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Bill Lynch: When the Cheese Factory thrived

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The announcement in December that the Sonoma Cheese Factory is closing, at least for the winter, made me sad. Although its current owners indicate the closure is temporary, there is speculation among some locals that it may never reopen, at least not as the cheese factory we have known.

It was built and operated by Chelso Viviani in the middle of the last century, but I don’t remember seeing much activity there while growing up.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that I noticed that Dave Viviani and his partner, Fred Harland, were using it to make deli sandwiches, which they then sold at lunchtime at Sonoma Valley High School. Their business at the time was called Galaxy Products.

Dave and Fred developed their own version of Monterey Jack cheese, which they called “Sonoma Jack,” and reopened the deli at the front of the factory. The business started to grow under Dave and Fred’s direction, and their signature brand, Sonoma Jack, became a popular success.

At some point, Dave’s father, Pete Viviani, returned from Mexico and retook his place as the boss of the business that Dave and Fred rescued from oblivion.

Their deli operation expanded, as did the distribution and marketing of Sonoma Jack Cheese. It was, by all appearances, a successful, growing enterprise.

However, my most vivid memory of the cheese factory has nothing to do with cheese, but rather an incident in the winter of 1973 that could have been the pilot for a sitcom based on small town law enforcement.

Two guys, one an employee of the cheese factory who actually lived there in an upstairs room, and the other a baker at Sonoma French Bakery on First Street East, got drunk, and were mistakenly thought to be burglars by the early morning garbage collector who saw men rummaging around in the closed and locked deli.

He called the cops and then things got really confused. They started checking the doors and, in so doing, caused the drunken cheese factory worker to think someone was trying to break in. He went back upstairs and grabbed a double-barreled shotgun that Pete Viviani had apparently given him to protect the premises.

One of the cops saw the guy with the gun. That’s when the lawmen all backed off to rethink their next move. While they were talking, the sound of a gunshot came from the upstairs apartment.

The cops called for reinforcements.

I was covering the police beat for the I-T at the time. The police dispatcher, a friend, called me at home to alert me that something big was going on at the cheese factory.

When I arrived, I saw two cop cars parked in front with their spotlights on the building front and several officers crouched behind them with their guns drawn.

Pete Viviani was across the street and I could hear him calling repeatedly, “Jorge! Jorge!”

Jorge was apparently the employee inside.

Everybody outside had concluded that Jorge was holding somebody hostage.

Knowing the place was a rabbit warren of narrow aisles and corridors, and not wanting to risk anyone getting shot, the police chief attempted to lob some CS gas canisters into the upstairs room. One of the canisters hit the sill and dropped to the ground among the cops who were then forced to scatter.

After a long wait in a cold morning rain, the officers decided to enter the building, but they didn’t wear gas masks, which forced them to flee moments later, red-faced, eyes watering and bent over coughing.

Waiting a little longer they eventually went back in and, after a brief search, found both men, falling down drunk, hiding in the attic. The shotgun blast had been an accident, caused when Jorge tripped over a chair.

The police never fired a shot. Nobody was injured and the cheese factory opened a little later that day.

The business, with Dave and Fred as its public face, continued to prosper.

But, sadly, as family businesses sometimes do, things began to break apart, and by the time Pete died in 2009, both Dave and Fred had moved on.

It is not for me to speculate whether the cheese factory would be thriving today had either or both remained, but I do recall how much energy and imagination they brought to that bustling store in the middle of the block on Spain Street opposite city hall.

I will miss it.

Editor’s note: Bill Lynch’s reporting on the would-be Cheese Factory stand off (“A Pickled Pair, Shotgun Blasts and Tear Gas,” Dec. 13, 1973) was picked up by United Press International and reprinted in newspapers across the country. It won awards for “best news story” of 1973 by the San Francisco Press Club and “best newspaper story in California” in 1973 from the California State Fair.