I heard it from my hairdresser – everyone’s buzzing about Napa’s new Whole Foods store. I visited just after my appointment, and the place was swarming with people, having just opened on January 16th. I made my way from section to section, mouth wide open, as I marveled over the stunning meat and fish cases, welcoming wine tasting station and astonishing lineup of ready-to-eat deli soups, including Bouillabaisse and Cioppino!

But where I stopped and never made it further, was the ample cheese section, strategically placed next to the extensive wine array. I had to fight to maintain position as others rifled through the selections, and I picked up a few intriguing slices for myself.

I overheard a customer ask a cheese clerk for advice on appropriate cheeses to serve at a cabernet tasting she would be hosting. Instantly, the clerk referred her to the store’s Wine Specialist, Michael Blasquez. I watched him expertly assist her, and realized here was my wizard.

Michael Blasquez (Click Image to Enlarge)
Michael Blasquez (Click Image to Enlarge)
MICHAEL BLASQUEZ: Wine Specialist at Whole Foods, Napa

After years of retail work that contributed to his first-class customer service skills, Michael Blasquez had an epiphany around his 40th birthday. He felt compelled to work in the fascinating world of wine, and took a position as Wine Steward at a specialty market. “Classified growth Bordeaux, premiere cru Burgundy, Champagne, and California’s, Italy’s and Australia’s finest bottles drew me into a career that has been a sheer delight.”

Blasquez is a member of The Court of Master Sommeliers, was wine buyer and retailer for several retailers, and Wine Director for Oakville Grocery Company. “I have seen the popularity of wine, specialty cheese, organic and natural foods rise to the incredible level of popularity we see today. At Whole Foods, this interest has risen to a higher level, with some of the world’s finest wines and cheese from around the world, and—just up the road. Sharing this with our guests is an incredible privilege and a great honor.”

When presented with the question What five cheeses couldn’t you live without on a cheese plate, Michael Blasquez easily listed the following selections and paired each with a Napa Valley wine. All the cheeses and wines are available at Whole Foods, and many, but not all, of the cheeses are artisan cheeses. An artisan cheese is made by hand, in small quantities and with respect for cheese-making traditions.

Selections are listed from lightest to heaviest; that is, with regards to the wines.

I had the pleasure of sampling pairing #3 at Whole Foods’ wine tasting bar, and the others at home with my husband. We did not always drink the specific wine recommended, but did drink the same varietal.


Laura Chenel Fresh Chévre Cheese (click image to enlarge)
Laura Chenel Fresh Chévre Cheese (click image to enlarge)
THE CHEESE: Laura Chenel Fresh Chévre

Billowy, white, soft, creamy and balanced with just enough of that goat tang to add interest. Laura Chenel of Sonoma County began making the first American chévre in 1979 and was only recently willing to sell the business to a French corporation in line with her quality values. Her name will remain on the cheese, and she can keep her 500 goats and continue to sell milk to the new company.

THE WINE: Work Vineyard Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc $25
Aromas characteristic of classic sauvignon blanc are immediately apparent, followed by pink grapefruit and fresh citrus. According to Work’s own tasting notes, “The mineral-laced aromas of clean, washed river stone, a signature of this vineyard, come forth as your palate embraces the wine.” On the tongue, you are lavished with tangerine, pears, melon and passion fruit with a long, lingering finish.

THE PRINCIPLE: Per Blasquez, the sauvignon blanc is “a brilliant foil to the sharpness of the Chévre”. The acidity of the wine cuts through the creaminess of the cheese.

Although 90% of the business is fresh chévre, Laura Chenel also makes a few aged cheeses, one of which is a round, slicing cheese called tome. Ig Vella, of the renowned Sonoma cheesemaking family, taught Ms. Chenel how to make the tome in the infancy of her cheese-making endeavors. Vella’s Dry Jack is listed below as part of our cheese plate.


Mitica Aged Parmigiano-Reggiano (Click Image to Enlarge)
Mitica Aged Parmigiano-Reggiano (Click Image to Enlarge)
THE CHEESE: Mitica Aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, Raw Milk, imported from Italy

Aged for 24 months, this extremely granular cheese melts in your mouth, with its salty, complex flavor. Parmigiano-Reggianos must come from the Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua on the right bank of the Po River, or Bologna on the left bank of the Reno in Italy to display the name on the label.

Altamura Napa Valley Sangiovese (Wooden Valley Ranch) $45
“Perhaps the best Sangiovese made in Napa”, according to Blasquez, this beautiful, ruby-colored wine possesses aromas of dried violets, cocoa and vanilla. On the palate are concentrated berry flavors and a bit of cinnamon with a fair balance of acidity and tannins.

THE PRINCIPLE: Blasquez comments that the Parmigiano is “another aged cheese that stands up to sturdy reds”. I tasted the cheese with a different Sangiovese, but found that the effect of the fruit in the wine was greatly pronounced after a bite of the parm, due to its buttery, salty character.

INTERESTING FACT: Apparently, extreme aging is not necessarily better. According to Luigi DiPalo, owner of DiPalo’s Fine Foods, a premier cheese shop in New York, “Americans think older is better. It's a snobby thing. The real prime for Parmigiano is two-to-three years.”

THE CHEESE: Vintage Three-Year Aged Gouda, from Best Cheese

Deep amber in color, Vintage 3

Vintage Three-Year Aged Gouda (Click Image to Enlarge)
Vintage Three-Year Aged Gouda (Click Image to Enlarge)
has a rich flavor highlighted by butterscotch, salt, the slightest sweetness and crumbly texture. The Gouda is made from cow’s milk and animal rennet (a natural complex of enzymes produced in any mammalian stomach to digest the mother's milk; triggers curd formation in cheese-making).

THE WINE: Shifflett Red Wine (from Shifflett Family Wine Company in Oakville), $47
Elegant and smooth with dark fruit aromas and flavors complemented by hints of olive, sage, violets, tobacco and dark chocolate. “An incredibly complex and layered red meritage wine that is simply marvelous!” Blasquez exclaims.

THE PRINCIPLE: Blasquez says that, although the Shifflett red is enjoyable on its own, “with the Aged Gouda, it becomes ultra silky”. My experience with this pairing at Whole Foods’ wine tasting bar was of a sticky-textured, salty, granular cheese with an almost butterscotch flavor, followed by a red blend with a nice balance of tannins and fruit.

AN ALTERNATIVE: I commented that after a second nibble on the cheese, the wine tasted soft. Culinary Academy graduate and Whole Foods’ beer buyer, Colin Fergusen, who happened to be pouring that night, replied that my reaction made sense, since the Shifflet Red is 52% merlot.

He then challenged me to try something completely different with the cheese: a chenin blanc, 1990 Moulin Touchais Coteaux du Layon from the Loire Valley. Wow! This was a dessert wine whose nose warned me it might have turned, but it was smooth on the palate with a light melon flavor. After one sip, the cheese turned to butter. Another sip and the wine was brilliantly smooth. For a more accessible wine with similar results, Colin also recommends Prager’s Aria White Port from St. Helena.

INTERESTING FACT: Wines that originate from some of the oldest vine stocks on the steep slopes above the river Layon within the Loire Valley of France comprise a rare collection of bottles dating back to the 1800s and belonging to the Touchais family. When opened, more often than not, the wine is not just good, but Vintage Direct, Your Online Wine Guide describes them as “immortality on earth”. These are the sweet chenin blancs, similar to what I tasted with the aged Gouda, and produced by Moulin Touchais Cellars.


Vella Dry Jack Reserve (Click Image to Enlarge)
Vella Dry Jack Reserve (Click Image to Enlarge)
THE CHEESE: Vella Dry Jack Reserve

Not sharp like cheddar, this hard Sonoma jack has a deep golden color, smooth texture, nutty flavor, and a history that predates the country’s artisan cheese movement. Only four producers still make aged jack, one of which is family-owned Vella Cheese Company, launched by Tom Vella in a defunct Sonoma brewery in 1931, and now run by 76-year-old Ig Vella.

Oren Swift Cellars The Prisoner Zinfandel (Click Image to Enlarge)
Oren Swift Cellars The Prisoner Zinfandel (Click Image to Enlarge)
THE WINE: The Prisoner Zinfandel Blend, Napa Valley, $33

“A fantastic red blend”, according to Blasquez. Made by Orin Swift Cellars, this wine is primarily zinfandel with a splash of cabernet sauvignon and a touch of syrah. Profound fruit with deep, rich flavors.

THE PRINCIPLE: The two are a magical pair, “a match of richness, texture and intensity”, Blasquez notes. My husband, Bill, and I both thought the cheese was chewy, nutty and mild, but rich. The Prisoner blend had a nice balance of fruit and tannins, but after a bite of cheese, the wine became darkly fruity. Fierce!

INTERESTING FACT: The Vella cheese family devised a signature cure of soybean or safflower oil, black pepper and unsweetened cocoa, which does not affect the flavor, but keeps the wheels of cheese from cracking and allows them to mature gracefully for 16 months or more.


Neal’s Yard Dairy Colston Basset Stilton Blue
Neal’s Yard Dairy Colston Basset Stilton Blue
THE CHEESE: Neal’s Yard Dairy Colston Basset Stilton Blue

This mild, blue-veined cheese is moist, minerally, fruity and complex. Considered an excellent dessert cheese, Stilton Blue is especially popular at Christmastime, but should be enjoyed year-round. Colston Basset Dairy, one of the smallest stilton dairies in England, has been buying cow’s milk from the same five local farms since the 1920s, and has only ever had three head cheesemakers.

THE WINE: Heitz Grignolino Port $18
Deep garnet in color, this port shows unusual floral aromas, and even a citrus note in the mouth, but is balanced by a rich, elegant body.

THE PRINCIPLE: Served with English walnuts, the Stilton with port is “a generous way to punctuate a dinner party”, Blasquez recommends. We performed our tasting with a Portuguese port. Bill likes neither port nor blue cheese, but added a walnut to a bite of cheese upon my urging. The two together, followed by a sip of port, made him a believer. I personally love both. The blue component in the cheese beautifully balanced its creamy body. I then experienced the essence of a glazed, candied nut after consuming this ménage a trois.

INTERESTING FACT: Colston Basset Dairy insists on using animal rennet as opposed to vegetable rennet, as their cheesemakers believe the component creates a more full-bodied, deeper, more complex and longer-lasting cheese.

Bill and I translated Michael Blasquez’s dream duets into reality as we journeyed from one sumptuous sampling to the next. I am impressed with the diversity of Blasquez’s fantasy cheese plate. Profiles range from mild to complex, to butter, to nut, to sublime balance.

MILD = Chévre (creamy, tangy, smooth)
COMPLEX = Parmigiano (crystalline, salty, parmy)
BUTTER = Aged Gouda (crumbly, butterscotch)
NUT = Aged Jack (chewy, rich, smooth)
BALANCE = Stilton (blue, moist, creamy)

Gourmet Cheese Plate (Click Image to Enlarge)
Gourmet Cheese Plate (Click Image to Enlarge)
Transform the ordinarily mundane task of grocery shopping into a culinary exploration with a visit to the cheese and wine departments, followed by the simple fun of a home tasting.

Thank you to my contributors:
Michael Blasquez, Wine Specialist, Whole Foods, Napa

Colin Fergusen, Beer Specialist, Whole Foods, Napa

Whole Foods, Napa, California
3682 Bel Aire Plaza, Napa, CA 94558
Store Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.

Comments? Suggestions? Questions? Write to me! editorpaula AT yahoo DOT com