The proliferation of wine bars in America is a great thing. It has spread the knowledge about vino so that laypeople have expanded their comfort zone well beyond the usual suspects of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. Instead, they are as likely to look at the list as a chance to engage in oenological exploration. The wine bar effect has also spread to restaurants where ambitious sommeliers create lists to challenge the complacent.
Unfortunately complacency hasn’t been banned, it still exists in the cheese list of most wine bars and restaurants. The list will typically rattle off a few often inscrutable names (Challerhocker, Fricalin, Landaff, for instance, all wonderful cheeses but mostly known to a small percentage of the cheese cognoscenti), and they’ll explain these cheeses in two words “raw cow.” That doesn’t do much, even if you know that raw in this context means made from unpasteurized milk. Here are a few other “raw cow” cheeses: many Gruyeres, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and quite a few clothbound cheddars; they don’t taste remotely alike. Raw cow is an accurate way to describing their animal of origin and whether or not pregnant women should eat them. It doesn’t do much else.
I understand the why wine bars engage in such cryptic shorthand. Tell me a Tuscan red is made from 75% Sangiovese and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and I’ll have a pretty good idea of what it tastes like. “Raw Cow, Vermont” is parallel information but it doesn’t have a remotely comparable yield. What wine menus need is just a few adjectives to further describe a cheese’s flavor and personality. Terms like buttery, aggressive, nutty and subtle would go a long way.
Use of just a few choice adjectives might liberate laypeople from a comparable comfort zone in cheese, which might consist of Manchego, Triple Cream (yes, a category but rarely do people approach my counter and ask for Brillat Savarin), and Gruyere. It’s not necessarily that wine bars have some sort of responsibility to the cheese demi-monde to handle their products better; they don’t. But they’d sell a whole lot more cheese if they made a fraction of the effort with their cheese that they make with the wine, and it would give them a competitive advantage over the wine bar down the block.