March 21st, 2002


a day of cheese

I spent most of yesterday in Napa at a seminar on cheese molds. It was held at the $55 million monument to butt-ugliness called Copia. (

Copia is the "Center for Wine and Food" started by Mondavi winery money. It's mission, according to its website, is to explore the relation of wine and food to the arts. Previously, I thought it was just coincidence that galleries served wine and cheese at art openings. I didn't realize it was an integral part of the creative process.

As us Rainbow folks wandered toward the landscaped monstrosity, a security guard approached us before we could get within 50 feet of the doors. "How can I help you people?" he said, eager to run us off the property. "We're here for the cheese thing," I replied, "Out of the way!"

As it turns out, it costs $15 to walk through their garden so he was just trying to make sure we didn't step off the main path.

I must admit the food was pretty good, enhanced by the fact it was absolutely free. Plenty of free wine too, but I was driving. The art, on the other hand amused us no end. My favorite piece was the 20 ft(?) high candelabra made of what appeared to be trash cans, but turned out to be stock pots and woks. Another seminar-goer told me that until recently, they had a turkey shaped (twice life size!) chocolate mold that Martha Stewart had found at a garage sale. That I would have enjoyed!

But my favorite part of the day was when a journalist, sitting at our lunch table, thought she had scored a coup when Ig Vella sat down at our table. Ig, my favorite American cheese-maker icon because he almost always gets his picture taken with his Harley Davidson suspenders on, has been making cheese for decades and his family since the '30s. I love him because he appears to have little tolerance for the kiss-ass, compliment-everyone-in-public, pretension of the new class of cheese makers. He says what he thinks. Always. And he's incredibly smart and funny. He's also so conservative that we agree on many issues (against bovine growth hormone, etc), though most likely, for different reasons.

So this reporter grabs him immediately and starts discussing the book she is going to be writing about California terrior*. Ig lets her talk and then basically answers that there's no such thing, and that the project is a waste of time. Crestfallen, the reporter (who seemed very nice by the way) kept trying to find points of common ground, and failed, finally excusing herself in frustration.

It is my goal as a cheesemonger to prevent, by any means necesary, the wine industry-ization of the cheese business. With that interaction, I felt like our side had won a little victory in the very heart of the beast.

*I have written elsewhere about my feelings in using pretentious, French words to describe American food and cheese. Terrior basically means "sense of place" and refers to foods and patterns of eating that have grown in, usually geographically isolated, places over centuries. My feeling is that unless one is prepared to discuss the Pennsylvania terrior of Philly cheesesteaks and beer (rather that the "terrior" of food and cheese only made or paired for a year or two), one should shut the fuck up.