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Celebrating Each Other

I had the privilege of being invited to speak at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference last week (or as I affectionately like to call it: the annual Sheana Davis Shindig), giving tips to artisan cheesemakers on how to increase media exposure and drive sales (it’s always a surprise that anyone might think I’m an expert on either).

Three days and at least a dozen new friends later, I’m back in snowy Wisconsin, carrying with me a renewed spirit that we when celebrate each other, we all win.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really sick of the California vs. Wisconsin dairy story, or as the media likes to portray it: Big vs. Small … Evil Incarnate vs. Virtual Goodness … Happy Cows vs. Blustery Bovines … California Dairy Princess vs. Alice in Dairyland (well except for that last one, either Wisconsin or California could be portrayed as either side).

And while the media seems intent on pointing out the differences between our industries, all I tend to see are the similarities. We both have a growing number of farmstead dairies and artisan cheesemakers, more medium-sized plants converting to specialty cheeses, and a dwindling number of automated giants trying to eke out a living on penny-a-pound-barrel-cheddar-and-commodity-mozzarella.

Just as Wisconsin’s artisan and specialty cheese communities have enjoyed some amazing national and regional media coverage during the last few years, so too are California cheesemakers. In fact, a great article by Robert Digitale was published just today in the Press Democrat. The story opens with this statement: “A decade ago, the New York Times heralded the emergence of the region’s artisan cheese makers, calling Sonoma and Marin counties ‘a new Normandy, north of the Golden Gate.’ Since then, the industry has come of age, adding new companies, adding conferences and festivals and further bolstering the region’s reputation as a place that produces fine food as well as fine wine.”

The article goes on to talk with several cheesemakers I had the honor of visiting with last week, including farmstead cheesemaker Karen Bianchi-Moreda of Valley Ford Cheese. Her farm’s 440 Jersey cows provide the milk to make Estero Gold, one of the best new American artisan cheeses launched last year. The operation is a family partnership, including her brother Steve Bianchi, her father Paul Bianchi and now her son, Joe Moreda, a recent college graduate. “You’re going to see more diversification from all dairy families,” Bianchi-Moreda told the Press Democrat. “Making cheese and other value-added dairy products will attract those families that want to somehow stay on the farm.”

Hmmm … kind of sounds similar to Wisconsin, doesn’t it? Value-added? Staying on the farm? Diversification? I can think of a half dozen Wisconsin farmstead cheesemakers, all of whom have started up in the last 10 years for exactly those same reasons.

And interestingly enough, the Press Democrat reporter decided to interview a Wisconsin dairy spokesperson, perhaps, in expectation of a negative California vs. Wisconsin sound bite. But what he got was far different. Marilyn Wilkinson, of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board — who I’ve witnessed to be much more of a similarity-celebrator than a difference-divider, said: “It’s really been a terrific renaissance in small-batch, high-quality cheeses throughout the country in the last few years.”

Amen, Sister. Let’s put this Us vs. Them slug fest to bed and instead start working together.

The more opportunity one has to travel around the country, the more similarities one sees among cheesemakers, no matter where they live. An early morning tour of Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma last week with Minnesota native and head cheesemaker Roger Ranniker (alas, Ig Vella’s aging health no longer allows him inside the make room), proves that crafting small-batch, high quality cheese is pretty similar, no matter where it’s made.

As Roger, who’s been making cheese at Vella’s for 24 years, points out: “There’s basically only a dozen different steps for getting a different kind of cheese: you’ve got your milk, your starter culture, the size you cut the curd, the temperature you cook the curd, the temperature you rinse the curd, how you shape it, how you salt it and how you age it. Bam. You can get a hundred different cheeses by altering any one of those steps.”

One of the best cheeses Vella Cheese makes from its own sequence of those steps is of course its famous Dry Jack. Behind the historic stone building (originally a brewery, but converted to a creamery by the Vella family in 1931) is what appears to be a long, green, wooden storage shed sporting a series of doors with numbers ranging from 1 to 9. Inside each door, however, is a different, tiny aging room, with its own climate control, each peacefully aging hundreds of wheels of cheese on wooden racks.

And as I, a Wisconsin girl, dedicated to promoting Wisconsin cheese, walked up and down those rows – inside a California cheese plant, housing California cheese, made by a Minnesota man who is now a California cheesemaker – it occurred to me that the sweet and nutty smells that come with aging cheese are not state specific. Good cheese is good cheese, no matter where it is made. And the more we start to celebrate the success of our neighbors, the better the American artisanal cheese community will grow. That’s good for everybody, no mater whether you live in California or Wisconsin.

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