Romancing the Cheese

Making a better world with every wheel, wedge and crumble

David Gremmels with one of the many cows that supply milk to Rogue Creamery.##Photo CREDIT: Favoreat
Known as “Mr. Blue,” Gremmels serving cheese at the creamery walk-up counter.##Photo PROVIDED
An employee wrapping Rogue River Blue Cheese with biodynamic Syrah grapevines from Troon Vineyard.##Photo by DanielLober
David Gremmels out in the pasture, surrounded by dairy cows. ##Photo PROVIDED
Bertha, the Rogue Creamery’s blue, 1948 Dodge pickup, driving into the sunset.##Photo CREDIT: Favoreat


In May 2002, David Gremmels started searching for local cheeses for his soon-to-be-opened wine and cheese bar. When visiting Rogue River Valley Creamery, he was met by owner and cheesemaker Ignazio Vella. The two men took an extensive “nook and cranny” tour of the creamery, open since 1933, followed by a visit to the Italian cheesemaker’s family cottage. They sat at a Formica kitchen table, enjoying blue cheese and espresso made from an old Italian moka pot. Gremmels promised Vella he would honor his stories and cheese on the menu of his new wine and cheese bar.

Next, Gremmels says, “Ignazio reached into his pocket, pulled out a lot of the keys we still use today, slammed them on the table and said, ‘Dammit, if you want my cheese you’re going to have to make it yourself. Those are the keys. You have four weeks. I’m going to close it down.’” Gremmels responded, “Mr. Vella, are you asking me to…?” ‘You’re damn right. Bring me a proposal.’”

Vella accepted Gremmels’ second proposal, initiating a huge learning curve while igniting a life-long passion. He is now president, owner and lead cheesemaker of Rogue Creamery.

Gremmels recalls that period as his “due-negligence days.” He shares, “I was so caught up in the passion, the stories, the romance.” With a handshake, the deal was sealed on July 1, 2002. Gremmels relates, “Ig said, You know there is no romance in this business; it’s all hard work, and more hard work, and more hard work.”

Gremmels acknowledges the difference between opening a restaurant and buying a creamery. He elaborates, “In the restaurant I might have had 50-100 turns a night, but by saving the creamery from closure, I would be able to feed thousands. For me, looking at the opportunity with that perspective changed everything. I knew I had a lot to learn, and that was exciting.”

Although he had never made cheese, Gremmels had a taste for artisan cheeses since childhood. Growing up in Olympia, Washington, his family frequently vacationed in the Rogue Valley. He remembers his mother always had Oregon Blue.

But romance and stories remain part of Gremmels’ life; it’s logical he fell for an iconic artisan creamery. During early career days in Seattle, he developed menus for a coffee bistro and sampled artisan and world cheeses by a woman who has become a lifelong friend.

Throughout his career, Gremmels continued expanding his creativity while traversing the globe as Creative Director for The J. Peterman Company. As a “field” person, his job included sketching images, imagining ideas and concepts for their product lines. All while dining at bistros in places like Buenos Aires and Bali. While traveling, Gremmels regularly created culinary profiles, faxing them to the main office in Kentucky.

Robert Redford’s Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah became part of his repertoire. He worked as design director for the catalog in both soft and hard goods, including food and cheese. From there, Gremmels, recruited by a previous colleague, returned to the Pacific Northwest as vice-president of product design and brands for Bear Creek Corp., more commonly known as Harry & David. He says this job, “gave me the opportunity to design their creative processes and build out a creative design studio. It was one of the most remarkable jobs of my career outside of cheese, but even cheese was part of it.”

Since that auspicious handshake, Gremmels– now known as “Mr. Blue”– has continued his education. “I’ve attended many courses from France to Vermont, Oregon and California, and trained alongside a true cheese master.” Vella remained a mentor and was Gremmels’ friend until his death in 2011.
Rogue’s Culture

“It’s my life’s work and my passion,” Gremmels says. “And I’m always excited to share our story with someone who knows the creamery but isn’t familiar with our company’s culture, mission, and vision. We believe in doing the right thing all the time and having a safe, healthy, positive and “other-centered approach” in everything we do at the creamery as well as in our community, both socially and environmentally.”

Rogue Creamery, vegetarian and organically certified, became the first business in Oregon ranked as a B Corp. Worldwide and ranks among the top five percent of B Corp companies worldwide. B Corp companies must meet high standards in business practices and, as Gremmels emphasizes, “practicing for the better good socially, economically and environmentally. Socially, with our commitments to the community. Economically, with our team and the nonprofits we support. Environmentally, through our commitment to curbing climate change.”

Rogue Creamery has won numerous awards and honors. In May 2022, they were named #1 Best Green Workplace in Oregon by Oregon Business Magazine. Most recently, in mid-July 2022, Gremmels was honored as a visionary with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Cheese Society. Seventeen years earlier, at Gremmels’ petitioning, Ignazio Vella received the very same award.

Then, there’s Bertha, the Rogue Creamery’s blue, 1948 Dodge pickup who deserves her own beauty award. Gremmels acquired her while still in high school. He spotted the truck on a Happy Camp fly fishing trip with his dad, who responded, “Don’t even think about it.” Ignoring that advice, Gremmels sneaked down the river, bought the truck, and drove it home to Washington a week later, to his father’s surprise. His father lovingly rebuilt the truck, adorned with a BIG CHZ license plate.

Rogue Creamery created the “Nellie Green Pedal Power Program,” focused on sustainability and alternative modes of transportation. Any employee promising to bike to work at least 45 days a year is given a bicycle. Committed to harnessing photovoltaic energy, the creamery offsets 45 percent of their electricity, with the future goal of 100 percent. The cheeses enabled Gremmels to accomplish these practices… but the cheeses have their own specific stories, too.
Milk expresses landscape

Artisan cheese incorporates a sense of place, a terroir, similar to wine. With zero additives, and not standardized or pasteurized, the milk reflects characteristics of what the cows eat. Different flavors in different seasons, different years, almost like vintages, but not necessarily as distinctly as wine. That’s one of the reasons local cheeses pair so well with area wines. Similar environs result in comparable flavors that enhance and complement each other.

During my tour of the cheesemaking facility, I felt surprised to witness “flipping the hoops,” which, to my wine-trained eye, are similar to ‘riddling’ champagne. For the blue cheeses, they use gravity to “knit the curds together,” turning the perforated metal containers three or more times daily. Wheels of cheese are created from the hand-cut curd and pierced a week into the affinage (aging process). The original strain of Penicillium roqueforti, brought from France by Vella in the early 1950s, is then added to the milk. This creates veins that carry oxygen into the wheels— necessary for the growth of penicillium roqueforti— contributing a creamy texture and Rogue Creamery’s famed piquancy.

Gremmels explains, “I first look at everything from an artist’s perspective. Every artist strives to create a sensory experience that has never before been experienced. That is my goal when making Rogue River Blue. Create a sensory experience distinctively different than anything else in the world and a reflection of this place. This is achieved visually, texturally and with flavor. Developing over time in our caves, this natural rind cheese incorporates the bacteria and yeast of this region, very much like wine.”

“The release of Rogue River Blue has become like a release of Beaujolais. People call wanting their allocation and asking when they can get it,” says Gremmels. In 2019, this cheese was the first U.S. cheese to win the coveted World Champion Cheese– the top prize– at the World Cheese Awards. Also rumored to be a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, the next release for this epic cheese is Sept. 22, the autumnal equinox. I had a sneak taste, and you’ll want to indulge in some romance with this vintage of the best cheese in the world.


Recommended wine and Rogue Creamery cheese pairings

David Gremmel is also a wine collector, mostly from the Oregon and Burgundy regions. Of course, he has a distinct fondness for wines that pair with his Rogue Creamery cheeses. Some of his Oregon favorites are:

Awen Winecraft Grenache Blanc goes exceptionally well with the cheddars, especially the floral and herbaceous Hopyard and Rogue’s Mary, named after Indian Mary Park, a small play on words.

For bubbles, Left Coast Estate Brut Rosé of Pinot Meunier blossoms with Crater Lake Blue and Caveman Blue.

Cameron Winery Clos Electrique Blanc, a Chardonnay, tastes amazing with the blues.

Another white that complements the piquant blue cheeses is Troon Vineyard Côtes Du Kubli Blanc, featuring notes of crushed stone, florals and fruits. The Rogue River Blue is complex; the Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier work beautifully with it. This wine also goes well with Jefferson Cheddar and Touvelle.

Additionally, the Troon Syrah is exceptional with the Rogue River Blue, as it’s wrapped in the variety’s grape leaves from the vineyard.

Oregon Blue, a classic Northwest-style blue, pairs beautifully with Pinot Noir, including these: Authentique Keeler Estate Vineyard, Amity Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills, and Brooks Winery Janus– a quintessential Oregon tasting of wine and cheese to savor.

Abacela Dolcetto is a brilliant choice to pair with blue cheeses. I always discover a new flavor in my cheeses when eating them with this wine. It has lovely plum and floral notes, but also some spice, enhancing the peppery flavor in the blue.

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