80 years of making cheese
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
When second-generation cheesemaker Ig Vella, of family-owned Vella Cheese Company, died last June, cheesemakers around the country referred to him as the godfather of the artisan cheese movement.
“Everywhere I went, people were worried,” Vella’s daughter, Chickie, said last week. “People would come up to me, wondering if we’d be able to continue the business. Or I’d be sitting in my office with the door open, and I’d hear customers asking the girls behind the counter: ‘So, are you going to close? What’s going to happen?’”
But Chickie didn’t worry. She knew the company was in great shape.
“You know, it’s not like I closed a lucrative law practice last June and decided to jump into making cheese. Dad had congestive heart failure in October 2009, and he never came back full time after that. So we had all that time before he died to figure things out. It takes 13 people to run this business. Our head cheesemaker, Charlie Malkassian, has been here 32 years. My son, Gabriel Luddy, in training to be a cheesemaker, has been here 11 years. And I’ve been here 31 years.”
The company was founded by Chickie’s grandfather, Gaetano “Tom” Vella. An Italian immigrant, he came to Sonoma in the early 1920s and ended up making cheese at the Sonoma Mission Creamery.In 1931, he joined forces with another cheesemaker, Celso Viviani, to start their own company.
The pair rented and restored a 1904 stone building at 315 Second St. E., a former brewery that had gone belly-up during Prohibition. From there, they began creating Italian-style cheeses. Soon they moved into a building of their own on the plaza, where the Sonoma Cheese Factory now stands.
The partnership dissolved around 1950, and Gaetano moved his new operation to East Spain Street, site of the present La Casa restaurant. In 1969, he bought the 1904 stone building where the company had started and where it remains today.
Meanwhile, Gaetano’s son, Ignazio, or Ig, had joined the business after graduating with a history major from Santa Clara University in 1950 and serving as an Air Force officer in Korea. But the path wasn’t smooth for the mutually cantankerous father and son.
“Every year, always in June, Dad would fight with my grandfather and quit,” Chickie recalled. “After a while, he’d come back to work. But one year he really meant it. He became a county supervisor and got into politics. He managed the Sonoma County Fair for a while.
“A long while later, I think in 1982, he came back for good. He didn’t officially take over the business until 1998, when my grandfather died at the age of 100.”
And now the third and fourth generations, represented by Chickie and Gabriel, are running the business.
“I call myself ‘The Flunkie,’” Chickie said. “I do a little bit of everything. We all do. It’s more of a democratic process here now, and I’m happy to take counsel from the others. It’s better if everybody is involved in decisions.”
In the rear of the beautiful stone building, cheeses continue to be made and aged the same way they’ve been made at Vella for more than 80 years. The recipe and technique differ depending on the cheese, but each part of the process is accomplished by hand.
To produce Vella’s internationally renowned Dry Monterey Jack, for example, fresh milk from local dairies is pasteurized in a 1,200-gallon stainless steel vat. The milk is heated and culture is added. Coagulant is added next; curds develop, and the liquid whey is separated out. The curd is gathered and wrapped in muslin cheesecloth, hand-rolled into rounds, and twisted to tighten the cloth. After the twist is tied into a knot, the balls are stacked on racks, weighted down and pressed overnight to remove remaining whey. They end up shaped like a wheel. After three days in a salt-water brine, each wheel is sent to the curing room. There, the rounds are coated with a mixture of cocoa, pepper and oil, and left to age for a minimum of seven months.
“They call us artisan cheesemakers now,” Chickie said. “But we’re just doing exactly the same things we were doing in 1931. People’s perceptions have changed, but we haven’t.”