Cheesemaking legend Ig Vella dies

A local legend known as the godfather of the artisan cheese movement

Sonoma County cheese making legend Ignazio “Ig” Vella has died at the age of 82 after a prolonged illness.

The son of cheese maker Gaetano “Tom” Vella, Ig is considered by many to be the godfather of the artisan cheese movement. Rarely seen without his trademark white paper cheese maker’s cap, Ig took over the family business in 1981 which included Vella Cheese Company in the town of Sonoma and Rogue Creamery in Oregon.

Having grown up in the trade, from washing vats to delivering cheese in his father’s Model A in the early 1930’s, Ig eschewed bland, mass-produced cheeses, instead championing local dairymen and small-production artisan cheeses typified by their Mezzo Secco, an Italian-style aged dry Jack similar to Parmesan. Vella cheese has been recognized by Slow Foods in its Ark of Taste as a cherished food and in 2006 Vella was given the first “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the American Cheese Society.

In the late 1990s, Ig turned his sites to the family’s operations in Oregon. Despite initial skepticism, Vella’s commitment to making world-class blue cheese in the Rogue River Valley has garnered him legions of cheese making fans, including the current co-owner of Rogue River Creamery, David Gremmels, who took over operations from Vella with a handshake deal in 2002.

“(Recently) we met with him and spent several days reminiscing and planning for the future,” said Gremmels. “He will be remembered for so many things, so many of us respect and think of him as a pillar. He affected so many cheese makers in a positive way that will be felt for generations,” said Gremmels.

Though Ig had stepped away from daily operations at the company in recent years, his reach continued to be felt throughout the community. “Truly without Ig Vella, I would not be who I am today,” said Sonoma cheese maker Sheana Davis of Epicurean Connection. “Nearly every artisan cheese maker has called on him for his experience, and he has been really helpful.”

Family remember Ig as an outspoken and opinionated part of the tight-knit Sonoma community. “You always knew where Ig stood,” said daughter Chickie Vella, who has run the company for the past several years with son Gabriel Luddy. “He did everything his own way, including how he died — on his own terms,” she added. In the many chapters of his life, Ig had also served as as a Sonoma County Supervisor and director of the Sonoma County Fair.  The Ig Vella Bridge was dedicated to the cheesemaker in the town of Sonoma in 2006.

A public service for Vella will be held at 11am, Friday June 17, 2011 at St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma. He is survived by his wife Sally; children Chickie, Ditty and Thomas Vella; six grandchildren, Gabriel, Miranda and Shaina Vella, Ross and Marius Cannard and Gia DeSoto and one great-grandchild. He is preceded in death by daughter Sara, who died in 1992. Memorial contributions may be made to Hospice By the Bay or Friends of Turkana.