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The care makes the cheese

David Gremmels and Cary Bryant were traveling throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic states several years to find cheeses to serve at a wine bar they were preparing to open in Ashland.

But after attending a cheese tasting at a creamery in Central Point, their plans to open the bar changed.

During the tasting, cheese master Ignazio Vella told them that if they wanted his cheese for their bar, they had to make it themselves.

Three weeks later after secretly debating the offer, Gremmels and Bryant scrapped the plans for the bar and agreed to buy the Rogue River Valley Creamery.

&

We had no idea this was in our backyard,&

Gremmels said.

They thought their friends and families wouldn&

t support the idea since they already bought a building and had drawings for the bar.

&

We had certainly gone over the edge of our &

shall I say entrepreneurial ventures,&

Gremmels said.

Since taking over in 2002, and renaming the business to the Rogue Creamery, they have won eight trophies and more than two dozen medals. They also introduced the creamery to international culinary leaders, Gremmels said.

Worldwide acclaim

— — — Gremmels shows off photos of the cheesemaking process.

— —

In July, the creamery won the Best New Product in the World Award at a food trade show in New York for its Smokey Blue, a cheese smoked in hazelnut shells. They also won the best overall blue cheese for their Rogue River Blue in London in 2003, at one of the largest cheese contests in the world.

Vella&

s continued guidance helped lead to their success, Gremmels said.

Vella, who now runs a creamery in Sonoma, Calif., still visits Central Point and provides guidance one week a month.

&

Ig still is the master cheesemaker,&

Gremmels said.

Vella&

s father, an Italian man named Thomas, opened the creamery in 1935. The younger Vella learned the business by shadowing his father and listening to conversations between him and the legendary cheese magnate J.L. Kraft. He learned how to produce cheese and negotiate with buyers.

&

We truly stand on the shoulders of giants,&

Gremmels said.

Bryant&

s and Gremmels&

backgrounds have also helped in the creamery&

s success. Gremmels was an executive at Harry and David and Bryant&

s background is in microbiology, biochemistry and manufacturing.

A new beginning

Tom Bradley, an Ashland real estate agent, introduced Bryant and Gremmels to Vella after the cheesemaker told him he wanted to sell.

&

Ignazio was much more focused on the cheese than the marketing. I knew David and Cary were talented guys,&

Bradley said. &

I hoped like any little matchmaker hopes that something bigger would come of it, but I had no idea how big it would be.&

Not long after meeting while vacationing in Canada in 1999, Bryant and Gremmels decided to quit their jobs and seek a new venture together.

&

Each of the things that our histories provided for us were pretty important to make this enterprise work,&

Bryant said. &

Still, I feel we were a little bit blind because it has been more work than we anticipated.&

With the continued success of the creamery, keeping the traditional aspects of cheesemaking has been challenging, the owners say.

&

People will always try to sell you ways to be automated. The things that need a human touch we want to keep with a human touch,&

Bryant said. &

We want to be preserving some traditions.&

The cutting, dipping in wax, rotating and packaging is still done by hand.

&

We keep the traditional methods of cheesemaking in place,&

Gremmels said. &

The key is in the process of staying artfully in tune with what you are making.&

Local ingredients

Three hundred cows at an organic and sustainable farm east of Klamath Falls provide their milk.

In 2002, the creamery had three employees and was producing 1,300 to 1,800 pounds of cheese every other week. The cheese was only available through several distributors in the Northwest. Now, 24 people work at the creamery and they make four times that amount. Rogue Creamery cheese is now sold throughout the country, as well as in Canada and Britain.

The cheese is sold at farmers&

markets in Ashland, Eugene, Grants Pass and Portland. It also is available at the creamery, on the Internet, and through 20 national distributors.

The creamery is only at a third of its capacity, producing 200,000 pounds annually using two vats for cheddar and two for blue cheese, Gremmels said.

At its height, the Vella family produced — million pounds of cheese annually using five vats.

&

For us, it&

s not about quantity, it is about quality, consistency and the art,&

Gremmels said.

The combination of science and art seems to be paying off.

The intense Rogue River Blue, which is wrapped in grape leaves that are soaked in pear brandy and tastes of berries and hazelnuts, sells out a year in advance.

The creamery&

s Oregon Blue Vein is the most requested blue cheese in the Northwest. The subtle cheese that was created nearly a half century ago is aged in sweet-smelling Roquefort molded caves.

&

It is the foundation of our company,&

Gremmels said.

A new building, which opened in 1957, was constructed the year before specifically to produce Oregon Blue Vein, Gremmels said.

In 1956, Tom Vella went to France with his wife to tour the most revered creameries and study Roquefort cheesemaking techniques. He returned with a recipe for the cheese and modeled the new building after one he had seen in Roquefort, France.

The Rogue Creamery celebrates its 70th anniversary this month.