Gold, War, & Prohibition
The improbable story of Vella Cheese Company and Dry Jack
At Bruno Iacopi’s butcher shop in San Francisco in the 1930’s, an ever-present wheel of peppery, dark and dry Monterey Jack sat poised on the counter of the neighborhood store, ready for hearty consumption by the locals—erstwhile Italians and straggly beatniks—of the old North Beach enclave. This sunny section of town between Telegraph and Russian hills would now be unrecognizable as Italian to Mr. Iacopi and many of its early residents who have long since gone on to greener pastures, but the popularity of the slightly sweet and decidedly nutty, dark-rind dry Monterey Jack thrives today across the country, thanks in large part to the pedigree of Vella Dry Monterey Jack, called simply Dry Jack. Made by Ignazio (Ig) Vella, secondgeneration master cheesemaker at Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma, California, it is one of the few legacies left of those early Italian communities where wine ran like blood in the streets from garage wineries and the aromas of garlic and rosemary permeated the air.
The history of Monterey Jack in California dates to the Gold Rush, 1848 to 1849. Many suspect that an adaptation of the cheese was brought from Spain, along with olive oil, via Mexico by Franciscan monks. The fresh cheese that they called queso del pais was consumed enthusiastically by early California landowners and ranchers. And, as the story goes, an enterprising Scotsman, David Jacks, came to Monterey to work in a mercantile store after his dreams didn’t pan out in the gold fields. Soon he became a partner and then went on to buy the store. Before long, Jacks began to buy land in the vicinity, including a huge ranch in Sur, the area now known as Big Sur. According to Ig Vella, “Monterey was, at that time, the milk shed for San Francisco. Milk would be sent on ships from the Monterey Peninsula up the coast overnight, where it would stay fresh by the natural refrigeration courtesy of the Pacific Ocean.”
Jacks was approached by a couple of ranchers who wanted to make cheese with the extra milk they had on hand during the spring, but they didn’t have the money for the proper equipment. Jacks responded to the appeal by sending to Germany for kettles, thermometers, and other machinery necessary to make cheese. They made a cheese very much like the present-day Jack, but with a rind to keep it fresh when refrigeration was not readily available. The cheese was brought to San Francisco and began to sell first as Jacks’ Cheese from Monterey and then simply as Monterey Jack.
The name change also helped distinguish the cheese from a similar type that some French cheesemakers had created. To avoid further confusion, David Jacks had an iron brand made to stamp his cheese with the name Monterey Jack.
And so, for a while, fresh Jack filled the needs of early Californians, coexisting with occasional old country imports of cheeses by the many ethnic groups that made up the Bay Area. The flood of immigrants wanted familiar cheeses from their homeland rather than versions from the New World. Parmigiano-Reggiano and Romano were imported from Italy and summarily consumed.
Dry Jack, which had not yet appeared on the counters of general stores nor in ethnic groceries in the big cities, came about almost by mistake. Necessity being the mother of invention, Dry Jack was conceived during the scarce times of World War I. In the spring of 1915, a resourceful San Francisco cheese wholesaler, D. F. DeBernardi, contracted for his usual amount of fresh local Monterey Jack while waiting for the hard grating cheeses, Parmigiano and Romano, to come in from Italy. But since Italy had entered the war on the side of the Allies, they required most of their country’s food for the effort, so DeBernardi’s order did not arrive. At the same time, his stock of fresh Jack didn’t sell as well as usual, so DeBernardi took the cheese, salted it, and stacked it on the ground of a warehouse, occasionally turning it and wiping off its mold.
Much to his surprise, the cheese that resulted after standing and aging for a while had a nutty, sweet flavor much like Parmigiano. And its hardness made it ideal for grating. To make it look more like the Italian import, DeBernardi coated the cheese with oil, pepper, and lamp black, an ebony pigment made from oil lamp soot. The cheese sold vigorously throughout the U.S. Soon there were about sixty producers of Dry Jack, but with the advent of the Great Depression and a flourish of cheap, imported grating cheese (especially from South America), most producers went out of business.
But not so with the Vella family—the only remaining cow’s milk cheese producer in the town of Sonoma and the only domestic company making Dry Jack with totally natural ingredients. Founder Tom Vella arrived in Sonoma in the 1920s, in a roundabout way from Sicily. He’d been identified as an ambitious worker at the Sonoma Mission Creamery and in other jobs around the county, known for his knack for making top-notch cheeses. When a group of dairymen recognized Tom’s talent, they asked if he’d start a local cheese company if they were to guarantee him all the milk that he’d need to operate fruitfully. And so it was as a result of Tom Vella’s assiduousness that a cheese company was born.
Today, the octogenarian Ig Vella, son of Tom, remembers during Prohibition sitting as a boy with legs dangling over bottle crates, watching workmen dismantle the town’s old stone brewery to make space for what would become the Vella Cheese Company. His father assembled first-rate equipment and proceeded to make cheese.
Success followed as the Vella Cheese Company grew out of the confines of the retrofitted Sonoma brewery. A plant in Nicasio, in West Marin Country, and two more in Oregon were added as the company went full speed ahead during World War II, operating around the clock. At about the same time that General Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson for president (1951), Tom moved the heart of the operation to the Sonoma Mission Creamery opposite the Sonoma Mission (also known as the San Francisco Solano). In 1969, the business moved back to the original stone building, where it continues to operate.
Tom Vella turned operations over to his children in 1981. Ig became CEO and his three sisters, Carmella, Maria, and Zolita, took positions on the board of directors. Carmella Vella Jacobson died late last year.
Ig Vella, known in the cheese world as elder statesman of artisanal cheesemaking in California, has won so many awards that there’s not enough wall space in company headquarters to display all of them. Besides accolades for excellent cheeses, plaques announce Vella’s membership in the Slow Food organization Ark of Taste as well as note an environmental award for the company’s solar panels that have cut its electricity bills measurably. “When I win an award for cheese, I always refer to dairyman George F. Mertens [of Shelleville, Sonoma County], because you cannot make good cheese without good milk,” Vella says. “Cheesemaking is axiomatic.” He also notes that Mertens’s 900 dairy cows, from which he draws 2500 gallons of milk a day, are grass-fed (until forage runs out; then they’re given alfalfa) and treated well.
When questioned about organic procedures and sustainability, Vella becomes a bit hot under the collar. “Sustainability means a balance between what you take out and what you put back into the earth,” he replies. “Mertens does not burn out his cows. And,” he adds, “I am tired of grumbling about sustainability. In my lifetime, sustainable agriculture has been practiced here because we have had just so much space in which to operate.” He has the same no-nonsense philosophy when asked about business practices, “My business plan has always been based on who came through the door and who wanted [our] stuff.”
Although Ig Vella studied British history at the Santa Clara University and once had a serious career in country politics, cheesemaking has been his undeniable passion. “He’s considered a pioneer by local cheesemakers,” explains Cindy Callahan, of Bellwether Farms. “He has encouraged us from the beginning with our sheep’s milk and Jersey cow’s milk cheeses. When the inspectors came by and grumbled about our curing cheese on wooden planks as we’d learned in Italy, the forgiving inspector had to admit, ‘Well, I guess I have to let you do it because I gave Ig Vella a pass.’”
Today Vella Cheese supports fourteen full-time employees, including Charles Malkassian, head cheesemaker and a veteran of the business for thirty years, as well as Roger Ranniker, cheesemaker and pasteurizer. The Vella Cheese Company is under Local 64 of the Teamsters Union.
Milk, Chocolate, Pepper
In the past 78 years, not much has changed in Vella’s production. Cheesemaking equipment has been periodically updated, but formulas and processes have remained pretty much the same. Cheeses are all hand-made with vegetable rennet and hand-cut. Besides the other cheeses that are sold on premises and online, three varieties of Dry Monterey Jack Cheeses are made and aged in the old converted brewery—Dry Monterey Jack, aged for seven to ten months; Special Select, aged about a year; and Golden Bear, aged between two and four years.
Mertens’s milk is from two breeds: two thirds from Holstein and one-third from Guernsey cows. The Guernsey milk has a higher ratio of fat, protein, and solids, making it ideal for cheesemaking. “Since the 1970’s,” Vella explains, “there’s been a transition in California from the majority of milk going to producing fluid milk, to now a fifty-fifty ratio of milk for fluid [products] and cheesemaking.”
Milk from the creamery is delivered early in the morning on the day of cheese production (about three to four days a week) to the Vella Cheese Company, located just a few blocks off the charming old town square in Sonoma. While the process is slightly different for each of the Vella Cheeses, the Dry Monterey Jack is made with milk that is pasteurized, cooled, and transferred to large stainless steel vats. In the vats, a culture is added along with a coagulant. After the milk sets, a curd cutter (a square stainless steel device comprised of either horizontal or vertical wires) is dragged through the viscous mixture to cut and separate the curds into small, uniform squares.
Next the curds are cooked slowly, stirred, drysalted, and shaped. Shaping begins when the curds are manually scooped into a perforated cylinder, allowing drainage, and then poured into a square of muslin. The corners of the cloth are drawn together to create a sack that holds the loosely formed ball of curd at the bottom. The three cheese makers, in rubber aprons and standing alongside the vat, tie the sack and begin to tighten the shape of the enclosed ball of curds by pressing it hard with their stomachs, squeezing moisture out. The ball is then cradled and shaped between their hands, then flopped and rocked against the side of the vat, “belly pressed” again.
Finally, to flatten the muslin-wrapped balls into wheels, they’re placed, nine at a time, on boards of plastic stacked six high on a dolly, weighted with four 50-pound tubs of water. At this point the wheels weigh about ten-and-a-half pounds, but by the next morning, they will weigh about eight-and-a-half pounds, having lost much moisture. (After aging for a minimum of seven months, the cheeses will have dried to less than eight pounds each. Typically, 105 Dry Jack wheels are produced from a 1200-gallon vat of milk).
“Tom Vella was a bear on salt,” says Ig Vella about his father’s approach to minimally salting the cheeses. “Only one percent salt is used in the finished product and you are allowed [by government standards] four percent.” He shares a proud story of how, a few years ago, Vella Dry Monterey Jack cheese was sent to France. “They couldn’t believe that we could get such flavor and texture out a cheese that claimed to have so little salt,” Vella recalls. “And so they tested the cheese in a lab and found that it actually had 0.9 percent salt.”
When the cheeses are ready for the aging room, they’re rubbed with vegetable oil (to keep the rind from cracking) and a powdery mix of Guittard milk chocolate and black pepper, a mix that keeps the oil from permeating the cheese. The flavor is almost imperceptible but the color is striking against the cheese’s tawny interior. The dark, pungent aging rooms hold racks of Dry Jack wheels, each of which is turned and wiped periodically.
Ig Vella, a man not unlike his cheeses—well aged and slightly ripe—reveals that he’s most proud “That we are still here.” With a loyal staff at the creamery and appreciative customers, longevity of Vella’s company seems assured. As cheese expert and author Laura Werlin says, describing the enduring success of Vella Dry Monterey Jack, “It’s one of America’s most soulful cheeses.”
Written by Peggy Knickerbocker
Photography by Frankie Frankeny