Cheese Talk: C.J. and Kari Bienert

At the Cheese Shop of Des Moines, the Bienerts bring world-class discoveries to their devoted customers

Cheese Talk: C.J. and Kari Bienert
The Cheese Shop is a family business for C.J. and Kari Bienert, with their son, Solomon Oak, and daughter, Coral Blue. (Darren Vanden Berge)
Aug 2, 2019

What are the cheese pros excited about right now? Like wine, the world of cheese is vast and diverse—potentially overwhelming, but rewarding to explore. No one is happier to guide you than your neighborhood cheesemongers. You should talk to them! In "Cheese Talk," we introduce you to a top cheesemonger and ask them for three cheeses to look for this month, as well as what wines or other beverages to pair with them.

Iowa native C.J. Bienert has spent most of his adult life behind a cheese counter, for years dedicating himself to learning the ins and outs of the finest European classics, going so far as to visit the storied cheese caves of Hervé Mons in France. But it was an American cheese, and the encouragement of his well-traveled wine aficionado wife, Kari, that set them on the path to becoming one of Des Moines' go-to sources for the finest foreign and domestic artisan cheeses.

"I have a traveling background," says Kari, who was a wine rep when she met C.J., who was running the cheese program at Des Moines' Gateway Market at the time. "I really wanted to encourage C.J. … he had been hearing about some American cheesemakers making some really great cheeses—"

"It was one specific cheese," C.J. excitedly interrupts. "It was in 2008, and Jasper Hill was still kind of a fledgling—two brothers making amazing cheese up in the Northeast Kingdom [of Vermont] … they started the Cellars at Jasper Hill, this affinage project with 40,000 square feet, and I remember tasting some of the first batches of Winnimere that came into [Iowa]—this seasonal cheese made with winter milk; it's washed and banded in spruce, modeled after Vacherin. It's raw and it's soft and it's American—it's really special. I remember tasting it and saying 'I have never had anything like this in Europe, and this is American—what is this stuff?'"

The next year, they embarked on what C.J. refers to as his "cheese sabbatical," loading their lives into his Honda Element and driving up to Vermont, where he spent four months interning at Jasper Hill. "I quickly realized that there were just too many amazing American artisan cheeses, especially coming from the Northeast, and I wanted to take them all home and share them and open a shop." From Vermont they made their way to Uplands Cheese Co. in Wisconsin, where cheesemaker Andy Hatch's Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve are standouts, and eventually ended up at Cowgirl Creamery in Northern California's Marin County cheese country, where C.J. worked the holiday season. In 2011, they took the plunge—getting married and opening the Cheese Shop of Des Moines.

”Our shop is very small, about 500 square feet of retail space,” says C.J. of their location in the Roosevelt Cultural District of Old Des Moines. “It means a lot to me. My father had a coffee shop in this same building, so I grew up riding a skateboard around the parking lot, with the barber yelling at me, and not much has changed!” They carry 70 to 100 cheeses at a time, about 60 percent domestic, as well as more than 100 wines, with a focus on sustainable, family-owned wineries.

Two years ago they opened a restaurant, Cheese Bar, a short walk away, when they realized the Cheese Shop couldn’t meet demand for their grilled-cheese sandwiches. “We had people waiting for 30 minutes or longer for grilled cheese sandwiches!” says C.J.

”I'm from Florida, but I spent a lot of time in California growing up,” adds Kari. ”But when I came to Iowa, the people were addictive—their personalities were so genuine. I wanted to explore that more … I had developed a passion for agriculture, and I wanted to understand where food was coming from. That's where C.J. and I merged our two creative passions into something that made a lot of sense for both of us. That's kind of our love story.”

The Cheese Shop of Des Moines
833 42nd Street, Suite B, Des Moines, Iowa
(515) 528-8181

Jasper Hill Winnimere cheese
Winnimere inspired C.J. Bienert to trek to Vermont. (Courtesy of Jasper Hill Farm)

Jasper Hill Farm Winnimere

Milk: Cow
Category: Bark-wrapped, brine-washed
Region: Greensboro Bend, Vt.
Age: 60 days
Price: $30 per wheel

This spruce-wrapped cheese is a true American original, from Vermont’s most highly decorated creamery, Jasper Hill Farm.

C.J. says: The cheese that caused my wife and I to quit our jobs and go to Vermont. We’re down to our final wheels of the 2019 Winnimeres, and they're tasting great, with lots of peanut skin funk and perfect silky textures.

C.J.’s recommended pairing: Recently we had some friends over and enjoyed our wheel of Winnimere with Blake Hill apricot and orange preserves and a 2013 Marc Hébrart Spécial Club Champagne—not something we do every night, but so good.

Wine Spectator picks: Bark-wrapped cheeses are a rare and indulgent treat, and few are as rich and complex as Winnimere. A bright, high-acidity, dry Champagne is an ideal complement to the mouthcoating creamy, salty flavors of this cheese. For a more accessible domestic sparkler, try the Domaine Carneros Brut Rosé Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour NV (92 points, $37, 50,000 cases made), or explore the rising quality of Italy’s Proseccos with Mionetto’s Extra Dry Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore NV (89, $20, 10,000 cases imported).

Uplands Cheese Co. Pleasant Ridge Reserve
The Bienerts' Pleasant Ridge Reserve wheels are hand-selected at Uplands Cheese Co. (Bill Milne)

Uplands Cheese Co. Pleasant Ridge Reserve

Milk: Cow
Category: Alpine
Region: Dodgeville, Wisc.
Age: 12 to 14 months
Price: $25 per pound

Uplands Cheese Co. was founded in Dodgeville, Wisc., in 2000; Pleasant Ridge Reserve was its first and remains its best-known cheese, styled after Swiss Gruyère and Beaufort, a Gruyère-type cheese from the French alps. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is made from raw cow’s milk, aged 10 to 14 months, with a natural rind. It can be fruity and tart, with a rich, caramelized nutty character.

C.J. says: Our current batch was made June 20, 2018. If there was one cheese that best represented what we do, it would be Pleasant Ridge Reserve: seasonal, raw and farmstead. This is a staple at our house, and a favorite of the whole family.

C.J.’s recommended pairing: This batch is softer than most, almost custard-like, and pairs well to the silky texture of La Quercia's Prosciutto Americano. Add a few Marcona almonds and a glass of fino Sherry or 2005 R. Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blanco (91 points, $49, 400 cases imported) to complement the cheese’s toasty and nutty characters.

Wine Spectator picks: For a more traditional pairing, try a dry, minerally white from near the region responsible for Pleasant Ridge Reserve’s prototypes: the Alps. Trimbach’s 2016 Alsace Riesling (90 points, $25, 5,000 cases imported) offers ideally complementary fresh fruit flavors accented by minerally petrol notes and almond blossom aromas.

Milton Creamery Prairie Breeze cheese
Milton Creamery's Prairie Breeze is an Iowa original. (Courtesy of Milton Creamery)

Milton Creamery Prairie Breeze

Milk: Cow
Category: Cheddar
Region: Milton, Iowa
Age: 9 months
Price: $16 per pound

Milton Creamery was founded in southeast Iowa in 2006, and all of the milk comes from small, local Amish dairy farms. Prairie Breeze is made in the style of an aged white cheddar, with a vegetarian rennet.

C.J. says: This is a local favorite, and one that we use at both the Cheese Shop and Cheese Bar for our famous grilled-cheese sandwiches.

C.J.’s recommended pairing: At the shop we make a grilled cheese with La Quercia 'Nduja Americana prosciutto spread, local honey and Prairie Breeze. The slight sweetness of the honey works well with the smoky, spicy prosciutto spread, and it’s best served with a fresh, local hoppy beer like Toppling Goliath’s Pseudo Sue single-hop pale ale.

Wine Spectator picks: Cheddar-style cheeses are some of the wine-friendliest, and they’ll happily complement a Cabernet or Syrah just as well as a sparkling wine or minerally white. Prairie Breeze is a touch sweeter than a typical sharp cheddar, but still full of rich, fruity flavors, which means it’ll beautifully sidle up next to a plush, buttery Sonoma Chardonnay like Rodney Strong Chardonnay Chalk Hill 2016 (90 points, $22, 63,750 cases made), Gary Farrell Chardonnay Russian River Valley Russian River Selection 2016 ($35, 92, 5,203 cases made) or Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay Russian River Valley Tré Terre Vineyard Select Collection 2017 (90, $32, 5,900 cases made).

Read more about the incredible cheeses of California, Wisconsin and Vermont in Wine Spectator's Sept. 30, 2019, issue cover story, "Cheese Across America."

Food Cheese Pairings

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