Posted: 21/02/2020

Knowing its place

The creator of Rogue River Blue explains how the World Champion cheese is very much a product of its home in Oregon, USA

David Gremmels was “bucking” hay in the early morning darkness on his farm in when the message came through from Italy that Rogue River Blue had won at the World Cheese Awards. 

“I was wearing a headlamp and loading hay racks to feed the cows,” says the president of Rogue Creamery in southern Oregon. “The next thing, I’m being face-timed by Jason Hinds from Neal’s Yard Dairy, but I still didn’t really understand. I asked him if I’d won a category and he said, ‘No, the whole thing!’ I was completely awestruck.” 

It’s fitting that Gremmels was down among the haystacks and cows when he received the news because Rogue River Blue is rooted in the soil of Oregon. Made with milk from the company’s 120-strong herd of Holstein and Brown Swiss cows and named after a local river, the seasonal organic blue is wrapped in Syrah vine leaves from a nearby biodynamic vineyard, which have been macerated in pear spirit – another local speciality.

“When I developed the cheese in 2002, I wanted to create something that incorporated the DNA of the region and this area is known for its pears, wine and dairy,” he tells FFD.

Back then, Gremmels had just bought the company with partner Cary Bryant from cheesemaker Ig Vella, whose family had owned the company since the 1930s. Mentored by Vella, Gremmels, who had previously worked in design and branding, expanded the product range with innovative new cheeses, such as Rogue River, Caveman Blue and Smokey Blue, which is smoked over smouldering hazelnut shells. 

Bryant left the business in 2017 with Gremmels continuing to focus on growing sales with indie retailers and restaurants. Customers include Whole Foods Market, Murrays and Michelin-starred Restaurant Daniel in New York. 

In 2018, the creamery was making around 100 tonnes of cheese a year across 11 different products, but Gremmels wanted to take the business to the next level – a tricky proposition with strict limits on bank lending in the US. “I was rich in buildings and land, but to grow you need capital,” he says. 

The solution was a deal with French multinational Savencia, which Gremmels describes as a “partnership” rather than a takeover (the exact terms of the arrangement have not been disclosed).

“My strategy was to partner with a company that aligned with our values and supported our mission to grow strategically and sustainably,” he says. “Per capita consumption of cheese in the US is half of what it is in Europe. There’s so much opportunity because people are really embracing artisan cheese.”

The deal has enabled Rogue to increase its workforce from 50 to 70 employees and double production to around 200 tonnes a year. This was good news for retailers keen to stock the newly crowned Best Cheese in the World. 

A couple of pallets even made it to the UK where the cheese was on the counters of Neal’s Yard Dairy and Paxton & Whitfield. Larger shipments are scheduled to be made later this year through Savencia and Neal’s Yard, adds Gremmels, who says the big win is changing perceptions.  

“America is known for commodity and industrial cheeses, but our artisan and farmstead cheeses are often overlooked. The award means light is shining brightly on Rogue Creamery, but it’s also beaming on the American artisan cheese movement as a whole.”

The secret is out. There’s more to US cheese than plastic orange slices.

This story appeared in the January/February issue of Fine Food Digest. You can read more on the digital edition here.

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