Rogue River Blue

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

A limited edition with unlimited excellence!

The new 2022 production of one of THE best and certainly most highly prized cheeses made in the U.S. has just arrived here in Ann Arbor. 2022 Rogue River Blue is, as usual, fantastic! Supply is super-limited—I forecast that we’ll run out sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so swing by soon!

The Creamery at Rogue River in Central Point, Oregon began operation to handle liquid milk back in 1935 when Tom Vella (the father of Ig Vella, who first made the delicious Dry Jack and the young handcrafted Monterey Jack we use so much of at the Roadhouse) decided that, with the war coming in Europe, demand for milk in the U.S. was going to go up. The decision to make blue cheese came later, during a trip that Tom took to France in 1956, shortly before the Hungarian Revolution. As all good cheesemakers would do, he arranged visits to other producers, including one to the caves of Roquefort, with which he’d long been fascinated. During his tour, he met the director of the caves who, it so happened, was of Sicilian origin like Tom. Not only that, he was actually from the same village—the central Sicilian town of Gela. Tom ended up spending an entire month in Roquefort studying the production process. In an almost fairytale-esque finish to the story, for a parting gift the director and the staff gave him a copy of the recipe for Roquefort, a print of the floor plan for the dairy, and a packet of the magical molds that blue the cheese. Through which, the Roquefort legacy, to this day, informs the award-winning cheesemaking on the Oregon coast.

While his main work was making cheese at Vella Cheese in Sonoma, Ig Vella later took over the Oregon plant, and ran it up until 2002. As he got older, it became clear to him that he’d need to figure out what to do with the plant for the future. Thinking of how best to honor his father’s legacy, he determined that he would only sell the dairy to people who would do justice to the quality of the cheese. He was intent to do the right thing for future generations, not just take a quick cash out from the kind of large company that could have helped him retire as a rich man. As the story goes, he loudly declared, “I’ll close her down before I sell out to one of those big places.”

The cheesemaking work at Rogue today would have made Ig (who passed away in 2011) proud—they’ve won a ton of awards to honor the excellence of their cheese. Tom Van Vorhees, long a member of the Rogue team, shared the details of the work to make the award-winning Rogue River Blue:

Basically Rogue River Blue is a year-round endeavor. The cheeses you’re getting this week were made last autumn exclusively with the milk from our own dairy and they were hand-wrapped in leaves this summer. Summer here is so hot and dry that there’s a real difference [for the better] in our milk when the days cool off and the rain returns–more time on pasture and lusher fields.  

Early this summer we handpicked about 65,000 organic Syrah grape leaves. It is a stunning time and place to be alive. The light, temperature, smells, and quiet are indescribable; even the bees are sleepy. These leaves will spend the winter macerating in a pear-infused organic spirit we create; this cleans them up, makes them soft enough to work with, and adds one more layer of local flavor. These cheeses got their leaves last summer from leaves we picked in 2021.

It all comes together during the last few months before we release them into the world the following fall. Typically we can make only 8 or 9 thousand wheels for the world to enjoy over the holiday season.

The 2022 Rogue River Blue really is incredible. Creamy from the high quality of the milk, sweet from the pear brandy, and complex with a lovely softly sweet finish. Served at room temperature where its full flavor and aroma can be best accessed, it’s a joy to eat. You’d be wise to serve it with hazelnuts—the two flavors together are truly delicious. It’s also wonderful with those really tasty Red Walnuts. Great, too, with fresh pears or apples.The Rogue River Blue goes well with bread—the Roquefort cultures Tom Vella was given back in 1956 begin with molds taken from real loaves of rye. Try it with the Country Miche or True North breads!