Ignazio Vella 1928-2011

I think almost anyone who has been in the cheese world for a period of time has their “meeting Ig” story. It’s like a rite of passage. It’s not even just a California thing. Cheese folks came from all over the country to talk to him. He was that important.

He really was. Very few people (at least in this state) had been in the cheese making business as long as he and his family had. Until he could no longer do it, he had his hands in the vat every day. He was a walking history of American cheesemaking and we are all diminished by his passing. He was a cheese elder and that link to our shared oral history is gone forever.

dry jack aging
(Wheels of Vella Dry Jack in their Sonoma aging room)

But it’s not like he was just an old-timer who you’d talk to get some trivial or nostalgic stories. He loved helping new cheese folks. True, he also loved spotting phonies and self-promoters and bursting the bubbles of aspiring cheesemakers who had more fantasy than reality in their plans, but I think most hard-working people are like that. He was hands-on in his own plant but also with the folks at Rogue Creamery who had bought his family’s old blue cheese factory. That Rogue makes some of the finest blue cheese in the country (and with the Rogue River Blue, I’d say the world) is a tribute to David and Cary and all the folks who work there, but also to Ig who traveled up there regularly them turn their product from the mediocre, unmemorable cheese it was when they bought the place, to the amazing cheese it is now.

Traditionally, Vella cheese came from the milk of one main local dairy where the quality and care could be assured. Even writing that sounds like boilerplate now in our current cheese-trendy times, but this was a carry-over from the old dairy days for the Vellas and you knew it was true. Heck, he would bring his dairyman to the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference that he founded with Sheana Davis and Professor Moshe Rosenberg.

Which is the other way he helped cheesemakers. Ig’s legacy lives on in Vella Cheese and Rogue Creamery of course (and through other cheesemakers, who can choose to credit Ig themselves). However, it also lives on in the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference. It’s where I knew him from best since I helped wrangle a number of panelists and speakers for that conference over the years. On the schedule there was always “Ig Time”. From, say, 8:00-9:00 AM he would have the floor to discuss – loosely – whatever the theme of the conference was and what it meant to him. These were always some of the best times for me.

You never really knew what to expect but it would be opinionated, historically-based, and make you think about the big picture cheese issues. Very few people have that ability to make people think big, especially in a trade-based conference. It always set the tone – that lives on today even without Ig’s active participation in the last couple of years – for honest, open discussion, and mutual aid. It’s a far cry from other trade events we’ve all attended filled with panelists doing infomercials for themselves and the “educational programming” really being a sparsely attended front for deal-making, instead of intending to be conversation set up to uplift the whole group.

And yes, I do remember the first time I met Ig. Surprisingly, it wasn’t through Sheana Davis who is my good friend, who continues to run the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, and who Ig mentored for a decade or two.
ig and sheana
(Sheana and Ig at the dedication of the “Ig Bridge”)

No, it was through Andrea London a well-respected cheese person who – at that moment – happened to be my sales rep for a now-defunct company. I had only been working in cheese for a couple of years but she couldn’t believe I hadn’t met Ig. She arranged a tour for us and after meeting the other cheesemakers (who’ve each been there about 30 years themselves by now) and looking at all the aging cheese, we went out to lunch. I made him laugh when I mocked Domestic Parms for lacking in flavor and how much I appreciated the Dry Jack as an alternative. I’m sure in retrospect I did it in a clumsy and ahistorical way but he laughed and I knew the rest of the meal would be ok. I felt even luckier six months later when he almost made someone cry who dared to ask him about the “terroir” of the region.

I feel luckiest now though, thinking about all the times I got to hear Ig talk cheese history. I don’t know anyone who has done more for the world of small-production, hand-made, sustainable cheese. This “artisan cheese” resurgence that we are in right now is the product of a lot of people, but Ig was always an example of how to do it right. His practices and influences are felt all over the state and the country.

Many of the cheeses on the cover of my book were grabbed out of convenience or because of their size and shape. However, as I was leaving our walk-in that day, I made sure I brought a wheel of Dry Jack. There is a reason I chose to hold it in that picture. It was really my tiny way of honoring his work.

Goodbye Ig. You will be missed.

*Sonoma News has a great biographical article on Ig that covers more than just his cheesemaking. Well worth a read.

One response to “Ignazio Vella 1928-2011

  1. Pingback: Wisconsin Day Two: Gathering of the Cheddar Makers | Gordon ("Zola") Edgar

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