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More cheese, please

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A world champion and a winery that makes cheese illustrate variety of local cheesemakers
Tempranillo wine and a large appetizer plate at Wooldridge Creek Vineyard in Grants Pass. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Blue cheese ages at Rogue Creamery in Central Point. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Gene Martin and Phil Dequine work to make cheddar cheese at Rogue Creamery in Central Point. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Cheddar cheese is in production at Rogue Creamery. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Cheeses age in a cooler at Wooldridge Creek Winery, one of the few wineries that is also a cheese maker. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
Aiyah Rebecca Geier cuts cheese made at Wooldridge Creek Vineyard in Grants Pass. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

When the Mail Tribune caught up with cheesemaker Phil Dequine, he was just a month into the job at Rogue Creamery.

His employer is more than just the most prominent cheese man-ufacturer in Southern Oregon. For him, it’s a symbol of home. He still has memories of touring the Creamery when he was a student at Mae Richardson Elementary.

“I was born and raised here in the valley, and it’s just kind of cool that I get to work for a place that shows that even the small guys can go big,” Dequine said.

He was referring to Rogue Creamery’s ascension to World Champion at the 2019-2020 World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, Italy, for its signature product, Rogue River Blue. Rogue Creamery, founded by Gaetano “Tom” Vella and Celso Viviani, was the first American cheesemaker to ever win the prestigious award.

Dequine, wearing a lab coat, hair net and mask, looked like he had just completed a workout after using long sticks to squeeze the moisture out of tons of cheddar cheese.

“When you see the end product, and it’s going out there with all the quality and the personality that people put into it ... nobody even thinks about slacking — that’s not even an option,” said Dequine, who spent years in Wisconsin, often thought of as America’s dairy capital

.Immanuel Rodriguez, operations manager for Rogue Creamery, applauded his employees for the way they make cheese.

“A lot of these guys, you walk in there, it’s a beautiful mix of artisanship, science and experience,” he said.

While Rogue Creamery isn’t slowing down in making cheese, other establishments in the valley aren’t either — and some are trying it for the first time.

Rogue cheese-making

Rodriguez talked about how the company stands apart from mass cheesemakers.

“It’s different from these massive producers, who have these oper-ators who are highly skilled and trained to operate the machines that make the cheese,” Rodriguez said. “Over here, though, every-thing is handmade. So the skill and the experience all are (from) people who make the cheese.

Rogue Creamery makes two kinds of cheese: cheddar and blue, with several varieties of each.

The company provided a tour of its facilities, at 311 N. Front St., in Central Point, which include separate buildings for the production of blue and cheddar.

The distinction between the two is that the blue cheese-making facility has blue mold in the air to help age the cheese. As a rule, employees who visit the blue cheese plant don’t go into the cheddar shop the same day, so as not to risk inoculating it with blue mold.

Tom Van Voorhees, retail manager for the company, explained how Rogue Creamery makes its famous cheeses, and he started by talking about milk.

While a lot of big cheese-production companies use “standardized milk,” Rogue Creamery’s contains varying protein-to-fat ratios.

Those differing ratios are the result of pasture-raised cows that supply the milk being fed different diets depending on the season.

This approach is important to Rogue Creamery, because “we’re really trying to get the expression of the milk of this valley right through to the finished product,” he said.

Blue cheese, the Rogue Creamery way

Rogue Creamery ages blue cheese “the traditional way,” said Van Voorhees, in a “cave-like environment.”

The cheese is made by introducing — not injecting — mold into the cheese when the milk is inoculated with blue mold spores.

“During the cheese-making process — about once a week (when) wheels are strong enough to support themselves — they perforate them with a machine that just pokes straight lines through them, like little chimneys,” he wrote in an email.

“That’s how oxygen gets into the center of the cheese. Once the oxygen is available, the blue mold starts to reproduce. It works its way into those little caves and finds little spots between the curds where there might be air available.”

Rogue Creamery’s blue cheese process takes a minimum of three months, though Rogue River Blue takes 11 months.

“The flavor is constantly chang-ing. As it matures, and the blue does its work, the mold keeps basically eating cheese,” Van Voorhees said.

Cheddar cheese making and a tasty store

Steps away from its facility for cheddar-making, which involves extracting moisture from the curds, adding salt and pressing, is an on-site store.

That’s where all Rogue Creamery goods are sold. Products include tubs of the company’s smokey blue and pimento cheese spreads (specialty crackers are available for dipping).

When you stop in, don’t forget to ask for an order of the grilled cheese sandwich, which includes Rogue Creamery cheese between two pieces of bread toasted on a panini press.

“We’re a small production, very high quality, and really interested in something that goes beyond plain nourishment,” Van Voorhees said.

A cheese-infused experiment

Aiyah Rebecca Geier is the manager and head cheesemaker of Crushpad Creamery at Wooldridge Creek Winery in Grants Pass.

The winery has been open for four decades, and the creamery started in 2015. The operation gets its name from the fact that it started on the same piece of equipment the winery uses to crush grapes for wine.

In 2020, Crushpad Creamery moved out of that facility and got its own space — a barn on the winery’s property that includes a retail space for its cheeses.

“We are the first, and I think, still, the only winery-creamery combination,” Geier said. “It is a destination.”

The creamery’s job, she said, is to provide cheeses that can be paired with its wine.“

Cheese and wine are pretty much a perfect pairing,” she said.

The creamery focuses on five kinds of cheese: fromage blanc, bloomy rind, washed rind, feta and an assortment of aged cheeses.

Each of those categories of cheeses contain a number of different ingredients, depending on the type. A bloomy rind called Midnight Valley is coated with ash made from Wooldridge Creek’s grape vines. Another, called Manzanita, contains pink peppercorns pressed into the rind.

“Basically, what you’re doing is, you’re trying to make the wine taste good,” Geier said. “Oftentimes, the cheese kind of retains its flavor, but the wine might taste different depending on what cheese you’re eating.”

In 2021, Crushpad Creamery debuted its cheese club. The group has not held a lot of events due to the pandemic, but despite the economic impacts of COVID-19, business has been steady.“

People are buying cheese here and coming out, and I think that’s part of the success of the cheese club, too,” she said. “It’s a good excuse to get out and get your cheese.”

Geier hopes Crushpad Creamery becomes an essential part of the Rogue Valley cheese scene.“

Right now, we’re just focusing on continuing to do what we’re doing and doing it well,” Geier said. “It is fun. It’s cooking, and it’s science, and something delicious to eat all rolled in one.”

Over at Rogue Creamery, Van Voorhees is equally enthused with the profession.

Centuries ago, Italians paid Roman soldiers with cheese, Van Voorhees said. Given cheese’s rich history, it could have been thought of as “the original power bar,” he added.

“It was a very primitive yet super ingenious discovery that milk would curdle, and that wouldn’t necessarily be bad,” Van Voorhees said. “It became one more chore on the farm.”

The way Van Voorhees sees it, there are plenty of reasons to be proud to be a cheesemaker.“

It comes from the reaction someone gives you when they taste what you made,” he said. “Just like the pride of someone who bakes really good bread. ... It’s the gratification of doing something well and being appreciated for it.”