Today was my first day at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference here in California. This is a great little shindig hosted by Sheana Davis & The Epicurean Connection. With about 100 attendees — all cheese trade folks — it’s a fabulous opportunity to talk with industry leaders and opinion leaders in a very intimate setting. Plus, it’s 60 degrees and we’re at a quaint hotel in wine country. I mean, really, why would I NOT be here?

One of the most interesting talks today was led by Mateo Kehler, co-founder/owner of the Cellars at Jasper Hill and maker of some of my favorite cheeses, including Constant Bliss and Bayley Hazen Blue. Mateo is working with the Vermont Department of Agriculture and the University of Vermont to study whether his state should consider developing a platform for “place-based foods.”

Such a program would celebrate the terroir of Vermont and might be similar to a French AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) designation, where products (such as certain cheeses like Roquefort and Comte) must be produced and aged in a consistent and traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in designated geographical areas.

While Mateo, being a Vermont cheesemaker, is of course interested in designating Vermont cheese as a “place-based food,” he freely admits the work could benefit other industries — including products such as Idaho potatoes, Kentucky bourbon, Virginia ham, California wine and Wisconsin Cheddar.

Such an idea is not as far-fetched on this side of the Atlantic as one might think. For example, just last year, our neighbor to the north established a Quebec-government-regulated label of IGP (indication géographique protégée), for Quebec’s Charlevoix lamb, making it the first food product in North America to be legally protected based on its region of origin.

With 43 farmstead cheesemakers making 150 different types of cheeses in a state with only 600,000 people, Vermont certainly has a unique angle on the cheesemaking industry. The question is, however, do Vermont cheeses taste different than other cheeses made in other parts of the country? I would argue yes. Just as I believe Wisconsin cheeses – especially those produced in the southwest part of the state where our sweet soils and limestone-filtered water grow grass unlike anywhere else on earth, and in time, grass becomes milk which becomes cheese — Vermont has its own climate, own culture and own cheesemaking heritage. Compare a Vermont Cheddar to a Wisconsin Cheddar any day and you’ll notice a distinct flavor profile difference.

Establishing a “place-based foods” designation just might be the one way to preserve what’s left of Vermont’s dairy industry. The state, like many others, has watched its smaller dairy farms disappear and its remaining farms get bigger to survive. Vermont, however, will never support large, confined dairy operations like those in Western states, because of “political, economic and environmental reasons,” Mateo says.

“We have an iconic, pastoral, idealized landscape. When you think of Vermont, you think of patchwork land and fields,” he says.

But getting Vermont farmers (and I would argue –farmers in any part of the country — they’re an independent bunch by nature) to collaborate and work together toward an AOC-type of designation for Vermont cheese will be hard, Mateo admits. “This type of initiative is going to have to be producer-driven, and frankly, I’m not sure if we Yankees have it in us to collaborate on anything.”

Let’s hope they at least give it the ol’ college try, as this is one initiative that could be a good model for other industries around the country.

5 thoughts on “On Location: Sonoma, CA

  1. Nice article, Jeanne! It's great to hear what's happening outside my “local” cheese region. Though something like this is a grand effort that takes time, the entire process promotes understanding of the uniqueness of place that is showcased in artisanal foods.

  2. Heather Paxson talked about this issue when I saw her speak in Madison in December. I recall her saying that Kentucky Bourbon is the one and only appelation of origin from the U.S. that is recognized internationally.

    One of the main points she made in her talk was the major difference between American and European concepts of terrior. In Europe, the AOC is of course a very bureaucratic thing — but more importantly than this, it defines the type of cheese made for an entire region. If you are a cheesemaker in Parma, you make Parmesan. If you are a cheesemaker in Franche Comte, you make Comte. If you are a cheesemaker in the Pyrenees, you make some kind of hard sheep's milk cheese (Ossau-Iraty or Petit Basque) etc…

    In America, our concept of terrior is very producer specific. You could have in the same region a hard aged farmstead cow's milk cheese, and up the road only a few minutes someone making a soft goat's milk cheese. While their literal terrior, in the European sense, would be very close if not identical because they share the same geography, soil, and climate, they are two totally different cheeses.

    Which bring us to the next point, which is that terrior is much more than merely an expression of place. It is also an expression of a set of values — enviromental, agricultural, social, political, etc…

    In America, I believe right now the closest we are going to get to protecting any kind of appelation of origin, is to focus simply on the term “raw milk cheese from ______”, and let the producer determine for themselves what kind of cheese they want to make. Americans are too individualistic for the European system of AOC.

  3. Hey House Mouse — a great place to meet people in the cheese community is the Annual American Cheese Society conference, which is this year set for Aug 25-28 in Seattle, Wash. That's where I've met tons of industry folks, made some great connections and made some really good friends. Would highly recommend it.

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