Article By: Fred Bouchard
Wine (sometimes beer, both with or without cheese, or even spirits) often create a perfect counterpoint to certain arts events. The synergy that comes in appealing to people's good tastes on multiple fronts makes for memorable events and can effect positive branding for both sponsoring arts group and consulting supplier. While this concept has been well-plumbed between distributors and restaurants, it is so far a route less traveled between arts groups and beverage retailers.
Canny arts groups desiring to achieve the festive ambiance that a little sip and nosh can lend a concert or gallery event, may call on willing retailers not just for a mixed case or two, but a staff pourer who can schmooze intelligently with the concertgoers about the drink at hand (maybe even the music). These aware trade-offs can benefit both ends of the enterprise.
For the business that supplies the beverages and the expert commentary, the building of new and long-term customer relationships can be rewarding. Stacks of sell sheets, newsletters and other signage may introduce a new customer base. The presence of the wine supplier's notices or small-space ads have particular relevance in the programs which are carefully printed and include complete libretto or lyrics. And the very presence of a brie-and-chardonnay table, even if manned by volunteers, can make not only a fine post-concert gathering spot to congratulate performers, welcome dignitaries, lend an air of conviviality, glow and unwind after an engrossing evening of chamber music, but work in subtler ways to grease the wheels of interest among collectors and investors at art gallery openings and to soften contributors at fund-raisers.
When a special gathering or celebration takes place, organizers may opt to go that extra mile to make the wine/food table serve double duty as educational anchor and fundraising opportunity.
Concert Performances With Historical Wine & Food Interest Aaron Engebreth, baritone and co-director of the Boston-based Florestan Recital Project, showed unusual artistic mettle in organizing with his colleagues, last June, a four-concert weekend festival of the complete (1OO+) voice and piano songs of French composer Francis Poulenc. The Project then followed up with a burst of entrepreneurial spirit and approached Robert Aguilera of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge to run a tasting of artisanal French wines and cheeses as a special event between the matinee and evening concerts on the closing Sunday.
The music was exceptional, and the venue - the contemporary wood interior of St. Paul's, Brookline - was inviting. The church proper served as an acoustically rich venue for the intimate, evocative combinations of voice and piano, as Poulenc's elegant, witty and sophisticated songs ran the gamut from brash to coy to serene. The church sanctuary's large bright semi-circular 'green room' with bay windows and oriental rug made an elegant backdrop for a carefully selected wine and cheese tasting, calculated to receive and relieve performers and concertgoers between the matinee and evening concerts.
Engebreth explains: "The primary reason for the tasting was to emphasize that food and wine are as much a part of the artistic realm as the music. Music and wine and cheese are all created: they have composition and interpretation, performance and lasting effect. Moreover, a primary function of art is to evoke nostalgia in its myriad effusions. Food and wine do this, as does music; when you put them together the effect is multi-fold. The sooner we artists realize the interrelation between them, the better off we'll all be at creating such interdisciplinary collaborations.
"We had the idea to approach Formaggio Kitchen because we know that they're as passionate about their gastronomic art as we are about musical art. We wanted the audience to be able to taste and smell the same foods and wines that Poulenc might have tried when he was composing and working with singers. Robert Aguilera was keen on the idea of finding historical connections for the cheeses and wines of Poulenc's Paris in the '4Os."
Robert Aguilera, cellarmaster at Formaggio Kitchen's main shop on Huron Avenue, hosted the wine/cheese event. Aguilera was more than up to the task, and sought out wines and cheeses that fit the historical perspective yet respected the event's auxiliary nature; it fell between two concerts and was meant as a brief respite from - and complement to - the music. Aguilera thus presented a single white and red wine, with three cheeses each and complementary garnishes.
The white wine was Domaine de Roquefort Blanc, made viscous and mineral-rich from the unusual Clairette grape. It's an organic wine, made in an old-fashioned way. The 'white' cheeses were Chaource (cow, Champagne); Persille de Tarentaise (goat, Haut Savoie); Petite Espellete (sheep, Pyrenees and Basque Country). The condiments were dried prunes and apricots from Agen.
The red wine, Mont Tauch Fitou "Chasse Gardee" with a wild boar on the red label, is another lusty, old-school Languedoc blend of Carignane and Grenache which shows little oak, and plenty of stones-and-earth terrior. The 'red' cheeses were Charollais (goat, Burgundy), Tomme de Berger (cow, Auvergne), Bleu Severac (sheep, Roquefort). The condiments, house-made at Formaggio Kitchen, were Confiture d'Oignon (onion jam) and a Tapenade Noir of black oil-cured olives and dried figs.
"Aaron said they wanted the Poulenc festival to feature historical cheeses that coincide with the period when Poulenc was composing. World War II was a time of upheaval not only in the arts and music, but in cheese as well. For example, after World War II, Marcel Petite, cheesemaker who became governor of the Jura, revived the making of Comte (French Gruyere) in by converting Fort St. Antoine, a moated ammunition fort into a cheese-aging cave. Today, 6O years later, the cooperative, protected by the AOC consortium, makes 6O,OOO wheels of Comte cheese a year.
"Since Poulenc was in Paris, I chose cheeses you could find in Paris during the '3Os and '4Os. Charollais style (little village of Citeaux nearby also houses a Benedictine abbey) is one of the cleanest of hand molded goat cheeses, made by monks over 1OOO years. They also perfected certain beer styles. Burgundian grazing land is absolutely pristine. Little cylinders are made by hand, and aged in air in a barn on spruce or birch leaves. When mold blooms in the cheese it gives in that gray hue.
"This kind of pairing research lets people know that cheese has more to do with human history and is artistic as well as edible," Aguilera concludes. "Cheese goes through a process, which the original discoverers figured out through understanding spoilage and taking the risk to reproduce the same result after tasting something intriguing. It happens with beer and wine and bread. Risk-takers are artists, improve our world, make our lives more beautiful. These are the long success stories of human history."
Aguilera also loves pairing beers with cheeses, and is in demand to host brew dinners. When asked to recall such events, he readily responded: "A beer dinner I held with Dogfish Head Brewery owner and brewmaster Sam Caligione at the Linwood Grill last January featured a dozen of his brews from light (8% alcohol) to hefty (18%). The best match was 6O-Minute IPA with Gorgonzola Naturale from Lombardy, with the cheese's intense yeast balancing out the ale's intense hoppiness. Another great one was with Richard Delmonico, representative of Montreal's Unibroue, held at Boston's French Library. The Blanche de Chambly paired perfectly with a fresh, ash-covered goat cheese called Bouq Emissaire."
Engebreth continues: "Robert proved to be so immersed in gastronomic history that we're talking about future collaborations. We're discussing tracing the timelines of American chamber music and American wines. American music post-war was going through many revolutions, as did the wine industry. As musical tastes changed with the advent of television, so wine tasted emerged. Since the 195Os, when television began to assume control of family entertainment, fewer people hosted chamber music in their homes; yet during the same period, American wines flourished. There are few more satisfying music experiences than attending a living-room concert (whether folk, jazz or classical) while enjoying a glass of wine and good company. We're thinking to choose music and wines that criss-crossed about the same time."
Off-Premise On-Stage Music Lures Bottle Buyers Erin Barra, singer/songwriter, launches into a zesty, bluesy, Ben Folds-like ballad of wronged love, to the Yamaha keyboard accompaniment of Jared Salvatore and the tinkle of Muscadet and Australian Semillon pouring into plastic cups. The scene is Best Cellars in Coolidge Corner, Brookline on a glorious Midsummer's Eve (June 21). The lucid showroom is filled with lingering evening light and pretty sounds, and plenty of bustling after-work passers-by are lured in by the sidewalk signboard announcing Arts and Wine as well as the sounds emerging from the wide-open glass doors. When a Brazilian guitarist and conga player join the band, the music shifts to samba, funk and blues. Local guitarist Izzi Rosen wheels his daughter by in a stroller and, smiling broadly, checks out the music and the joyous vibe.
Young saleswomen are pouring six summery wines, and checking IDs as the twenty-somethings wander in. Two roommates taste and talk over and decide on a California Grenache for dinner. Two dudes in shorts and shades check out the band, smile and nod to the beat, pause and sip awhile, and wander out. A middle-aged woman strides right to the cooler, and grabs a chilled Champagne without missing a word on her cell phone. But she does a double-take at three vivid landscape paintings on easels, the work of a young German painter, Maren Tober, who's not present but has left a stack of brochures and cards to be displayed on the table all month.
Music and painting have become component partners in Best Cellars' recent outreach to connect with customers in new ways and to broaden the store's appeal. Indeed, the summery sentiments of singer Barra and the vivid pastels of painter Tober seemed a perfect Midsummer's Eve accompaniment to the lively flavors of Muscadet and Cava Rose served up by Best Cellars' staff. Manager/buyer Lindsay Cohen confirms the initiative by saying: "There's always an element of art and culture surrounding the consumption of wine. It's only appropriate to invite performance and visual artists into the store to complete that picture."
Singer Barra reflected that idea when she said: "I'd rather play gigs like this than some clubs, where you're just background for selling drinks, rather than contributing to an artistic event. I have respect for Best Cellars as a company and support their goals. There's a sense of a cultured, arts-oriented community; it brought people in off the street."