Thomas J. Story

Go for the unexpected, and simple, with this twist on the classic party pairing

“When it comes to parties, a little sensory overload is a good thing,” says Kiri Fisher, owner of The Cheese School of San Francisco. At Sunset, we second that notion. That’s why we invited some of our favorite people to the Sunset Test Gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma to celebrate an all-star matchup of indulgences: Cocktails, meet cheese. “It’s not the most expected combination—that would be wine and cheese—but the possibilities are endless,” says Laura Sanfilippo of Duke’s Spirited Cocktails in Healdsburg, California; Sanfilippo created the night’s boozy concoctions with fellow cofounder Cappy Sorentino.

Despite the simplicity of the menu, the guests—an assemblage of creative types from the Bay Area and Los Angeles—were downright giddy. “How lucky are we to be eating all this cheese and sipping cocktails in a gorgeous gardaleten?” remarked textile designer Heather Taylor, who provided her artisanal table linens for the occasion. The ease of planning also resonated with Taylor, mother to two young girls and an avid entertainer. “I love the idea of just making a couple of drinks, buying some cheese, and inviting friends over,” she says. “I never want cooking to hold me back from throwing a party.”

 Thomas J. Story

The Plan

Here’s how Kiri Fisher of The Cheese School of San Francisco and the new Fisher’s Cheese + Wine worked with Laura Sanfilippo and Cappy Sorentino of Duke’s Spirited Cocktails to pull together the potent menu.

Create a Progression

The meal was served in four courses, starting with a lighter appetizer-style pairing and ending with dessert. For a more casual gathering, set up stations around your space to highlight each cheese/drink combination.

Treat Your Cheese Right

Mix different textures and milk types and serve them at room temperature. “Eating cold cheese is like drinking warm Champagne,” says Fisher. Fill out the platter with nuts, olives, baguette slices, and dried fruit.

Know Your Quantities

If cocktails and cheese are the main event, estimate about 3 ounces of cheese per person. If you’re serving cheese before an actual meal, 2 ounces per person should be about right; at the end of a meal, 1 ounce per person should suffice.

Easy Does It

Stay away from high-proof spirits. “They’ll overpower and basically disintegrate anything on your tongue,” says Sanfilippo. She often relies on sherry, aperitifs, bitters, and vermouth to create food-friendly drinks: “Think of them as part of the spice rack of the cocktail world.”

Match Like With Like

Team up cocktails and cheeses with similar characteristics and levels of intensity, whether it’s bright and herbal or rich and powerful.

Menu

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1. Appetizer

Pair a Lavender Spritz with Cypress Grove Purple Haze chèvre from California, which plays off the lemon and grapefruit juice. “Citrus and chèvre are almost always a happy pairing,” says Sanfilippo.

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2. "Salad"

Serve a Forager Martini alongside Alma Krauterschatz, a semi-firm alpine cheese wrapped in herbs. “This is a pairing full of fresh, grassy flavors,” says Fisher. “Think of it as your salad course.”

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3. Main Course

Sip on a Spiked Shandy between bites of Jasper Hill Farm Harbison, “one of the sexiest cheeses around,” says Fisher. The bark wrapper gives it a warm, woodsy richness well matched by a hearty beer and a bit of bourbon.

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4. Dessert

Pair The Eventide with Rogue Creamery Rogue River Blue for a sweet-savory dessert—“like fireworks at the end of your meal,” says Fisher.

Get the Look

Don’t let her dreamy Instagram account fool you: L.A. textile designer Heather Taylor is a party realist. “I love entertaining, but I’m a mom! I don’t have time to have everything perfect and pressed,” she says. Here’s how she pulls together an outdoor table in minutes.

Set the Scene

A tablecloth with sunset-colored stripes evokes the surrounding California wine country landscape. Planning a special occasion? Taylor’s company rents out linens for parties, however small. “It’s a way for people to keep it interesting without having to buy a new set of linens whenever they entertain,” she says.

© Thomas J. Story/Sunset Publishing
 Thomas J. Story

Use Real Dishes

Sure, paper plates save you clean-up time, but there’s nothing like actual tableware to bring instant sophistication to an outdoor party. Taylor likes to mix simple white plates with earthy wooden serving boards.

Make Room for Romance

Flowers always have a place at Taylor’s table. For this dinner, floral designer Alethea Harampolis of Homestead Design Collective riffed off the colors in the table linens to create a “runner” of tiny bouquets composed of dahlias, peonies, ranunculus, and sweet peas. And don’t forget candles, says Taylor: Even the most improvised party setup looks Instagram-ready when bathed in a romantic glow.

On the table: Redwood tablecloth, from $186; Gold napkins, $82/set of 4; Marigold table runner, $120. On the bar: Soho tablecloth, from $186; Sand tablecloth, from $186. All available from heathertaylorhome.com (and to rent at events.heathertaylorhome.com).