"I'll almost base the tasting around what cheeses are available, just to turn people on to something different," says Paris Driggers, one of the owners of downtown's Bacchus Wine Market, explaining his weekend wine-and-cheese tastings.
Driggers has a relationship with Del Mar's Aniata cheese shop, which wholesales to fine-dining restaurants. Aniata's proprietor "will shoot me out an e-mail when he's got something new and hot, and I'll give it a sample and see what wine it's going to work with," he said.
Wine and cheese pairing is nothing new, but I haven't been to a wine shop that goes to such lengths to show both in their best light. The few times I've encountered cheese at tastings hosted by wine merchants, it's been generic smoked gouda or yellow and white cheese cubes. Chalk up this more educated approach up to Bacchus' owners' backgrounds in food.
Franceso Pinzauti, a former chef, founded Bacchus a couple of years ago, specializing strictly in Italian wines. Bacchus still bears his signature in the form of rare bottles of Brunello di Montalcino dating back to 1968, as well as the most expensive bottle on the premises, a 1958 vintage Italian port going for $800.
Meanwhile, Driggers, his business partner, put in stints at both George's at the Cove and Wine Sellar and Brasserie before working for several years at San Diego Wine Company. Driggers bought in to Bacchus about two months ago and has since expanded the wine selection from one that is strictly Italian to one that encompasses a broad range of boutique wines, both domestic and foreign. The only criterion: the wine must be exceptional.
"I'm being real picky about what I fill the store with," Driggers said, "especially right now, because I want everything to really wow people. And everything's here for a reason, and everything hits a niche. If I can't find a nice Sancerre, I'm not going to buy a Sancerre just to say I have one. I have to be excited about it."
One varietal that Driggers is particularly excited about is pinot noir. I recently attended a Bacchus tasting that featured six pinots noir paired with four different exotic cheeses: Tomme de Savoie, Roccolo, Mimmolette and Hollander.
I've had Mimmolette before; it looks like a cantaloupe with a rough-textured gray exterior and firm orange interior, but the others were all new to me. Driggers is very hands-on with the tasting, pouring each wine and explaining how it was made and its characteristics, and then offering a small piece of accompanying cheese and explaining how the wine and cheese complement each other.
The first wine in the tasting, Domaine Coteau, was awesome-earthy, acidic, and complex-my favorite kind of pinot. It paired brilliantly with the Tomme de Savoie, a funky cheese from the French Alps. The mushroom-like flavor of the cheese combined with the earthiness of the pinot-a perfect marriage of flavors.
As I progressed through the tasting, I realized how sensitive these pairings can be. The next wine, from Handley, wasn't as good with the Tomme de Savoie. The Handley, like the other pinots in the tasting, was much fruitier and paired better with the sweeter Mimmolette.
Often cheese shops will recommend wines to go with the cheeses, and while these can be useful as a general guideline, there's too much variation between wines-especially when dealing with a finicky grape like pinot noir-to simply say what a particular cheese will be good with. The pairing may work fine, but it takes a lot of experience to identify sublime combinations.
That's where tastings like Bacchus' are really educational, especially considering the shop's obscure selection of wines with unfamiliar names and labels. Anytime you go in, there are open bottles ready for tasting, and hardly any from the big labels one would expect.
"I've got some big names," Driggers said, "and their wines are good-I'm not going to exclude anything just because the winery makes a lot of wine, but overwhelmingly [we focus on] smaller, boutique, cutting-edge producers. Because we've got the tasting bar here I can turn people on to them. It's not like I'm just talking about the wine. I can open a bottle if they're questioning it."Bacchus is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.