It was a sad day for American cheese lovers when Ig Vella passed away in 2011. Losing this crusty, cantankerous, opinionated cheesemaker was bad enough. But what would become of Vella Dry Jack, his California company’s flagship creation? Would it change for the worse without his oversight? “I can tell you a lot of people were worried about it,” his daughter Chickie told me recently.
October is American Cheese Month (although I think every month is), so I purchased a big wedge of Dry Jack, checked in with Chickie Vella and asked how this influential creamery was faring without her dad at the helm.
Chickie’s office overlooks the sales counter at Vella’s small retail shop in Sonoma. That’s how she knows that, in the months following her father’s death, people would come into the store and whisper to the clerk, “So I hear his daughter took over?”
I was worried, too, although Chickie told me that she had worked at Vella Cheese Company for almost 30 years. She was capable of taking over. The head cheesemaker, Charlie Malkassian, is still on the job. He not only made cheese side-by-side with Ig. He trained with Ig’s father, Tom, and now works with Ig’s grandson, Gabe. Malkassian is the institutional memory.
Vella Dry Jack, a hard, aged cow’s milk cheese with a distinctive cocoa-rubbed rind, was an early ambassador for American cheese, proof that the U.S. could make wheels worthy of dinner tables anywhere. But Ig was difficult, a generous mentor to many but a crotchety soul with a healthy ego.
“He didn’t feel that women could make cheese,” says Chickie, who has an administrative role at Vella. “I had a younger sister who wanted to, and my grandfather told her women didn’t make cheese.” In truth, the hand-formed wheels of Vella, shaped by gathering curds in a bag and rolling them against the side of the vat, require a lot of upper-body strength. “You have about 12 pounds of wet curd hanging in a sack off your arm,” says Chickie. “It’s heavy.”
“I did ask him, literally on his deathbed, ‘What would be your vision? What would you like us to carry on?’” recalls Chickie. “And he said, ‘To make a consistently good product and don’t ever compromise quality.’”
Vella Dry Jack, I’m pleased to report, tastes as wonderful as it always has. It’s nutty, sweet-and-salty, balanced to perfection and hard to stop eating. Ig would be pleased.
This California classic is one of my go-to cheeses for red wine, especially when I want to show off a fine wine. Look for wheels labeled Special Select (some retailers identify it as Reserve), which indicates at least a year’s aging. The creamery releases most of the wheels at eight months, but the extra aging intensifies that nutty character.