An Historical Overview
The Rogue River Valley was a vastly different region when Tom Vella arrived from Sonoma, California. Small, diversified farms dotted the landscape as well as sprawling pear orchards. Seasonal employment in the logging industry and at lumber mills employed many, but there were few jobs available to tide a family over an unusually long winter. It was during the Depression of the 1930's that a small creamery opened in southern Oregon. The new business promised to create year round jobs and was a welcome addition to the area. Vella immediately started growing the business and employing as many people as possible. He was mindful that the faster he expanded, the more he could help small farms in the Rogue River Valley to survive during these dire times. The farmers were with him from the start, supplying ample milk to the cheese factory.
During this time, the Southern Pacific Railroad was the principal avenue of commerce offering freight and passenger service from Los Angeles to Seattle. This transformed the Valley into the cultural center of southern Oregon. The Holly Theatre was built in Medford to accommodate theatrical and operatic troupes stopping in Medford on the way to and from San Francisco and Seattle.
The Rogue River Valley and Rogue Creamery did better than expected in the 1930s during the Great Depression and were prosperous compared to the rest of the state. From 1940 to 1948 the Valley made significant contributions to the war effort.
In 1940, the draft triggered a shortage of workers and for the first time Vella employed women in one of his manufacturing facilities. The pressure intensified after December 7, 1941, when the U.S. officially entered World War II. Seeing this, Vella talked with the Office of Price Administration (OPA) and began paying a bonus for milk. He knew wives and children of servicemen were attempting to keep family farms together and felt that their efforts should be recognized. He later received the "E for Effort Award" for Rogue Creamery's contribution to the war effort.
The Creamery's contributions were also felt on foreign soil as cheddar production went into overdrive to help supply the war effort. For four consecutive years it produced one million pounds of cheddar that were shipped to troops in many countries. This sparsely populated rural area continued this extraordinary effort until the lights around the world came back on.
Once the War ended, the years of shortages were replaced with surpluses. The G.I. Bill of Rights, however, made for a smooth transition between the War and peacetime economy in the Valley. Rogue Creamery led the way, employing more people and retooling to serve the rejuvenated civilian market. In fact, the Creamery was the first major supplier of cottage cheese in Oregon.
Inspired by the successful introduction of cottage cheese to the lineup, Tom Vella decided to expand again, this time to blue cheese. Hoping that the best path to great blue cheese was to begin at the source, he and his wife traveled to where the best blues in the world were made, Roquefort, France in the early 1950s. Tom's good fortune, talent and fluency in Italian opened many doors. The Roquefort Association, although shrouded in secrecy, welcomed Tom when he spoke to the supervisor of the facilities in the man’s native dialect. They became instant blood brothers. Presented with a gold pass signed by all functionaries of the Society, Tom toured operations from farms to cheese factories to the curing limestone caves at Cambalou. At the end of summer he departed France with plans for a Roquefort type cheese factory, already producing Oregon Blue in his imagination. Construction began in Central Point in 1956.
Tom envisioned caves similar to the environment of Cambalou and designed a building to duplicate that atmosphere. Two Quonset shaped half circled rooms of cement were poured, one over the other, with space in between for insulation. The result was a true cave-like atmosphere.
The Creamery began production of blue in early 1954. Instant success validated Vella’s business acumen. It also went down in the books as the first blue cheese produced in caves west of the Missouri River. Over the years Vella's dedication to quality was unwavering to the end as was his enthusiasm for the business and this valley. He died on December 23, 1998, at age 100.
The business was inherited by Tom's wife, Zolita, and his four children: Ignazio, Carmela, Moris, and Zolita. The family was committed to preserving Vella's legacy and lifetime of work. His successor, Ignazio (Ig), soon took over Rogue Creamery and Rogue Gold Creamery in Grants Pass. His goal was to return to the glory days of Rogue Creamery. As CEO of both Rogue Creamery and Vella Cheese Company, Inc., in Sonoma, Ig began preaching the value of artisan products. He was met with skepticism and derision because artisan cheese was not considered the wave of the future. However, the American consumer began to grow tired of the blander, mass-produced cheeses and soon returned to handmade specialty cheeses. For his dedication to artisan cheese, and for his efforts over the years on behalf of the industry, Ig was dubbed "The Godfather of the artisan cheese industry."
Re-establishing Rogue Creamery's image was not easy, in spite of the investment, which included a newly remodeled blue cheese manufacturing plant. It was even named the best small blue cheese plant in the United States by the USDA, FDA and the State of Oregon. For three years Ig continued to split his time between Sonoma and Central Point. It wasn't until Sally, his wife of 50 years, pointed out the obvious: for Rogue Creamery to succeed he needed to move to Oregon. Ig realized the sagacity of her remark and he put the creamery on the market. He immediately had four offers on the business.
However flattering the offers, the sobering truth was that the buyers planned to take ownership of the labels and close the plant. It was at that time that realtor Tom Bradley told Ig of two acquaintances, David Gremmels and Cary Bryant. More important to Ig than the purchase price was keeping the plant open and remaining a contributing partner in the community. On the front porch of the Creamery a handshake sealed the deal.
Today, Rogue Creamery is thriving. Gremmels and Bryant have steadfastly held to the principles laid out by Tom and Ig Vella. In the first two years the Creamery won numerous trophies and awards, including World's Best Blue Cheese at the 2003 World Cheese Awards in London, a first for a U.S. creamery. Their long list of accomplishments also includes the coveted Best New Product Award as the World's first Smokey Blue at the National Association for the 2005 Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) Food Show in New York and Rogue River Blue took Best in Show at the 2009 American Cheese Society in Austin Texas. They have garnered more than 4 trophies and 30 medals and awards.
Rogue Creamery cheeses can now be purchased around the world. As the business grows and thrives, one can wander around the caves, through the packing room and even into the storefront hearing echoes of the past and feeling a promising future for the best American artisan cheeses.