So it's the holiday season and you want to throw a party. And this year, you say, you're gonna get fancy with it — goodbye beer and Cheetos, hello wine and cheese.
It'll be great! You'll pull out those nice cloth napkins from your grandma that you never use, fold the towels in the bathroom just so, spend six hours curating the perfect Spotify playlist.
Only one problem: Your idea of "fancy cheese" is that weird, almond-crusted log that tastes like Velveeta and always shows up in stores this time of year. You barely know your Gruyere from your Appenzeller, much less how to pair either one of them with a half-decent wine.
What's a host to do?
Fortunately, a talented team of computer scientists and molecular geneticists have done all the research for you and packaged it up into a nifty interactive graphic that lets you search for a cheese or a wine and see what other cheeses and wines it pairs well with.
Type in the name of a cheese and it shows you other cheeses that it's similar to, as well as red and white wines that the cheese pairs well with.
Type in Gruyere, for instance, and you see that the cheese goes well with a California Sauvignon Blanc and a handful of reds. It also has similarities to a number of other cheeses, like Appenzeller, Beaufort and the mysterious Hoch Ybrig.
The creators of this handy tool — University of Toronto professor Gary Bader and some of his colleagues — didn't set out to map the relationships between wine and cheese. They were creating a computer program, called Cytoscape, to help geneticists and biologists visually map out the networks of relationships between things like genes and molecules. Bader says it's been downloaded by 250,000 scientists around the world.
Around the time Bader was working on the project, he and his wife had picked up a copy of "Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best." That book includes information on cheese and wine pairings as selected by a guy named Max McCalman, whose website identifies him as "the foremost master of cheese in the country."
Bader said it was actually his wife who first had the "aha!" realization that relationships between wine and cheese were networks in the same way as the gene relationships he studied. Bader needed a demo to show off some of the capabilities of his computer program, so he went through McCalman's book, compiled the wine and cheese relationships, and fed them into the program.
"I actually use it when I go shopping for cheese and I'm interested in finding something new," Bader told me. He says he has "gotten a lot of mileage out of it at parties," and used it to plan his own get-togethers. He found one of his personal favorite cheeses, something from the United Kingdom called Keene's Cheddar, from simply poking around in the application and seeing what it suggested for him.
For your own party-planning purposes, you can start by typing in a cheese, as in the example above, and seeing what it suggests. Conversely, you can also start with the wine. Type in chardonnay, for instance, and you get a raft of suggestions, most of which I've never heard of.
Since it comes from a book about gourmet cheeses the results are slanted toward the artisanal and hard-to-find — if you don't live near a decent-sized grocery store with big selection of cheeses you may not find it very useful. Kraft Singles don't appear in the database, unfortunately.
But if you're looking to jazz up your holiday party with some sophisticated cheeses this year, Bader's app would be a good place to start. A quarter-million scientists can't be wrong.
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