The Cheese Parlor’s punk rocker entrepreneur jams with the local winemakers
Story and photos by Deborah Grossman
The shop is a place to watch us crack some wheels of cheese and gather with friends and family for some cheese and beverage,” says Brandon Wood. “I also want to raise the profile of Livermore Valley and the visibility of artisan and local purveyors.”
Since February 2022, when Wood’s Cheese Parlor sprang up in a downtown Livermore strip mall, it has quickly evolved into a meet-up hub for locals, especially at happy hour. Gathered around one of the long wooden farm tables or bellied up to the Cheese Bar, guests might nibble on a custom cheese plate and discover how Wood’s pairings with Livermore Valley wines, beers, and ciders strike their palates. Some customers arrive simply to browse for cheese, cured meats, condiments, and beverages or to get the latest on upcoming cheese events.
Wood’s punk rocker demeanor might at first belie his deep knowledge of cheese, but spend more than a minute with him and you’re sure to be swept along in his personal hunger to learn.
His innate focus on hospitality is a major asset to the shop. Using easy-to-understand terminology, he explains how cheese and salami are made as he shares background on various artisan foods and hand-selected beverages. His classes pairing cheese with wine (or other foods and beverages)—held both in the shop and at the workshops of local producers—are always a hit.
“Tell Me What You Don’t Like!”
Wood employs his infectious sense of humor as he engages with customers. He recounts the time a guest asked if he ate Cheez Whiz and his reply: “Yes, twice.” Never the cheese snob, he adds, “Remember that every cheese has its place.”
A favorite ploy is to identify cheeses that guests do not prefer and then introduce “gateway” cheeses in those styles.
“For those who have never tried goat cheese, mild Midnight Moon made by Cypress Grove is often a positive first taste,” says Wood, who admits to his own past reservations about certain cheeses. “I liked aged gouda yet never enjoyed aggressive aged goat cheese. Then I found aged La Dama Sagrada, a goat cheese from Spain, which is nuttier and sweeter than most, and customers often like it, too.”
Wood sells, on average, 70 different cheeses by the pound. Eighty percent are domestic with 40 percent from California. The remaining 20 percent come from Europe’s leading cheese-making countries. A best seller is OG Kristal, a Gouda-style cheese from Belgium that’s rarely found in supermarkets or specialty stores. (Devotees go for its cocoa notes.) He also stocks a wide variety of “bloomy” or brie-style cheeses.
In the cured meat case Wood carries about 15 sliced options made from a wide variety of meats including lamb and even elk. Special finds include San Daniele prosciutto from Trieste, Italy; Black Garlic Salami from Underground Meats in Madison, Wisconsin; and dry cured black truffle salami from Charlito’s Trufa Seca in Queens, New York.
Punk Rocker to Cheesemonger
It was a random job hunt that brought Wood to the world of entrepreneurial cheese. Born on the East Coast, he moved with his family to Pleasanton, where he attended high school. A precocious musician, he was touring as lyricist and lead singer with a punk rock band by age 16, and that landed him in San Luis Obispo, where he met and married Julia McGurk. It was McGurk’s desire to attend graduate school in the East Bay that led Wood to a job at the Oakland Whole Foods Market’s cheese counter.
Fired up by a chance to learn all he could about cheese, Wood quickly climbed the Whole Foods ladder to become, among other things, a cheese buyer at the Dublin store. He took full advantage of the company’s educational programs and earned a Certified Cheese Professional credential from the American Cheese Society.
But it was a side hustle that led Wood to envision having his own shop. As he began selling prepared cheese boxes to Livermore Valley wineries, he discovered an easy camaraderie with winemakers at Wente Vineyards, Las Positas Vineyards, the Lineage Collection, 3 Steves Winery, McGrail Vineyards, and others while honing his pairing skills. A special bond developed with McGrail winemaker Mark Clarin (a fellow guitar player and singer) as the cheesemonger taught Clarin to like bleu cheese, and the two discovered how they could calm the big tannins in McGrail’s Celtic Knot dry red wine with the creaminess of Midnight Moon goat cheese.
“The first time Brandon visited the winery, he brought 30 cheeses to taste with our team to identify the best pairings,” says McGrail Vineyards owner Heather McGrail. “Brandon surprises me with [his] excellent palate and ability to describe nuances in our wine. Like a winemaker, he elevates the sensory experience of tasting food and drink.”
To prepare for an event, Wood and his chosen vintner taste and identify the best pairings. He likes working with vintners of all sizes, even a small producer like Darin Winton of Cellar 13 in Livermore, who doesn’t have his own winery. At a recent event, Winton especially enjoyed the cheese pairing with his Cellar 13 Chardonnay. “I make white wine, but I prefer red. When we tasted my chardonnay with the pairing of Big McKinley cheddar from William Cofield in Sebastopol, it brought out the fruit in the wine, and I liked my wine better.”
Wood enjoys being his own boss, and his experience working a crowd as a band leader makes his events seem more like parties than classes. He begins by announcing that he loves eating cheese and segues quickly into talking about cheesemaking and the diversity of cheese styles.
“Let’s talk with each other,” he says. “That’s what the big farm tables are for. I want to hear what you think of the cheese.”
Wood encourages his guests to eat the natural rind on the Alpine-style Alpha Tolman cheese from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont paired with the Cellar 13 Aliheliga Bordeaux blend. The hint of nuttiness in the cheese complements the full-bodied, earthy wine, Wood comments.
As the class ends, Wood announces, “This is your personal time in the shop to sample more cheeses and ask more questions.”
Community in the shop
The Cheese Parlor’s community focus goes beyond collaborations with local wineries. Wingen Bakery (located a few blocks from the shop) and Pleasanton pickle maker Last of Seven get good representation on Wood’s cheese boards, and Pleasanton’s Salt Craft bakery provides bread for the popular sandwiches that Wood’s staff make each morning. The shop is available for team-building exercises and private cheese and wine tasting parties, and Wood hosts pop-ups for businesses that have no permanent retail space, like Sarah Cain’s Spirited Sweets Chocolates.
“Brandon has developed a home for cheese lovers and gives me space to satisfy chocolate cravers, too,” says Cain, who makes her handmade booze-infused bonbons in Vallejo.
What’s next? Wood looks forward to collaborations with more Tri-Valley businesses, nonprofits, and wineries and chances to host cheesemakers from up and down the state. He envisions classes with names like “Don’t Get the Bleus” or “I Got 99 Problems but a Brie Ain’t One.” ♦
Cheese Tips from Brandon Wood
Ditch the plastic wrap. It can cause cheese to take on plastic flavors. Instead, use parchment, waxed paper, butcher paper, specialty cheese paper, or sealable hard plastic containers.
Eat your rinds. Wax rinds are not meant to be consumed, but the bloomy and washed rinds on soft cheeses and the firmer natural rinds on some harder cheeses are edible. Hard natural rinds on aged cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano can add a delicious, savory taste to simmering soups and stews.
If a natural rind has unappetizing molds, colors, or aromas, then do not consume it—cheese is meant to be enjoyed.
Rock your cheese board with four different styles:
◆ 2 hard cheeses such as cheddar, gouda, bleu, an Alpine-style cheese, or a grating cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano
◆ 1 fresh cheese like a chevre, burrata, or marinated mozzarella
◆ 1 brie or other “bloomy” or “softy” cheese . . .
. . . and then add some jazzy counterpoints like:
◆ crunchy crackers or nuts
◆ a sour note with some tart dried fruits
◆ a sweet touch with fun bits of chocolate
◆ an umami, savory element like salami
◆ and couple of briny bits like olives or cornichon pickles.
Always serve cheese at room temperature.
The Cheese Parlor
150 Maple St, Livermore
Bay Area journalist Deborah Grossman writes about people and places that present unique food and beverage. Her gastronomic travel articles depict experiences at the global dining table. She is also a Poet Laureate Emerita of Pleasanton, California. Find a selection of her print and online stories at deborahgrossman.com.