Cheese Talk: Sarah Dvorak of Mission Cheese

San Francisco cheese café owner’s picks include an all-time goat cheese great, a Minnesota camembert and Death & Taxes to look forward to
Cheese Talk: Sarah Dvorak of Mission Cheese
Sarah Dvorak owns Mission Cheese restaurant and cheese shop in San Francisco. (Peter Prato)
Nov 26, 2018

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.

Sarah Dvorak grew up in America's Dairyland. But it wasn't until the Wisconsin native moved to California in 2002 that she considered the prospect of a life in cheese. "I fell in love with the uniqueness of cheese, the science of it, how it starts with milk and results in this magical rainbow of flavors," Dvorak says. "The seed was planted [staging at Jardinière], which had a pretty remarkable cheese program."

Corporate life called her away, however, putting her dreams of bloomy rinds on hold. But she was never far from her next wheel of cheese. "I joined the California Artisan Cheese Guild and the American Cheese Society, and became a little bit of a cheese groupie. I think I was the first enthusiast to join the guild; looking back, it’s quite hilarious. I fell in love with the industry—particularly in California, where the cheese world is predominantly female—which felt … very collaborative and was really coming into its own in a sense of American artisan cheese. I was attracted to the product, but brought in by the people."

In 2011, Dvorak took the plunge, opening Mission Cheese in San Francisco's Mission District. "I decided to leave my corporate job and create a place where I wanted to hang out—a casual, authentic cheese place where you could sit and enjoy cheese and pair it with some wine or beer and have an experience and a conversation and make friends. So that’s what I did."

In addition to an all-American selection of about 50 cheeses, Mission Cheese features about a dozen wines by the glass and another dozen by the bottle, along with beers and ciders—all California-made. "We like to work with small-production, responsible producers to line up with our cheese assortment," says Dvorak. "We like interesting varietals that are a true expression of the land and grape, but also stoke conversation. We rarely have a Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon on our by-the-glass list, mostly because we're passionate that folks try new flavors." The kitchen prepares composed plates of charcuterie and cheeses as well as pressed sandwiches.

But it's the cheeses that are most dear to Dvorak, so much so that she couldn't pick just three. "I have to give honorable mentions to Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Co. and Bandaged Bismark from Grafton Village and Crown Finish Caves. There's too many to choose from!"

Mission Cheese
736 Valencia St., San Francisco
(415) 553-8667

Christine Hyatt/Cheese Chick Productions
Sofia is a strong contender for America's goat cheese G.O.A.T.

Capriole Sofia

Milk: Goat
Category: Soft-ripened bloomy ash rind
Region: Greenville, Ind.
Age: 2 to 6 weeks
Price: $38 per pound

Sarah says: We’ve basically carried it the entire time we’ve been open. I’m in a phase of paying respects to those American classics that have been the baseline of the American cheese movement. There’s something amazing about the original set—the Sofias, the Pleasant Ridge Reserves, the Rogue River Blues—that have been so good for so long. Sofia, I think she is the most elegant, beautiful, classic goat’s-milk cheese around. Sofia is perhaps the longest-standing cheese in my top five. Her silky texture delivers bright sweet cream and brioche flavors that are a perfect start to a cheese flight.

Sarah's recommended pairing: I love it with a bright white like the 2017 Jolie-Laide Melon de Bourgogne Chalone during the day to bring out the bright lemon and sunshine and a more textured white in the eve, like the 2016 Potek Riesling Santa Barbara County Kick On Ranch (this wine is bonkers and is a good friend to so many cheeses), which brings out the sweet cream and adds a little honeycomb and herbs. Beer drinkers should find a farmhouse saison.

Wine Spectator picks: Sauvignon Blanc is a classic match with fresh, tangy goat cheese. For the more subtly elegant Sofia, try the racy and precise Pascal Jolivet Sancerre 2017 (91 points, $29, 40,000 cases made) or a Sauvignon Blanc–Sémillon blend from Bordeaux like Château Guiraud Le G 2015 (91, $20, 15,000 cases made).

Courtesy of Alemar
Alemar's Bent River single-serving camembert

Alemar Bent River

Milk: Cow
Category: Soft-ripened bloomy rind, Camembert-style
Region: Mankato, Minn.
Age: 6 to 12 weeks
Price: $30 per pound

Sarah says: If I’m getting a cheese flight at Mission Cheese, my staff knows that if they put Bent River on there, I will be a happy camper. It’s a cow’s-milk camembert from Alemar Cheese Company in Minnesota, and the first time I had it I was mind-blown. I was like, “What? We can produce real, vegetal, funky, amazingly buttery camembert in the U.S.?” It’s super luscious, sweet, beautiful milk, and it’s a pasteurized camembert that does for me what many of the Camemberts in France do. When it’s young, it’s grassy and buttery and sort of easy-breezy with a little bit of mushroominess, but then, as it gets older, there’s roasted cauliflower and [it’s] super funky. It’s definitely my favorite Camembert-style cheese made in the U.S.—buttery, unctuous and dangerously snackable.

Sarah's recommended pairing: This is the perfect match for a fun pét-nat, which brings a little effervescence to lift the rich, buttery texture and yeasty funk and herbs. I love the Malvasia Biancas from Birichino and Onward wineries with my round of Bent River. (Yes … all to myself.) I'm drooling.

Wine Spectator picks: Buttery bloomy rinds like Camembert have long shared a place at the table with Champagne. In fact, they're so closely matched, a tasting note for one could easily be confused for the other. Try a traditional-method California sparkler like Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley NV (93, $24, 80,000 cases made).

Courtesy of Bleating Heart
You can always count on Death & Taxes.

Bleating Heart Death & Taxes

Milk: Cow
Category: Washed rind
Region: Tomales, Calif.
Age: 1 to 2 months
Price: $24 per pound

Sarah says: Death & Taxes comes from Bleating Heart Cheese [just across the Golden Gate Bridge] in Marin County. It’s washed in Death & Taxes Black Beer, which is a pretty special California beer from Moonlight Brewing Co. When it’s on, it’s my favorite cheese on the whole planet, because of its buttery, oozy, hammy goodness. Bleating Heart is run by Seana Doughty; she’s a remarkable character. She’s the most determined, bad-ass cheesemaker that I know, which makes her cheese all the better.

Sarah's recommended pairing: This intermediate stinker is washed in Death & Taxes from Moonlight Brewing Co., so if you can find that, it's a no-brainer. Fort Point Beer Company Summer Porter will also do the trick!

Wine Spectator picks: Beer is the obvious pairing with a beer-washed cheese, but one of the signatures of a washed-rind cheese is ham or bacon notes. Try a wine you'd pair with cured meats, like a medium-bodied rosé such as Gérard Bertrand Languedoc Rosé Cote des Roses 2017 (90, $17, 400,000 cases made) or a Nebbiolo-based Piedmont red like Renato Ratti Langhe Ochetti 2015 (91, $25, 3,820 cases imported). Or try a winebeer!

Cheese Pairings Food

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