How I Accidentally Became an Award-Winning Cheesemaker
Our cave-aged blue cheese is wrapped in pear brandy-soaked grape leaves and tastes like cured bacon, milk chocolate, vanilla, and truffles all at the same time.
Our mixed-breed dairy cows are just like really big Labradors.
They are very comfortable around people and they graze all day. We provide a very healthy environment for them to hang out and loaf around. We have a very airy barn that we named "the eco cow cathedral" where we have these automatic brushers that massage them, and when they feel the urge to give milk, they cue up and get milked by our two milking robots—Matilda and Charlie—whenever they'd like. This state-of-the-art comfort makes the best, highest-quality milk! Which is the most important part of cheese, as we all know.
In 2002, I was going to open a wine and cheese bar that focused on local wines and American cheeses. I had an opportunity to tour the creamery that made Oregon Blue and sat down with the main cheesemaker Ignazio Vella—known as the godfather of the artisan American cheese movement—and told him about the significance of his cheese in my family. Vella then followed that conversation and said, "If you want my cheese for your menu, you're going to have to make it yourself." He threw down his keys and finished with, "Make me an offer."
I never did open up that wine bar but I did take up cheesemaking as a career after my business partner and I bought the farm from him. I left my old job in product design and development and I am now the president and cheesemaker at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon. I became Vella's apprentice and went through seven levels of practice, as well as take cheesemaking courses around the US, in order to be able to be called a cheesemaker.
Our farm is a valley known for its agriculture that is surrounded by pear orchards and vineyards. It is focused on traditional agricultural methods. It is bordered by the Siskiyou Mountains and the Cascades, and Jackson and Josephine counties, which are both protected and strictly non-GMO counties.
Rogue River Blue is a natural-rinded blue cheese that uses French cultures and molds, but what's different about it is that it is aged in our caves that have been operating since the 30s. This makes the cheese absorb all of the flavors of the caves that naturally occur: cured bacon, milk chocolate, vanilla, and truffles all at the same time.
We hand-wrap that cheese in pear brandy-soaked biodynamic grape leaves, and the end result is something really great. It's won awards at the World Cheese Awards, Best in Show at the American Cheese Society, and it continues to just win accolades because of its distinctive flavor. It was amazing to win these awards that are usually dominated by European dairies. The cheeses are awarded via a blind tasting, and at first the judges swore they were having a European cheese. When they found out they were having an American cheese, they were taken aback and so, so, so surprised.
It was an international stage and the blue cheese—its flavour, composition, texture, and aroma—did all the talking.
Some of my fondest memories as a child was of my mom going to the store and buying Oregon Blue blue cheese. It was always in my refrigerator growing up and it is a magical experience to now make this cheese. I have created a similar apprenticeship program to the one I went through for our team members who wish to pursue cheesemaking, so that they can always keep the craft of this wonderful cheese alive in the future.
As told to Javier Cabral
This interview has been edited for length and clarity