July 13, 1928 June 9, 2011

I've worked hard my whole life. With these words, in one of the last conversations he had with a sister, Ignazio Ig Vella summed up his life. He departed soon after on June 9, 2011.

And work tirelessly he did in every endeavoras a renowned cheese maker, effective supervisor, incisive administrator, insightful legislator, constructive board member, colorful historian, caring mentor, solicitous friend. Although Ignazio's outspoken nature might sometimes have been construed as abrasive or his comments politically incorrect on occasion, he fought for what he believed. His vision was long term, and his goals were always clear. He strove for quality, fairness, excellence, and honesty.

Sonoma Valley, Northern California, and California benefitted from his steadfastness. Affectionately known as the Godfather of American Artisanal Cheese, Ignazio was a real force and celebrity in the food industry. As general manager and C.E.O. of Vella Cheese Company of California, Inc., for 30 years, he trained cheese makers, instituted a union-recognized apprentice cheese maker program, and was consistently honored with awards for his dedication to the industry. He researched and introduced cheeses for the Vella Cheese line, and was a point of reference for most people in the cheese business. The factory was often cited by the state of California as a showcase for exemplary practices and cleanliness. Numerous creameries are in his debt. In 2006, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Cheese Society for his work in artisan cheese. At that ceremony, the ACS director lauded Ignazio as a cheesemaking pioneer. In accepting the award, Ig said, My hat size will remain the same, but my heart will be a little bigger because I am really honored.

In the political sphere, Ignazio was a Sonoma County supervisor for three consecutive terms, and the manager of the Sonoma County Fair. He was a vital force in the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and instrumental in the framing of the 1965 Williamson Act. He was also a member of the Sonoma City Planning Commission and an inaugural member of the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission. In recognition of these civic works, a bridge, dedicated in 2006, was named for him in the City of Sonoma.

Ignazio's civic spirit was instilled in him by his mother, Zolita (Clerici) Vella, a teacher and native Sonoman. His belief in the superiority of genuine products was engendered by both parents. It was in his blood. His maternal grandmother, Annie (Castagnasso) Clerici was the daughter of one of the first Sonoma Valley growers of high quality produce who supplied the San Francisco markets at the beginning of the 20th Century. From his father, Gaetano Tom Vella, he acquired his love of cheese and the generosity of spirit through which he gave his time and shared his knowledge with all who sought his advice. Sally (Wright) Vella of Novato, his wife of nearly 60 years, supported Ignazio wholeheartedly in all of his endeavors.

Ignazio attended the San Rafael Military Academy and then pursued a degree in history and philosophy at Santa Clara University from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1950. He attended the United States Air Force Officer Candidate School in San Antonio, Texas, in 1953 and served in the reserves.

In addition to his civic endeavors and dedication to his profession, Ignazio was known for his antique watch and clock collection, for his passion for baseball, and his devotion to his faith. In keeping with his enthusiasms and fervent beliefs, in his final days, he consulted in turn a large wrist watch, his radio to listen to the San Francisco Giants games, and his rosary beads.

He is survived by his wife, Sally Vella; sisters, Maria Giovanna Vella, of San Francisco and Zolita Vella, of New York; children, Ditty Vella, Chickie Vella and Thomas William Vella; nephews, Thomas Joseph Vella and Paul Jacobsen; niece, Artemis Millan; grandchildren, Ross Cannard, Marius Cannard, Gabriel Luddy and Miranda Luddy, Shaina Vella, and Gia Desoto; and, great-grandchild, Travis Desoto.

Donations in his name can be directed to:

Hospice by the Bay

190 West Napa Street

Sonoma, California 95476 or

Friends of Turkana

P.O. Box 135

Sonoma, California 95476

Visitation will be held at Duggan's Mission Chapel in Sonoma from noon to 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 16, 2011. The funeral Mass will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Friday, June 17, 2011, at St. Francis Solano Church, located at West Napa and Third Street, Sonoma, CA.