Whether you’re hosting a romantic dinner, gathering with friends, trying to impress your date, or looking to give the perfect gift, it can be stressful to plan a Valentine’s Day food spread (or even a gift basket). We spoke with local experts on cheese, wine and chocolate—those quintessential aphrodisiacs—and got their tips for selecting, preparing and presenting the perfect cheese board, basket or plates for your loved ones. Best of all, once you’re armed with a little knowledge, exploring the cheese counter or the wine shop can be pretty darn fun. So let go of the pressure to get it “right” and let these local pros guide you.
Virginia Corbett at Excelsior’s Kowalski’s Market has specialized in cheese for more than five years. She understands the complexities of cheese and strives to help her customers find the best textures and flavors for their palates.
Kevin Castellano, general manager of Wayzata Wine & Spirits, has worked with the business for more than 10 years and has lots of experience guiding customers to great wines for holidays and other occasions.
Clockwise from top left: Clawson White Stilton with Blueberry; Bent River Organic Camembert; Glacier Wildfire Blue; Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm; Sartori Merlot Bellavitano
Corbett recommends selecting a wide range of cheeses for the perfect combinations. A good mix almost always includes something gooey, something soft and something dry.
“Something gooey is best,” says Corbett, like brie or Camembert. For a spicier option, Wildfire Blue is a popular choice that includes red pepper flakes. Next, to balance the gooey cheese, a dry and sweet one—like fruit Stilton, which includes bits of lemon, apricot, blueberry, mango or ginger—is a good bet.
When you’re looking for cheese specifically to pair with wine, Kevin Castellano says to look for the stinkiest options you can find. Those strong, deep flavors (often in varieties like Stilton, Rochefort or bleu) help bring out each wine’s deep flavors, too.
Left: Chocolate San Jose; Right: Terroir Chocolate
Cheese and chocolate are a natural pairing to achieve that savory and sweet balance on a plate. Corbett suggests local chocolates from Chocolate San Jose or Terroir.
Chocolate San Jose specializes in chocolates that are made from imported cacao beans from Ecuador; they offer a distinctive flavor.
Terroir specializes in different imports from around the world, including India, Madagascar, Haiti and Guatemala. Cacao from each spot has its own flavor. Chocolates with notes of zest, nuts and spices pair well with strong-tasting cheeses (like the dry or stinky ones). Chocolates with fruit and citrus notes pair well with softer, milder cheeses.
Deciding on the wine your recipient will like can be downright daunting, and feeling like you need to pair each wine with a food item might not be as easy as it sounds. Kevin Castellano says to give yourself some leeway and think about wines, cheeses and chocolates in broad categories.
For chocolate pairings, Castellano likes merlot, a dry red wine originating from Bordeaux. Merlot also pairs well with both gooey and dry cheeses.
Rioja red wine, which originates from Spain, goes well with Spanish Manchego cheese. Castellano says “what grows together goes together” is a helpful way to think about pairings, as wines and foods from similar regions usually complement each other well.
White wines tend to pair better with softer cheeses. Sauvignon blanc pairs extremely well with chevre (soft goat cheese). If you have a strong-flavored cheese or chocolate, try a sparkling wine or brut that matches the complexity and intensity.
Odds and Ends
Of course, you don’t have to limit your tasty morsels to just cheese and chocolate. Cheesemongers usually recommend adding crackers, nuts, fruits, olives and meats to your spread for added flavor and texture. Corbett suggests meats like summer sausage or salumi.
If your dinner plans are already made or you’re not serving a crowd of people this Valentine’s Day, gifting wine, cheese and chocolate is a thoughtful way of treating your friend or loved one. For someone you might not know as well, Corbett recommends softer cheese like brie. Some favorite well-rounded cheeses are Fromager D’Affinois double cream brie, Prairie Breeze (a sweet, nutty aged cheddar), Sartori’s Bella Vitano (a cross between cheddar and parmesan) or Prima Donna.
If you’re confident you know your partner’s tastes, try Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm, a soft cheese wrapped in spruce bark that holds a woodsy taste. To eat it, cut the rind off and spoon it. It’s one of Corbett’s personal favorites.
And for a universally beloved wine option, Castellano suggests sparkling wine, like true Champagne, brut or brut rosé.
Quick Pairing Tips
Both dry and gooey cheeses, and most chocolate
Sparkling wine or brut
Strong flavored cheese or chocolate
440 Water St., Excelsior
Wayzata Wine & Spirits
747 Mill St., Wayzata