Pairing Off Cheez It Joyce

In this column we ask experts to help us pair wine with ordinary food.

It’s easy to relegate Cheez-Its to a setting far beneath the crackers’ station—perhaps a Saturday afternoon with a six pack, slouched on the sofa covered in crumbs, a spaghetti western marathon on the television.

But the product deserves better. Consider the lineage of cheese and crackers, wine and cheese and it becomes obvious. That weekend Cheez-Its bender calls a fine wine to go alongside. Just ask Ashlee Jansen, manager of The Wine House in Carmel Valley.

“That’s Wednesday night dinner for me,” she says.

So I came to the right person. Yet the quest for a proper vintage to accompany the snack cracker is not without its share of pitfalls. Kellogg’s turns out extra toasty, pepper jack, Buffalo wing and other options, not to mention versions with grooves. And the original recipe—the Cheez-It in question here—leans heavily in favor of flour.

Cheese is the third ingredient behind flour and vegetable oil. And it’s a diluted skim milk curd that needs annatto extract to boost its orange aura.

Annatto? Yeah, that’s oil refined—that’s how one site describes the process—from the epidermis of seeds plucked from Bixa Orellana.

The rest of the recipe calls for a little salt and paprika. So how do you cope with all of that?

“I don’t hate the idea of a red,” Jansen says, noting that a peppery Syrah might handle the sweet trace that emerges from the flour.

Jansen’s teammate at The Wine House, Hannah Hoffman, warns against a fruit bomb that would obliterate the Cheez-Its (and not do the wine much good, either). They eventually settled on a specific bottle, recommending the 2019 Joyce Pinot Noir, with grapes from the Gabilan Mountain region.

It’s a delicate wine offering soft cherry with a foil of tart berry. A dusty spice begins with a twinkle and builds and deepens on the finish. Hints of cured tea leaves, must and vanilla emerge with each sip.

Winemaker Russell Joyce treated the wine with due respect — native yeast, whole cluster fermentation, time on neutral French oak. It’s a $45 bottle of bliss paired with a product of mass production.

And it comes together beautifully.

The wine brings out a richer and more honest cheddar character in the Cheez-It. The sweet note gives way as a toasted warmth develops. And the modest dash of salt develops a welcome jab. If the popular cracker wasn’t an obsession before, it will be after a glass of Joyce’s Pinot Noir.

Cheez-Its may dim the shimmering fruit of the wine, but the plush layers of earthiness that blanket the palate maintain its contemplative nature. Impressions of morel, of whole bean vanilla and dried petals lend the fruit greater opulence. Best of all, the Pinot remains deftly balanced.

Perhaps Jansen was jesting when she mentioned her Wednesday dinner tradition. But the equation works out. Wine—in this case the 2019 Gabilan Mountain Pinot Noir from Joyce—is what Cheez-Its deserve.

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