Farewell to Ig Vella, A Californian Icon
I heard this morning with great sadness that Ig Vella of Vella Cheese (and the original owner of Rogue Creamery) died last night. One of the few elder statesmen in the evolution of both Californian cheese and the American artisanal cheese movement, Ig will be sorely missed for his incredible knowledge and perspective—not to mention his unique personality.
My first encounter with Ig was shortly after I moved to California from London, when I went to visit his cheesemaking facility in Sonoma. Upon arrival I was met by a large-framed, unsmiling man dressed in what I later learned were his trademark red suspenders and slightly-too-small paper hat. I was immediately intrigued – and smitten!
Still, like many newcomers, I found Ig to be intimidating at first, appearing to withhold favor until you passed some verbal initiation – which would inevitably happen about half an hour into the conversation. At that point, one would start to realize that behind the gruff exterior, was a man of tremendous character, experience, substance, and innovation who, over eight decades had played a key part in the enormous changes within the American cheese industry. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t afraid to say it how he saw it. His honesty was refreshing, and insightful.
Aside from maintaining the highest standards with Vella’s signature cheese, Dry Jack, Ig made a handshake agreement with David Gremmels and Cary Bryant in July 2002 that sealed the handover of Rogue Creamery in Oregon, thereby assuring it of a secure and productive future. Despite being officially out of the business, he continued to take a huge interest in Rogue Creamery, and showed his support by traveling up there at frequent intervals until relatively recently. That’s the kind of guy Ig was.
Vella Cheese will continue under the watchful eye of Ig’s daughter, Chickie Vella, his grandson Gabe and cheesemakers Charles Malkassian and Roger Ranniker. I think he would be justly proud.
For more about Ig Vella and his legacy, you can read Culture’s featured profile of him, published in the spring 2009 issue.
Photos by Frankie Frankeny