American Cheese Society Best of Show 1994: Vella Dry Jack

Vella Dry Jack, Sonoma CA - Best of Show 1994

While some cheese aficionados may frown at the thought of “Monterey Jack” Cheese, equating it with a rubbery, tasteless offering, there are actually a few stand out versions that put the grocery store blocks to shame. One versatile and highly decorated version of this cheese is Vella Dry Jack from Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma, California.

It should come as no surprise that the same regions of California that produce some of the world’s most coveted wines are also home to fantastic dairies and renowned cheesemakers. Vella Cheese Company is one of the oldest cheesemaking operations in the region, founded by Gaetano “Tom” Vella in 1931 and still run by the Vella family. American Cheese Society Best of Show 1994: Vella Dry Jack

Tom first learned the cheese trade while working in the Sonoma Mission Creamery, starting in the 1920’s. When a local coalition of dairy farmers approached Tom, suggesting he start his own creamery with their milk, he jumped at the chance. The creamery gained momentum and by the time the U.S. entered World War II, Vella Cheese Company was working at full capacity 24 hours a day just to accommodate their orders.Vella Dry Jack, Sonoma CA - Best of Show 1994

Monterey Jack cheese in its semi-hard form was readily accepted into the repertoire of Sonoma locals and bay area consumers when it was first produced commercially by a Scottish businessman by the name of David Jack in nearby Monterey County.

In the lead up to WWII, traditional Italian aged cheeses were unavailable and the Italian-American population were looking for a hard, grating cheese that reminded them of the Parmigiano-Reggiano of their homeland. Tom recognized that he could meet that demand. With that ambition in mind, he created Vella Dry Jack.

Vella Dry Jack, Sonoma CA - Best of Show 1994

Vella Cheese Company uses Tom’s recipe to make this tasty, handmade artisan cheese, passing them down the recipe to his son Ignazio, better known as Ig. Until his death in 2011, Ig wore the title “Godfather of American Artisan Cheese” with honor. After his death, Ig’s daughter Chickie and grandson Gabe stepped up and now run the company today.

The secret to the unique flavor profile in Vella Dry Jack is in the curing process. The cheese wheels are washed in a mixture of saffron and soybean oil, black pepper and unsweetened cocoa. The oil is designed to keep the wheels from cracking as they age for seven to ten months. By adding the pepper and cocoa, the cheesemaker ensures that the oil does not actually penetrate the surface of the cheese. The result is a wheel that is coated in a thick, brown rind with scents of chocolate, but no accompanying flavor.

In addition to the typical Dry Jack, Vella produces a “Special Select Dry Jack” that is aged for up to 16 months. This cheese is quite similar in flavor with a bit more nuttiness. Both versions of the Dry Jack offer mild, well-balanced flavors that can pair easily with both red and white wines. Offering thin slivers of Vella Dry Jack alongside olives, salumi and crusty bread is an Italian themed feast.

Vella Dry Jack was awarded the Best of Show honor at the American Cheese Society conference in 1994. That year the conference was held in Rohnert Park, near Petaluma, CA. Today, the cheese is widely available in California markets and at fine artisanal cheese shops around the country.

Although Ig Vella passed away in 2011, his legacy as well as that of his father Tom will be carried on by their thoughtful and dedicated family members who can be found at the helm of Vella Cheese Company today and likely for many years to come.

Cheese Quiz: The Vella family also had a profound impact on another Best of Show winner. Can you name the creamery and the cheese?