The small adobe building on East Marcy Street, previously home to an office space filled with cubicles, now houses the very last thing you might expect and something you’ll be delighted to discover: several enormous deli cases soon to be filled with more cheeses than you can name. I’m surprised by the large, open room, saturated with sunlight from rows of windows and skylights that cast reflections off the glass case fronts and light up the pale mint-colored counters. When I arrive to meet John Gutierrez, one of the partners behind Cheesemongers of Santa Fe, he’s moving from case to counter and back again, grabbing different cheeses and expertly slicing them into an array of shapes.
My mouth is watering while I open the bottles of Valpolicella Ripasso and Albariño I’ve brought along. John is putting together a beautiful cheese board with seven different cheeses and an array of condiment dishes filled with fresh persimmon, chestnut honey, grain mustard and pickled beets. Suddenly, he pulls out an enormous leg of jamón ibérico, slicing it by hand to add to the board. In anticipation of the shop’s grand opening in early November, John and I sit down for a tasting to talk about what we each know best, cheese and wine.
Before we dive into our feast, I ask John about his background and how he became an expert in cheese. “In 2006, I was a student at the University of Oklahoma. I got a job at a sandwich shop to help pay for school,” he explains. “I ended up being a regular customer there. I’d come in with my paycheck and sit in front of the cheese case for hours, tasting though all the cheeses.” Eventually he was hired at a cheese shop nearby and he’s been hooked ever since. From Oklahoma, John moved to San Francisco where he helped a colleague open a cheese shop and worked as a cheese buyer. “I fell head over heels into the world of cheese,” John says. “I can read scientific documents about cheese and dairy science more easily than I can sit down and read a novel.” His family is from Taos and John decided to move back to New Mexico to open his own shop. “I’m really happy to be here,” he says, smiling, “because it’s what I’ve always envisioned.”
John believes Santa Fe is a great place for a venue like Cheesemongers because there’s already such a rich food culture here. He explains that the city’s isolated location has been the main obstacle for shops like his. “We’re not along the main distribution paths for cheese in the U.S.,” he explains. “A lot of my work with the shop has to do with logistics. I have to plan orders six to eight weeks in advance.” Cheesemongers will carry about 200 different cheeses during peak season, half domestic and half international, as well as several cheeses made here in New Mexico, including selections from Camino de Paz in Santa Cruz and The Old Windmill Dairy south of Albuquerque. Another deli case will hold a variety of cured meats, pâtés, terrines, galantines and mousses. The shop will also offer crackers, which John plans to source from local bakers, and artisanal mustards, olive oils, chutneys and vinegars.
The integrity and sourcing of products at Cheesemongers is hugely important to John, who points out that farmstead cheeses are the real focus of the shop. “We are really committed to working with smaller producers,” John says. “There’s a big difference between small, farmstead cheese and big, commercial cheese. I’m really big on small cheese and I believe in the power of small farming and sustainable agriculture. I want to be the mouthpiece for the small farmers we represent and tell their story.” Cheesemongers will provide small dairies with venues other than farmers markets and grocery stores to sell their products, as well help local chefs get their hands on cheeses that are difficult to find. “I’ve spoken with several chefs who are very excited,” he tells me. “We’ll be working with local restaurants to get them products that are really hard to find in New Mexico.”
As a sommelier working in the thriving food and wine business in Santa Fe, I believe Cheesemongers will be a fantastic complement to our local culinary scene, especially when you take into account the similarities between fine wine and fine cheese. The amazing thing about cheese is that, like wine, it encompasses a variety of different fields, including science (think mold, bacteria and the process of aging), geography and history. The craft of making cheese begins with the quality of the milk and involves many steps along the way, each of which has an impact on the final style and flavor of the cheese. This, to me, sounds just like the process of making wine, although the main ingredient in wine is, of course, grapes. They are both ancient processes. As John points out, “Some of the cheeses we’ll sell in the shop have been made continuously with very little recipe change for up to 6,000 years!”
In fact, what John does with cheese is very similar to what I do with wine: we both use our knowledge to help customers find something they’ll love. “I want to demystify cheese,” he says. “I abhor the cult of the expert and lording your knowledge over people to make them feel intimidated about the complexity of what’s in front of them. I want people to be inquisitive but to feel comfortable, instead of being afraid and just asking me to tell them what to get.” He points out that although there are tens of thousands of cheeses in the world, there aren’t that many different styles of cheese. “I want this to be a conversation with people. I want you to go home with a cheese that you love.”
That shouldn’t be difficult with the large selection at Cheesemongers and John’s willingness to talk cheese with his customers. During our incredible tasting, he took me through seven very different cheeses, explaining where each one comes from, how it’s made, the aging processes involved and what each cheese might pair well with. We tried a broad range of cheeses from all over the world made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk, including Caña de Cabra, Robiola due Latti, Cabra Blanca, Tomme de Savoie, Comté, Fiore Sardo and the elusive Roquefort, a sheep’s milk blue cheese from the south of France targeted by the FDA for high bacteria levels. Don’t worry, I ate plenty of it during our tasting and felt just fine!
I was surprised to find that the Albariño was very cheese-friendly—Albariño and Roliola due Latti is my new favorite pairing! The two came together beautifully, with the wine bringing out the unique goat flavor of the cheese (it’s made with cow, goat and sheep’s milk), and the cheese highlighting a gorgeous, creamy mouthfeel that wasn’t apparent in the wine at first sip. The Ripasso was pure heaven with a bite of Tomme de Savoie and jamón ibérico. The wine brought out the cheese’s rich texture and the savory, umami flavors of the thinly sliced meat. There were endless flavor combinations laid out before us. Each cheese showed different nuances depending on which wine we sipped and which condiments we added.
I asked John if he believes there’s such a thing as a perfect pairing. He explained that while there are classics like Roquefort and Sauternes, Gruyere and Champagne and Côtes du Rhône with Brie and Camembert, cheese and wine pairing is, like any pairing, ultimately subjective. “There are very few hard and fast rules,” he explained. “You can have a bad pairing that makes you want to pull your tongue out of your face. Then there are pairings that don’t just compliment each other, but bring out flavors and nuances that you wouldn’t otherwise achieve.” The bad pairings can be just as important as the great ones, because they remind you why you’re putting together cheese and wine in the first place.
After making our way through the beautiful cheese board, John and I agree that pairing is less about searching for one fabulous combination and more about the process of trying many different wines and cheeses together, paying attention to all the nuances of flavor. “Tasting cheese is just like tasting wine. It has so many flavors and you experience it with all of your senses.” For a sommelier, introducing someone to a wine they love is a great moment. The same is true for John, who can’t wait to teach people about why cheese is so special. I look forward to attending classes hosted by Cheesemongers, where John will talk about pairing cheese with wine and other beverages. “There’s very little in the world that I value more than food,” John says with a smile. I think he’ll find that many of us in Santa Fe agree.
Cheesemongers is located at 130 East Marcy Street in Santa Fe. 505.795.7878. cheesemongersofsantafe.com. Be sure to call ahead to confirm that they are open!