Blessed are the cheesemakers
Ig Vella invades Wisconsin, takes home the gold and moves the center of the cheesemaking universe to Sonoma
The cheesemaker and the cheese: How about a few thousand pounds of dry Monterey Jack?
Mrs. Gregory: “Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?”
Gregory: “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
– Monty Python’s Life of Brian
You read it here first.
The center of the American cheese universe is about to shift. For years, centuries even, when you said cheese, in the same breath you had to say Wisconsin.
That’s because the little state with that very good football team, whose fans wear yellow foam wedges on their heads, makes a lot of cheese. They make a lot of cheese because they have a lot of cheesemakers. And because they have a lot of cheesemakers, they win a lot of awards. They’re the Mecca of American cheese.
But all that is about to change, and one reason it will change is Ig Vella, the man whose two-letter first name adorns a bridge over Sonoma Creek and whose last name has been on cheese labels since 1931.
Ig has been many things in his 79 years—semi-pro ball player, history student, veteran, county supervisor, fair manager—but the one description that would probably please him most is cheesemaker.
Not everyone takes the job seriously. The profession was parodied in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” when a crowd listening to a hilltop sermon in Jerusalem misunderstands Christ to say, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”
Look at Ig, cloistered in one of his cheese-aging rooms, cocoa-brown wheels stacked like dusty tomes almost floor to ceiling, and you’re reminded, perhaps, of a Franciscan monk, with an apron instead of a habit, a white paper hat instead of a skullcap.
He was, after all, raised an Italian Catholic, attended a Jesuit university, was challenged to think deep thoughts. There is about him that air of Catholic inquiry. He has an aggressively curious mind and a well-honed intellect, and he suffers neither fools nor pretense well. He is not a terribly profane man, but he will erupt now and then with a well-placed expletive when he hears something he considers absurd. He listens carefully and tends to husband his opinions until they’ve had time, like his cheeses, to cure.
But let’s be perfectly clear. He’s not a monk. He’s a cheesemaker, pure and simple, and a damn good one, thank you very much.
Good, but not big. Consider this.
At some historic moment in the near future, California will quietly slip past Wisconsin to become the top annual cheese producer in the United States, pressing more than 2.4 billion pounds of aged curds. Out of that mountain of curdled milk, the Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma will produce an infinitesimal fraction—something around 450,000 pounds a year, or roughly 0.000182 percent of the state’s total.
The figure isn’t precise because Ig Vella, proprietor and patriarch, hasn’t added up his annual production, or at least he can’t recall it. He tosses out the offhand estimate —“Oh, I don’t know, I guess we make about 2,400 pounds three or four times a week”—like an afterthought.
But what obviously is no afterthought is the care he puts into each pound of Vella product, the pleasure he takes in his Italian family heritage, and the pride he feels in the walls of ribbons and awards he’s won for the quality of his cheese, even if he can’t tell you exactly how many there are.
What he can say is that a magazine called Cheese Manufacturing News did a comprehensive survey of cheesemakers who had won national and international medals over the past 10 years. One man emerged with the most, he wasn’t from Wisconsin and his name was Vella. Ask him for an estimate and he’ll tell you it’s something over 100 awards. It’s fair to say that Ig Vella has invaded Wisconsin, captured the gold and shifted the center of the cheesemaking universe toward California.
Of course, if you can’t tell an Italian Toma from a can of Kraft Pasteurized Processed Cheddar Cheese “Product,” you may not be impressed with the gold medal Ig won at the Los Angeles County Fair in 2005, and again in 2007, or the silver that same tasty Toma won at the International Cheese Championship in 2004.
The Kraft cheese “product” does have one distinct advantage over anything Vella makes. It will last, according to the Web site of a company that sells it, “for years.”
You could, according to the same Web site, buy a case of the canned stuff for $97.90, stick it in the garage and taste it in 20 or 30 years. Or, you could spend a little less on a wheel of Vella’s Special Select Dry Jack and gobble it up in a month.
Except that it would never last that long. The special select dry Jack, made by Vella’s senior cheesemaker, Charley Malksassian, was voted 1995-96 U.S. Cheese Champion—the best cheese in America out of more than 800 entries. The Kraft canned, pasteurized and processed “product,” not so much. Vella was the first non-Wisconsin company to win the national championship, and the next year they won second place in the world.
“My crew, and I hope I,” he says with just a touch of Catholic humility, “have never gotten a swelled head.” He’s not bragging. “I look in my heart,” he adds, “and I know what’s true.”
We’ll come back to the prizes later on—there are so many they’ll bore you. But let’s talk for a moment about Vella the man, part-politician, part renegade, one-time baseball star and full-time impresario of the curdling arts.
Ig is short for Ignazio—a respectable Italian name no one ever uses. Even the bridge spanning Sonoma Creek named in his honor proclaims “Ig Vella Bridge,” not “Ignazio.” He spent 11 years representing the 1st District on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and another six years as director of the Sonoma County Fair. Both positions were high-profile, high-target posts in which the man who now makes prize-winning cheese once made local laws and voiced strong opinions that drew praise as well as flack.
He has seemed to always be a little bit of an iconoclast—he was tossed out of Sonoma Valley High School in his sophomore year and spent the rest of high school in a military academy. Ig is a student of history—he majored in it at Santa Clara University, graduating in time to serve in Army intelligence during the Korean War—and despite his time in public office, he categorically rejects the label “politician.”
His definition of politics, he says, “is municipal and county government. You’re supposed to run nonpartisan.” And that’s how Ig tried to govern. “One side believed I was a Democrat, the other said I was a Republican.”
He pauses, scratching his head for the source of a quote. “It was (former House Speaker) Tip O’Neill who said ‘All politics is local.’ I was never in politics. I was in local government.”
And for success in local government there is, says Ig, a cardinal rule: “Take care of your own, and fix the damn roads. It’s that simple.”
Making good cheese sounds simple too, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. And when you are one of only two producers making dry Monterey Jack—Ig’s favorite cheese, by the way—you better get the details right because the cheesemaking world is watching. Here’s a simplified thumbnail of the Vella production process.
You start, of course, with milk. Vella gets it from Mertens Dairy in Schellville—which means it comes from cows free of growth hormones that aren’t fed animal products. The milk arrives three to four times a week in 2,500-gallon stainless-steel tank trucks. Each batch is tested for antibiotics and bacteria, and then pasteurized and pumped into 1,000-gallon vats where a specific starter culture is added that gives each cheese its unique flavor and texture.
Then an enzyme coagulent is introduced to separate the proverbial curds and whey. The traditional coagulent, called “rennet,” comes from the lining of calf stomachs and produces an active enzyme called “chymosin.” There are now cloned versions of chymosin to suit vegetarian demands, and most of Vella’s cheese production uses a cloned, vegetable-based strain Ig calls “the purest ever produced, developed by an Israeli professor named Moshe Rosenburg. He’s the Grand Poobah of chymosin.”
The milk coagulates into a creamy gel before it’s “cut” with blades that help separate the curds and whey. Next it’s stirred and cooked until the desired firmness is reached. The whey is then drained and the curds are wrapped in cheesecloth, shaped, pressed and cured.
Ask Ig why his cheese is so good and the reasons vary from his wife, Sally (“she’s very understanding, and supportive”), to the small size of the operation and the attention to detail. “Anybody can make cheese,” he says. “To make an excellent batch, and better than that, a consistent batch, you have to pay attention to detail. And it starts with very good milk.”
Roger Rannikar, a Vella cheesemaker for 21 years who also has his share of medals, says, “Feel is the big thing for us. You smell it, you feel it. Big cheese companies, you never touch the cheese, everything goes through stainless-steel tubes. How boring.”
Ask Roger what it’s like to work for Ig and he pauses, weighing the risks of candor. “First and foremost, I would say he’s fair. Of course, you have to get past he’s been a politician, but once you get past that, he’s great.”
The loyalty is understandable because Ig is, himself, a very loyal man. He’s had numerous buyout offers from companies that would close the plant and ship it somewhere else. He did, in fact, sell the Rogue River Creamery, a subsidiary company in Oregon, but only after receiving guarantees the plant would stay where it is, and after requiring the new owners to take, in effect, a cheese-making test. They passed.
Ig’s not interested in selling the company his father founded, with its historic old brewery building and its two-foot thick stone walls. But he does have a plan. “I’d like to buy out one more of my sisters,” Ig carefully explains, “and then put that block of shares up for employees to buy. That way the plant would go on.”
When will that be? Ig has no plans to quit the work he loves, but he’s learned to take it one day at a time.
His steady blue eyes drift out toward the hillside above town with the big white cross. “My father came here in 1923,” he says, “and he helped put that cross up on the hill. Every morning I stand out there and look at the cross, and I say, ‘Thank you for getting me through the door.’ Then on the way home I stand out there again, and I say, ‘Thank you for the day.’”
From the Summer 2008 issue of SONOMA