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Oregon Cheese Festival resumes this weekend — live and in-person

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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Yellowstone cheese from Teton Valley Creamery at the Jackson County Expo Friday afternoon.
This year’s event is happening at The Expo in Central Point

After two years of the coronavirus pandemic, the Oregon Cheese Festival, which brings cheese makers from all over the state to the Rogue Valley, is back this weekend to an in-person format.

The festival is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, at The Expo, 1 Peninger Road, Central Point. The event is billed as one “for cheese lovers 21 and older.”

Katie Bray, executive director of the Oregon Cheese Guild, applauded the fact that the festival was able to go live again.

“I am so excited to see everybody. I can’t wait to see my cheese makers and get the public back out again and celebrate one of our state’s best culinary treasures,” she said.

Compared to past Oregon Cheese Festivals, there will be two major changes to this year’s event. One is that it is being held at the Expo, and the other is the age restriction.

Bray said planning for the in-person festival began in the winter, when organizers were weighing different factors due to the pandemic, as well as supply chain and labor issues.

“Given all of the things happening … we were going to have to create some limits and a structure that was just going to keep things under control,” Bray said.

The venue, she noted, includes large doors organizers will keep open for ventilation, which will help prevent the potential spread of COVID-19. A big room with high ceilings also helps.

“Even though there aren’t mandated restrictions, we have heard from a lot of our cheese fans that people have some hesitations in coming back to a big, crowded event,” Bray said. “While there are no legal restrictions, we feel we have an ethical obligation to keep our crowds safe.”

The new rules are a far cry from what happened with the event in March of 2020 and 2021. Bray recalled how the festival had to be scrapped in the early days of the pandemic, though a smaller “cheese makers dinner” was held. The following year, the Guild organized a virtual festival, but it was open only to Oregon vendors.

“The cheese makers are tough people — we roll with the punches,” said Kendall Russell, of Salem, Idaho, who operates Teton Valley Creamery and Larks Meadow Farms with Suzanne Maté-Lécuyer.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Suzanne Maté-Lécuyer of Teton Valley Creamery unraps Yellowstone cheese at The Expo Friday afternoon.

The pair are happy to be back at the festival, which involved a 12-hour drive. “Tired” was the word Kendall used to describe how he felt on a Friday afternoon, when he was setting up at The Expo. Suzanne responded, “excited, but tired.”

They came to the festival, as they have for the last five years, to connect with not only cheese makers throughout the state, but buyers from the Pacific Northwest, including Portland and Seattle.

“A lot of the nice, high-end chain stores come,” Kendall said. “They’re awesome.”

Wild River Brewing and Pizza Co. in Medford is one of those vendors. Alexis Cummins, assistant general manager, said Wild River will use the event as an opportunity to showcase its beers. Growlers and six-packs of beer will be for sale, not to mention tasting opportunities available to pair the adult beverages with cheese.

“A lot of people think it’s a bit complicated to find a great beer that will go with cheese, but I think it’s actually quite a bit easier because you can find that there’s a lot of notes of fruits and citruses that can really bring out the full flavor of a cheese,” Cummins said. “They get along well with each other.”

Noting Wild River’s participation in the Oregon Cheese Festival for at least five years, she called it “incredible” to have the event in-person again.

“We are a community-based company, and I think just being able to get back into the community and see everybody and showcase what Wild River is and who they are as people, I think that’s going to be the most exciting part is that connection again,” Cummins said.

Rogue Creamery organized the Oregon Cheese Festival for several years until it gained steam with cheese makers throughout the state, at which point it was handed off to the Guild. Marguerite Merritt, cheese emissary and marketing manager for Rogue Creamery, commended the Guild for organizing this year’s event.

“The Oregon Cheese Guild … formed to act as a resource for cheese makers across the state and it’s been the perfect group to take on the management of the Cheese Festival,” Merritt said.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Vendors at the Oregon Cheese Festival set up at The Expo Friday afternoon.

Rogue Creamery still has a planning and preparation role in the festival, but it’s not as prominent as in years past.

“This year, because the festival has been moved to The Expo, we aren’t quite as involved as when the festival is on our property,” Merritt said.

But Rogue Creamery would never miss an Oregon Cheese Festival, she said. The company will have eight different kinds of cheese to taste and buy, as well as some limited-edition merchandise.

“We’re thrilled to be able to have the festival come back to Central Point — we’re sorry that it can’t be on our footprint, especially because this weekend looks like it is going to be a beautiful one,” Merritt said. “But we’re really happy to be able to do it in as safe and as healthy a manner as possible and we’re just really excited to be back here in-person, in front of everyone.”

Asked how it feels to have an in-person festival — without masks — Kendall Russell put it more simply.

“It’s just nice to see smiles again,” he said, “and be humans!” Maté-Lécuyer added.

For more information, including price of admission, see www.oregoncheesefestival.com/ or https://attheexpo.com/event/oregon-cheese-festival/

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.