagne and Brie, Sancerre and Chevre, or Rioja and Manchego. You could start there, by place, or you could pour the versatile Cabernet Sauvignon, which goes well with everything from cheddar to Gouda to blue. Experiment. Linger. Let the wine breathe and the cheese soften. Tell stories and pick at the bounty before you. Half of the fun is figuring out what you like.

These days I’ll take a wine and cheese party over a kegger almost every time. Sometimes I even host my own. If I knew any of those sophisticated coeds today I’d tell them how ahead of their time they were. Or I’d admit how behind the time I was. It’s OK, we all ended up in the same place. Where wine and cheese is concerned, at least.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail

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