Services for Ig Vella announced
By GAYE LeBARON AND HEATHER IRWIN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Memorial services for Sonoma cheesemaker Ignazio “Ig” Vella are scheduled this week, with a viewing Thursday noon to 5 p.m. at Duggan’s Mission Chapel, 525 W. Napa St., and Mass at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Francis Solano Church, 469 3rd St. West.
Vella, owner of Vella Cheese Company and an outspoken leader in Sonoma County politics in the last half of the 20th century, died June 9 at
his home in Sonoma after a prolonged illness. He was 83.
Vella became an iconic figure in the artisan cheese industry after assuming leadership of the family business in 1981. In the 1960s and ‘70s he was a larger-than-life figure in county politics, both as supervisor from the Sonoma Valley and later as manager of the Sonoma County Fair.
Easily the most colorful and controversial of county officialdom in his political years, he was known for his colorful vests, wide-brimmed hats and his gift of oratory.
In his signature, white paper cheesemaker’s hat, Vella was a familiar figure at the landmark stone cheese factory on Sonoma’s Second Street East. As heir to his father, Gaetano “Tom” Vella’s craft, he built a cheese empire in California and Oregon with the same intensity he brought to the board room in the ‘60s.
Vella, a Sonoma native, was a magna cum laude graduate of Santa Clara University and an Air Force officer in the Korean War. He had a style all his own, a self-confidence sometimes taken as arrogance. He could be abrupt with those who disagreed with him and once told a reporter, perhaps as a joke, that he kept a copy of Machiavelli’s writings on his bedside table.
“He was one of a kind,” said Janet Nicholas, a Vella appointee to the county planning commission who was elected supervisor in 1984. “And there’s no question that he truly loved politics.”
He told a reporter in the ’70s that the county arena was his favorite — the level of government with “the largest scope and closest to the people.”
Vella was elected supervisor in 1964 and served three terms before resigning to become fair manager where he served with a distinction that earned him a “Best Manager” title for the California fair circuit in 1980.
He served as president of the newly formed Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) in the early 1970s, when Sonoma County’s participation in this new regional body was in question.
But his time as fair manager also brought controversy. In 1981, members of the fair’s board of directors bought up most of the tickets to a Willie Nelson concert, resulting in public outrage and Nelson’s cancellation. Vella’s handling of the crisis came under fire from the directors, and the episode known as “Williegate” cost him the manager’s job.
Vella served on the Sonoma City Planning Commission for 12 years after his county tenure, and as a charter member of the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission. In 2006, his hometown honored him by naming a new span over Sonoma Creek the Ig Vella Bridge.
“You always knew where Ig stood,” said daughter, Chickie Vella, who has run the company for the past several years with son Gabriel Luddy. “He did everything his own way.”
Having grown up in the cheese trade, from washing vats to delivering cheese in his father’s Model A in the early 1930s, Vella championed local dairies and small-production artisan cheeses.
In the late 1990s, he turned his sights to the family’s operations in Oregon. Despite initial skepticism, his commitment to making world-class blue cheese in the Rogue River Valley garnered him legions of cheese-making fans, including the current co-owner of Rogue River Creamery, David Gremmels, who took over operations from Vella with a handshake deal in 2002.
“He will be remembered for so many things, so many of us respect and think of him as a pillar,” Gremmels said. “He affected so many cheesemakers in a positive way that will be felt for generations.”
In 2006 he Vella was given the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Cheese Society.
His hobby was old clocks and watches and he was often asked by collectors for help in repairing and restoring old timepieces. He was also a dedicated baseball fan, coaching Babe Ruth League for several seasons.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Sally Vella; daughter, Ditty Vella; son, Thomas Vella, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Memorial contributions may be made to Hospice By the Bay or Friends of Turkana.