Wine and Cheese: The Perfect Pair
Van Ruiten winemaker Ryan Leehman weighs in
by MICHAEL PERRY
To those in the know, wine is much more than just an option on the menu. It’s to be enjoyed, savored, tasted, and sniffed. It can be a full-on pleasurable assault on the senses. It has religious roots (made from water), it has agricultural roots (made from grapes), and has found its way into popular culture through music and movies. For the purist, wine is quite simply a masterpiece of elements coming together to make the perfect drink. Meet the artist: Ryan Leehman.
As the winemaker for Van Ruiten Winery, Leehman uses his extensive knowledge of wines to create masterpieces for the Lodi winery, including his most recent accomplishment, Van Ruiten’s 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel voted Best in California at the 2008 Lodi International Wine Competition. His job entails quite a bit more than one would imagine—in addition to tasting the grapes, he judges when to harvest, when to press, what yeast to use, and oversees the entire process. After pressing the grapes, it’s his call as to what barrels the wine will age in, how long it should sit, and what should be blended together.
“In my mind, I pick the grapes when they’re at 100 points [on the wine tasting scale] and then try to keep them at that perfect level throughout the process,” says Leehman. “The barrels are truly the spice of winemaking—different sizes and different woods will change the quality.”
While his passion is for wine and he lists Lodi’s great climate for Zinfandels as his personal favorite, his beginning wasn’t in wine but rather its partner—cheese. Growing up on his parents’ Swiss dairy farm in Ohio, he learned from an early age about cheeses, and grew his education with his agriculture enrollment at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Moving to California opened his palette to great wines as well, and he soon transferred to Cornell University to learn more about vino. Further educated about wine, he returned to California to move up the ladder in winemaking with Van Ruiten.
Using both his extensive knowledge of wine and cheeses, Leehman has become the go-to-guy when bringing the delicacies together.
“There are two generalist concepts with wine and cheeses pairings—complimenting and contrasting,” notes Leehman. “First we see what goes well together, a soft cheese with a delicate red perhaps. Contrasting is bringing together a dry, sharp cheese with maybe a sweet wine. I’m looking to bring together and offset.”
It’s the combination of his two passions that makes Leehman not only one of the most knowledgeable winemakers in the area, but certainly the man to consult with when enjoying one of his finer creations.
For more about Ryan Leehman or Van Ruiten’s wines, visit www.vrwinery.com.
For a complete wine and cheese pairing guide pick up the latest issue of San Joaquin Magazine!