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Get your (virtual) cheese on

Determined not to have their beloved signature event snuffed out by another season of pandemic restrictions, Oregon Cheese Guild members are going virtual with their cheese-pushing magic.

Cheese gurus may have to partake of the 14-plus Oregon cheeses in the privacy of their own COVID-19 circle, but enjoy 14-plus types of cheese they’ll certainly be able to do.

Cheese Fest To-Go, available Thursday, March 11, and Friday, March 12, are selectively packed cooler totes boasting a smaller-scale tasting experience not unlike the renowned Oregon Cheese Festival.

Born in tiny Central Point some 18 years ago, the event boasted a global draw and was headed for its biggest year when 2020 pandemic restrictions prompted delays and eventual cancellation.

A similar, virtual cheese tasting event, dubbed The Wedge, has been hosted in Portland area and was a resounding success, said event coordinator Liz Wan.

Wan said the Guild would facilitate about 500 of the to-go kits to be distributed at a handful of locations including the CraterWorks MakerSpace, north of the Rogue Creamery, and at Hellgate Cellars in Grants Pass.

Southern Oregon University hospitality students and Rotary volunteers will help with packing and distribution of the kits.

Wan said guild members were devoted to figuring out a way to support cheesemakers around the state as well as bring delicious cheeses to festival supporters.

“This will have been the second year we haven’t been able to execute an in-person event. The festival was growing by leaps and bounds and last year was slated to be our biggest year ever had not COVID occurred,” Wan said.

“We had grown so much that we literally were shutting down the highway and setting up tents and expecting five to six thousand in attendance.”

Following cancellation of the 2020 event, Rogue Creamery personnel and Cheese Guild members worked to sell cheeses — produced en masse for the event — to ease some of the impact to local cheesemakers. This year’s virtual event is being facilitated with cheese purchased from makers typically involved with the festival.

A $20,000 sponsorship by Tillamook will add a trio of cheddars to the totes — three different vintages — with the rest of the bag filled by local cheesemakers and other artisans.

“Cash flow is so important right now for our cheesemakers. They have their own goats and cows having their babies right now and all the added expenses of getting through winter and waiting for those markets to happen. With the live event, we had over 100 vendors — wine, breweries, cheese, honey, just so many producers,” Wan said.

“Unfortunately, we can’t put 100 things in a bag but this is at least a sampling of what we hope to bring back once we can all be together again.”

Jonny Steiger, who co-owns By George Farm with husband Tyson Fehrman, was on hand Sunday to deliver Garlic and Basic cheese spread for the totes. Steiger said the pandemic restrictions had hit smaller farms especially hard and that the virtual event was a much needed boost. Steiger and Fehrman began their cheesemaking as dairy farmers in Wisconsin and run a small 25-cow farm just outside Jacksonville.

“We really, really missed the festival last year. For a small artisan creamery, the fact the Guild is doing this is huge for us. The cheese festival was often our way to get through to summer when the markets would really start,” Steiger said.

David Gremmels, Rogue Creamery president and founder of the festival, said he was encouraged by the already brisk sales of the festival totes — more than half sold — and happy to see so much support for local artisan food makers. Rogue Creamery’s contribution to the totes is a chunk of limited reserve “Brutal Blue.”

In addition to food items, tote purchase will come with a virtual component where customers can tune in live — or via replay — and sample their cheeses while learning about the producers who contributed.

“This is a pretty fun way to continue to celebrate Oregon cheese in this time that we need to stay safe and stay healthy by being physically distance, but yet we can be socially engaged with family and those close to us and share a cheese plate in our home from all these wonderful makers,” Gremmels said.

“We would normally be shoulder to shoulder this time of year with thousands of cheese lovers coming together. We would very much love to have that moment with other makers on Rogue Creamery property. I don’t think any of us could have imagined (pandemic restrictions) would continue on as long as they have, but here we are. For now, this is a smarter way for us to still be able to honor Oregon’s fine cheese makers.”

Tasting kits are available online for $95 and will include 14 cheeses, Vintner’s Kitchen preserves, Effie’s Homemade Crackers, and Ranger Chocolate’s Sea Salt Oregon bar.

The livestream event is scheduled Saturday, March 13, at 5 p.m. Instructions for pickup in Central Point and Grants Pass as well as for the livestream will be emailed upon purchase.

To purchase, visit merctickets.com/events/110490510/oregon-cheese-fest-to-go. To order by phone, call 888-337-4501. For more information, visit oregoncheesefestival.com.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Photo by Buffy Pollock.Liz Wan, event coordinator for Cheese Fest To-Go, displays several products Sunday that are available in the $95 tasting kit being offered for sale this week so participants can participate virtually at home.
Photo by Buffy Pollock.{ }Jonny Steiger and Liz Wan cart boxes of food products to prepare for Cheese Fest To-Go.