A while back, just after the imagined calamity of Y2K and the real calamity of 9/11, a Harry & David vice president and a microbiologist thought it would be really quite nice to restore a historic building in Ashland, Oregon and open a wine and cheese bar. With renovations underway in the city’s boutique Railroad District, they decided to connect with a local cheese vendor. They were convinced celebrating all things local would be a hit. It seemed like a good plan.
They decided they didn’t need the wine. The restoration stopped and a new business plan was launched.
“I was taken by the craft of cheesemaking the first day,” says Harry & David veep turned Rogue Creamery President David Gemmels.
Cheese connoisseurs are equally taken with the legacy cheese products founded by the Vella family during the Great Depression and elevated to a new level of excellence under the leadership of Gemmels and his partner, CEO Cary Bryant.
Rogue Creamery’s signature product is its line of blue cheese, which has a list of accolades that reads like Meryl Streep’s IMDb page. Caveman Blue was named one of the top 60 cheeses in the world—a Super Gold Winner—at World Cheese Awards in London in 2014. Pile on a host of other awards, write-ups in standard bearers like The New York Times, distribution on the menus and shelves of cultural food mainstays like Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco, and you get a sense of the heady acclaim of the rural Oregon cheese company.
Some even argue that Rogue Creamery’s success and influence extends to the entire artisan food movement that is so pronounced in Oregon.
“The owners of Rogue Creamery created the artisan movement in Oregon…” Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture once said. “They are the real reason why Oregon’s artisan cheese makers are so successful.”
Gemmels, 54, doesn’t hide his surprise and dismay, brushing away with a laugh any notion that all of this was somehow part of a designed master plan.
“We thought we’d open a cheese and wine bar and make cheese a few days a week and life would be great. This just kind of took over. Now, there is no stopping our commitment to this business.”
Not lost on its owners is the reality that this business that started in the midst of the Great Depression has thrived in the midst of a Great Recession.
“It’s resilience through this economy is amazing,” Gemmels says. “We’ve seen its resilience move between food service and full-service deli and direct to consumer and it keeps unfolding.”
Just what is it about cheese that is so recession proof?
“It’s sustenance,” Gemmels says simply. “It’s what truly brings people to the table for conversation. And it’s not only a food, but it’s also something we put in that category of desirable food.”
Get him talking about the aura of cheese and Gemmels hits a different level, switching artfully from the prose of business to the poetry of artistic creation.
“Cheese is mindful, healthy, stored energy that’s been cultured and aged to perfection and its complex in experience that delivers just that … an experience,” he says.
This complexity attracts Gemmels anew regularly, he says. He never lost the enthusiasm he felt that first day learning how to make cheese from former owner Ignazio Vella, a man the company refers to as “The Godfather of Artisan Cheese Industry.”
Replication and evolution
Those first days were long days for both Gemmels and Bryant as they took the family recipes and knowledge of how to make its signature cheese from Vella, who in turn learned directly from his father. Rogue Creamery Founder Tom Vella worked with cheese his entire life until his death at the age of 100.
Gemmels says that family legacy, the pride of place, and the recipes themselves attracted them to the business.
“These are brands we grew up with in the Pacific Northwest,” Gemmels says. “We felt it was necessary to preserve those recipes. Both Cary and I shared fond memories of those cheeses being stocked in our family’s refrigerators and enjoyed at meals.”
It was a long tradition that Gemmels and Bryant were determined to honor. The pair worked nearly every day for four straight years, Gemmels says.
The problem, as any Italian kid can relate to, is transferring those intrinsic and artistic recipes into a repeatable, scientific, accurate formula that could be perfected and repeated.
“There were a lot of variables,” Gemmels says. “We wanted to narrow that and understand how to control the quality of the cheeses.”
Gemmels said the task of documentation fell largely on Bryant, a microbiologist by training. “We had to document the recipes, the temperature, the pH levels, the salt and all of the ingredients, the Affinage (a French word for the aging and curing of cheese) and understand the cheese through its life at Rogue Creamery.”
In this arduous process both men became more than business owners. They became cheesemakers, starting with two recipes that had been used for seven decades, Oregon Blue and Oregonzola.
“The recipes for the two cheeses that Rogue Creamery was making when we purchased the business are basically the same formulation now as they were then,” Bryant says. “Of course since then, with cheesemaker classes and advanced training, we have developed our own recipes for seven new blues we produce. We wanted to stay true to the original cheeses but we also wanted to have new recipes that introduced our flavor profiles and interests and also the terroir of our region.”
They set a very high bar, one Gemmels says remains the guideposts for all the company does.
“We have quality standards that are really high,” he says.
The two men and one employee grew into a business than now has more than 50 employees, each dedicated, Gemmels says, to maintaining those guideposts of excellence. Budding cheesemakers now go through a seven-tier, multi-year training process to ensure the exacting standards and the rapid company growth.
“The business continues to unfold,” he adds.
This unfolding includes a new line of fresh cheese, like mozzarella and burata, ice-cream bases, and even its own ice cream that will launch around press time. Look out Ben, look out Jerry. Here comes Dave and Cary.
Poetry is infectious around Gemmels.
The ice cream was developed in connection with Oregon State University. It will feature Rogue Creamery’s “milk profile,” as Gemmels calls it, and will celebrate the local pride of place that is never far from Gemmels’ thoughts. Honey is the future ice cream’s sweetener of choice, with a custard base. Flavors will include local chocolate, Oregon nuts, local berries and local names like “Pilot Rock Swirl,” he says.
The growth fuels the owners’ passion that spills over into charitable giving, a novel bike commuting incentive plan and careful focus on environmental protection, despite a massive new investment in the construction of a dairy farm in Grants Pass. Cows have long been on the opposite side of environmentalists, earning scorn for their gassy contribution to global warming and their heavy-footed trampling of the ground, among other criticisms.
Sustainable dairy overcomes ‘bad rap’
So, about this “sustainable” dairy farm…
Gemmels is unflinching, even quickly offering a must-read book for those serious about the issue called, Cows Save the Planet, by Judith Schwartz.
“The rap is false. It’s not proven. They do generate some gas with every burp,” he says with a laugh, “but it’s certainly in no competition with the automobile and with other fossil fuels.”
The Rogue Creamery dairy farm will be an “eco-cathedral to cows,” he says. More importantly it will continue the method of production the business uses that unveils its process to the viewing public, “from start to finish,” he says. “Our vats are visible in the Rogue Creamery store. Our cows are visible from the Rogue Creamery dairy.”
The cows are tended by two robots named Matilda and Charlie, Gemmels enthuses, “in a healthy, happy environment.” They are grazers of the local land running adjacent to the Rogue River that imparts the local flavor.
“The beautiful thing about our mix of browns, Holsteins and few jerseys here and there,” Gemmels says, “is that we have that wonderful composition of butter fat and creams that is a signature for Rogue cheeses.”
The cows do their part to help the environment by building needed top soil that sequesters carbon in accordance with the principles of Schwartz’s book.
The eco-cathedral to cows will “showcase an organic dairy that is offset by solar power that creates inspiration for the next generation of farmer that can manage it with an iPhone and using the technology of today.”
Long way from a wine and cheese shop
Exactly the opposite of the slow, intricate process that ages cheese is the frenetic pace of the business growth. Further expansion is inevitable.
“The business is at that stage of growing beyond our comprehension, which is so exciting for us and our community,” he says. “We see the next stage as bringing in some partners that will help us move it to that next level sustainably.”
Gemmels embraces the growth so long as future partners embrace the focus on community and the exacting standards necessary for a globally recognized cheese. The benefit of growth, Gemmels says, is more employees with a livable wage and a positive working environment, which impacts every level of the business, including the cheese, he insists.
“You can truly taste that in the cheese; the energy you have and impart is reflected in that. You see it on our cows.”
What might strike some as unbelievable may as well describe the whole story of Gemmels, Bryant and Rogue Creamery. Gemmels still can’t believe it himself, he says.
“It just continued to evolve and unfold into numerous accolades throughout the world, noted as the finest blue cheese in the world and judged as such,” he says. “I’d never thought I’d be a cheesemaker nor a dairy farmer. I just stayed true to the concept of contributing to a sense of place and touching the people in it.”