American cheese, that stuff they put on fast-food burgers, isn't really cheese, in my book. Nor are most commercial olive oils very olive-y, most commercial butter very tasty, or most sourdough bread very sour.

But for me the worst use of food names comes in the area of cheese, where cheddar is rarely very cheddary, blue cheese rarely very bleu, and where a lot of what we get in the standard supermarket aisles has little relationship to the real stuff.

So when I was asked the other day to suggest some cheeses for a wine-and-cheese party, I began to explain that the best bets for wine parties are cheeses that are unique.

Plain old mild "cheddar" and American cheese are relatively boring. But alternatives are available if you just look at the results of some local state fair cheese competitions.

If you want to stage a wine-and-cheese party, start by looking at some of the classic matches that have long been known by those who love such activities. There are dozens of variations on themes here, but the tried-and-true combinations are always a safe bet.

Here are a few starting points:

Dry or off-dry Chenin Blanc with young Camembert. If the cheese isn't excessively ripe, it should have a mild sweetness that should pair nicely with the melon and citrus flavors of the wine. The older the cheese, the darker the wine should be.

Sauvignon Blanc and young goat cheese. The slight sourness of goat cheese needs the tartness of Sauvignon Blanc. If you have a Sauvignon Blanc that's noticeably sweet, and you have already bought the goat cheese, serve apple slices with the cheese and the wine will blend in nicely. (Quince paste, which can be obtained at gourmet food shops, is the classic "sweet" to pair with cheeses.)

Pinot Noir with a mature Brie. The classic French soft cheese Brie has a roughly two-month life cycle. Early in its life, the cheese is hard and white, but as it ages, it gets a slightly brown rind and the interior of the cheese begins to soften at room temperature.

When the wheel is about at 40 or so days, leave it out at room temperature for a couple of hours and then try it with an aged Pinot Noir. It's a sublime experience.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at