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A date with bovine celebrity

Animals can be difficult interview subjects. Depending on their mood, they may be diffident or easily encouraged to gush. But with certain illustrious events having recently unfolded at Rogue Creamery, I deemed it worth a journey to Grants Pass for a private glimpse into the lives of the royal dairy herd.

For anyone who’s had their head in a milk bucket, the honor to which I refer is Rogue Creamery’s big win. Their organic Rogue River Blue Cheese just received the title of World’s Best Cheese. The news produced a groundswell of civic pride. From a field of 3,800 select cheeses representing 42 countries, a panel of 260 jurors gave the final nod to our Southern Oregon cheesemakers.

To crow even louder, this marks the first time in history an American cheese has taken top honors.

I have little conception of the amount of human effort that goes into producing such a cheese (I picked up my wedge yesterday), but I wanted to target the source of this ambrosia of cheeses. I made a date to interview the Rogue Creamery cows.

Zach Rose, dairy manager, met me at the facility on Lower River Road in Grants Pass. He’s the right man for the job as his family owns an eighth-generation dairy farm in Virginia. It’s in his blood.

As we entered the cow barn, my subjects continued chewing their organic alfalfa, most of which comes from Klamath Falls. Fortunately, Zach had plenty to say. The girls, and yes, to my satisfaction they’re named, enjoy an ongoing buffet of two tons of hay per day. Zach introduced me. “245 is Natasha, 1104 is Oreo and the cow with no tag is my cow. That’s Padme, from Star Wars.”

These ladies have it made in spades. Zach explained their automated set up for milking currently 120 of the 248 head. “See the white button tag in her ear? That’s what gives them permissions to go to the various locations and sends them where they need to go.” I watched, mesmerized by what I was seeing. Basically, these spoiled heifers meander over to the milking machines when they feel like it. If it’s too soon for them to be milked, the info is scanned and they’re redirected back to the buffet. Each cow has a personalized profile. The milking machines, also named — Charlie and Matilda dutifully emptied a few Holsteins (they also have Brown Swiss and a handful of Jerseys.) As they’re milked, they receive grain to make the experience that much more pleasurable.

The technology is astounding, and I heartily recommend a tour. They run at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Cost is $3 and waived for anyone making a purchase at the farm stand. It’s free for kids 12 and younger. Groups over five should call ahead.

Tour numbers have bloomed since the news — like tripled. “It’s absolutely one of the most important parts of the dairy and having the farm stand,” Zach explained, “the opportunity to see where our cheese is made and get a general understanding of how milk is made and how it comes to the jug or to cheese or ice cream or yogurt.”

So, just what makes their blue cheese so dang special? Zach explained that only the milk that’s produced during the autumnal equinox is used to make Rogue River Blue. The girls spend time in the pasture with good weather and are free to walk around in the barn.

“The milk flavor changes with the pastures and the different feeds the cows eat. The profile that the milk gives off is different than any other time of year. It’s just an amazing taste when they hit that fresh grass that hasn’t been there because it’s been so hot, and the weather cools down and we get these nice end of summer rains that bring the growth back, and it releases this magical flavor in the milk that makes our Rogue River Blue Cheese just incredible.”

The world agrees.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer in Eagle Point. Reach her at pcdover@hotmail.com.