Today on The Tasting Room I am going to introduce you to Tom Van Voorhees, Cheese Monger for The Rogue Creamy located in Central Point, Oregon.
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Tom and his wife relocated to Oregon from New York 10 years ago so Tom could begin his career as Cheese Monger at the Rogue Creamery. A Cheese Monger is the manager of the retail cheese department and they are responsible for managing the cheese inventory, selecting the cheese menu, purchasing, receiving, storing, and development of the cheese ripening. Tom has been officially recognized as the top Cheese Monger in the United States.
Tom and I have been friends for nearly 10 years now and I rely on him for cheese recommendations frequently. My catering company, Scratch Catering, serves Rogue Creamery cheese selections exclusively.
Rogue Valley AVA History
The Rogue Valley AVA wine history dates back to the 1840’s. European immigrants planted grapes and eventually bottled wines. In 1852, an early settler, Peter Britt, began growing grapes and in 1873 founded Valley View Winery, Oregon’s first official winery.
A professor from Oregon State University planted an experimental test vineyard in the Rogue Valley AVA in 1968 and discovered this region was a great place to grow grapes and in 1972 the Wisnovsky family renewed the Vally View Winery namesake for their winery label.
There are four main growing areas in the Rogue Valley AVA, Bear Creek Valley, Illinois Valley, the Valley of the Rogue, and the Applegate Valley which in itself is its own AVA. Overall there are 16 federally approved AVA’s or viticulture growing areas in Oregon. The Rogue Valley AVA covers 1.15 million acres of intermountain valley area in Southern Oregon.
The Rogue Valley AVA Grape Varietals
Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay are the major grape varietals that are predominant. There are three valleys that have progressively warmer microclimates providing the Rogue Valley the diversity for growing both warm and cool climate grape varietals. Pinot Noir is grown to the west as this microclimate is influenced by mountain and ocean winds that cool the area and to the east, the warm weather varieties thrive. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc grow in the hills at elevations of nearly 2,000 feet producing grapes with concentrated fruit and sugar.
History of Rogue Creamery
The Rogue Creamery history spans nearly eight decades. Italian immigrant Tom Vella who had settled in the Sonoma, California area set his sights on the Rogue Valley as an area of opportunity to found a creamery. When Tom arrived it was small farms and pear orchards and the main industry was lumber. Tom was a visionary and entrepreneur opening the small creamery during the Depression, a gutsy move considering the lack of economic climate in the United States. Tom’s goal was to grow the creamery as fast as possible in order to provide employment and sustain the area’s small farms. The farmers supported Tom in his endeavor.
The Southern Pacific Rail line that ran from Los Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington passed through Medford which is the larger city located right next to Central Point. Passengers traveling between San Francisco, California and Seattle stopped to enjoy theatrical performances at the historic Holly Theatre.
The Rogue Creamery flourished during the Depression and provided significant amounts of Cheddar cheese for the troops that fought in World War II. After the war, the Rogue Creamery changed focus and was retooled to serve civilian markets. Cottage cheese was very successfully introduced to the consumer market and served as the transition for the Rogue Creamery to become the premier producer of Blue Cheese that it is today.
Inspired by the success of the Cottage cheese Tom Vella knew he needed to grow his product base and Blue Cheese was on Tom’s radar. As the wise entrepreneur that he was, he decided to go right to the source of the best Blue Cheese in the world, Roquefort, France. It was there that Tom and his wife spent the summer of 1955. Tom’s good fortune, talent, and fluency in Italian opened many doors. The Roquefort Association, although shrouded in secrecy, welcomed Tom when he spoke to the supervisor of the facilities in the man’s native dialect. Presented with a gold pass signed by all functionaries of the Society, Tom toured operations from farms to cheese factories to the curing limestone caves at Cambalou. At summer’s end, Tom departed France with plans for a Roquefort type cheese factory, already producing Oregon Blue in his imagination. Construction began in Central Point in 1956.
Tom envisioned caves similar to the environment of Cambalou and designed a building to duplicate that atmosphere. Two Quonset-shaped half circled rooms of cement were poured, one over the other, with space in between for insulation. The result was a true cave-like atmosphere.
Production of blue began in early 1955, instant success validated Vella’s business acumen. This was the first blue cheese produced in caves west of the Missouri River. Over the years Vella’s dedication to quality was unwavering to the end as was his enthusiasm for the business and the Rogue Valley. He died on December 23, 1998, at age 100.
The Rogue Creamery was inherited by Tom’s family and his son Ignazio who became the driving force behind the creamery. Ignazio’s reputation as “The Godfather of the artisan cheese industry” really says it all. Ig, as he was known, stayed on as a mentor to current owners David Gremmels and Cary Bryant who are now the senior cheese makers.
Today, the Rogue Creamery is thriving. Gremmels and Bryant have steadfastly held to the principles laid out by Tom and Ig Vella. The creamery’s Mission Statement; An artisan cheese company, with people dedicated to service, sustainability and the art and tradition of making the world’s finest handmade cheese.
In the first two years under the leadership of Gremmels and Bryant, the Creamery had won numerous trophies and awards, including World’s Best Blue Cheese at the 2003 World Cheese Awards in London, a first for a U.S. creamery.
The Rogue Creamery produces some of the finest blue and cheddar cheese selections in the world. They are Certified Organic and are quickly headed to also being Certified Biodynamic. Here are a few cheese pairing tips from Cheese Monger Tom Van Voorhees.
Cheese Pairing Tips
Pairing Tips; Pair regional foods, wine, and beer together. Pair light colored wines and beers with fresh cheeses. Wines higher in tannin exaggerate flavors in cheese ie. fat, sharpness, sweetness and animal flavors. Dessert wines pair nicely with cheeses that have a salty, sharp or bitter flavor.
- BLUE CHEESE; Generally pairs well with full-bodied red wines, or sweeter whites such as Gewürztraminer or late harvest dessert wine and Port is classic wine and cheese pairing.
- CHEDDAR; Generally pairs well with medium to dry white and red wines, especially the sharp and extra-sharp cheddars. Flavored cheddars, usually at the mild or medium level, will expand the selections in both categories of wine. Don’t forget the beers – cheddars are classic companions to a variety of ales, stouts, and lagers.
- CURDS; Very light in traditional cheese characteristics; the flavoring agents become prevalent in the flavored varieties. Curds pair well with most beers, and with lighter white and red wines.
It has been great having Tom Van Voorhees join me in The Tasting Room today and even better sampling the world-class cheese selections from the Rogue Creamery!
From my table to yours,