Lucky enough to snag the last spot in Thursday's "Domestic Darlings: Small-production California Cheese & Wines Class" class at Solano Cellars, I settled into my bar stool surrounded by friendly local faces of all ages. Staring at the neat cuts in front of me, it took great willpower to wait for the lesson to begin before tasting. But the wait was well worth it.
"When I was a little kid," started Kirstin Jackson, 30, introducing the Vella Dry Jack, "My parents used to take me on cheese trips..."
The Vella Cheese Company was one of their stops. This begins to explain much of the expertise Jackson has about her trade. She's been at it for more than 10 years, four of them at Solano Cellars and its sister store, Vintage Berkeley.
"I'd like to guide people through artisan cheeses and help them find any cheese for any occasion," said Jackson.
Thursday night's lesson in cheese was also a lesson in chemistry, biology, zoology, sociology and economics. Discussion of texture and flavors wove seamlessly into grazing habits and lactation cycles of goats, then shifted to the value (or undervalue) of cow's milk on the stock exchange.
The audience hung on every word. Except during the moments, which were not infrequent, when their minds went blank in a cheese and wine induced ecstasy.
Each person found his or her bliss. For some, it was the acid of the Eaglepoint Ranch Albariño from Anderson Valley cutting through the buttery and chalky layers of the Goat's Leap. For others, it was the shocking combination of Point Reyes Blue and the viscous, sweet Bonny Doon dessert wine from Arroyo Seco.
Jackson's taste in wine is closely entwined with her love for food, and in particular, cheese. She talks about it in terms of the rind, the rennet and the whey, but she also talks about it in the language of people, personalities. "I love when food and wine get together. It says so much about people and history. A lot about people working with animals."
When it was time to try the Bellwether Pepato, Jackson told about the beginnings of Bellwether Farms, when the founders would try to catch sheep with nets to get their milk.
Those who attended the event said it was a great local getaway.
"I love that it's low key and not elitist. We have kids and we definitely have nights when it's nice to break out the cheeses when the kids are asleep," laughed Laura Hassner, a member of Jackson's cheese club.
"Delightful and enlightening," said her husband Ron Hassner, of the lesson.
One student noted that these cheeses and wines weren't just "domestic darlings," they're local as well. Although Solano Cellars isn't particularly known for its low prices, there are many great values to be found; if you're looking for a great bottle that isn't too expensive, Vintage Berkeley is your spot, with its focus on great wine for less than $25.
If you find yourself to be a cheese fiend like myself, read Kirstin Jackson's blog, It's Not You, it's Brie. Jackson blogs weekly and is working on her first book on cheese.