IG VELLA THE BIG CHEESE
BY KATHLEEN THOMPSON HILL
What was that weird crackling noise? It got louder and louder, and scarier and scarier. Was it an invasion of crickets into St. Francis Solano Church? Crickets in Sonoma?
The noise happened at the funeral mass for Ignazio (Ig) August Vella, the face and grand master of Vella Cheese Company
As friends, family, community members and food industry folks entered the church, we each received an unusual 12-page program loaded with photos that chronicled the life of the renowned cheesemaker from his toddler years to those of meditative aging. There were photos of him on a tricycle in front of Sonoma City Hall, of him discussing cheese with his father, Tom Vella, and of him receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the American Cheese Society.
Sticking out of each program was a paper hat like the one Ig wore every day, shaped like an old Army sergeant’s cap, with cheese brand stickers on it. As the pallbearers turned to escort Ig out of the church, they opened and put on their hats. The entire audience followed suit, creating the eerie crackling noise.
Recently, a friend said that when she moved to Sonoma a couple of years ago she crossed a bridge over Sonoma Creek marked “Ig Vella Bridge,” and wondered to herself, “What’s an Ig?” Good question.
A man of great honor and many opinions, Ig could be sweet and tender, gruff and argumentative.
I often saw the sweet and tender side. On occasion during my morning walks, it has been my honor to primp and prune the Vella Cheese rose garden outside the historic building that houses the current cheese factory. While he was alive, Ig used to arrive at work early, often before first light, and definitely before 8am. His ritual was to get out of his station wagon, face the white cross on Schocken Hill, cross himself and pray, usually a prayer of thanks for being alive. If I happened to be there, he would insist that I join him, which I was honored to do.
On occasions when my husband had been ill, or when Vella’s roses jumped out and grabbed me, Ig would say, “Wait just a minute” and into his office he would trot, coming back with a bottle of water from Lourdes, the French grotto shrine and spring where a woman named Bernadette Soubirous experienced several visions of the Virgin Mary starting in 1858. Patients and believers, of whom Ig was one, flock to the waters where hope springs eternal for cures and other miracles.
Ig’s uncle Joe had been the first of the family to arrive in Sonoma from Sicily, followed by Ig’s father, Gaetano (Tom), in 1923. Joe started Sonoma Mission Creamery, where La Casa restaurant is today, and Tom worked various jobs for Joe including making cheese and driving a Model A truck to San Francisco to deliver cheese.
Ig was born to Tom and his wife, Zolita Clerici Vella, on July 13, 1928. Three years later, in 1931, a group of local dairymen approached Tom to suggest that if he would like to start his own cheese factory, they would guarantee quality bulk milk. He leapt at the opportunity.
Among other cheeses, Tom’s Vella Cheese Company made a soft, creamy white cheese many visitors had never tasted. It was a “Jack” cheese, originated in Monterey during the Gold Rush by Scotsman David Jacks, for whom it is named. When Italian customers started asked for a quality grating cheese, Vella Cheese responded with what is now possibly their most unique and famous cheese, Dry Jack.
In 1933, during American’s Great Depression, Tom expanded his creamery business by opening the Rogue River Creamery in Oregon. There, Tom made a practice of employing as many locals as possible in the lumber region’s off season and, as men went off to World War II, he hired women to make cheese and purposely paid a bonus for milk so that the wives and children of soldiers could keep their dairy farms going.
Tom turned over his businesses to his children in 1981, but he continued to be involved, always dignified with a twinkle-eyed smile, until he passed away in 1998 at the age of 100.
Ig, a product of Sonoma Valley schools (with a stint at the San Rafael Military Academy) and a cum laude graduate of Santa Clara University, continued his father’s strong sense of community responsibility. After serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, he returned home to start a family, work in the family business and promote the area he loved. If he didn’t like the way local government was doing things, he would join in, voice his (often strong) opinion and make a difference.
For starters, Vella served several terms as president of the California Cheese and Butter Association, was a Babe Ruth League baseball coach, served on the Sonoma Citizens Advisory Commission and was the youngest member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors when elected in 1964, resigning after three terms to become manager of the Sonoma County Fair. Then came 12 years on the Sonoma Planning Commission and the presidency of the Association of Bay Area Governments.
Ig also helped mentor and support many other cheesemakers along the way, including Laura Chenel and Redwood Hill’s Jennifer Bice.
And the family’s community service tradition did not stop with Ig. Sally Vella, Ig’s wife, has spent her life taking care of Vella kids, grandkids and now great-grandkids, in addition to founding a three-store thrift shop to benefit St. Francis Solano School.
Sally and Ig’s daughter, Chickie Vella, now runs Vella Cheese Company, having grown up doing almost everything in the business, except, she says, making much cheese. “After all, I am a girl,” she says with a slight chuckle.
A rare “union shop” among California cheese producers, Vella Cheese Company also has a healthy apprentice program, uses solar energy and provides Segway parking spaces. Vella staffers stay a long time, like head cheesemaker Charles Malkassian, who has been there 33 years. Nearly everyone in the large Vella family has worked the “shop” at one time or another.
Chickie’s son, Gabe, a cheesemaker at Vella, obviously shares the family passion. He even named his baby son Gaetano, after his great-grandfather, Tom, or “Pa,” as the family still refers to the patriarch. Gabe expects Gaetano will someday take over the family business. As Gabe sees it, “Pa had a ‘five generation’ business plan. So we are well on our way to meeting his goals.”
Kathleen Thompson Hill is Food & Wine Editor of the Sonoma Index- Tribune, co-author of a series of guidebooks to wine regions of the west coast, and curator of the Kathleen Thompson Hill Culinary Collection, to be exhibited at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in 2013.
Gabe Luddy, Gaetano Luddy, Sally Vella and Chickie Vella
Photos courtesy of the Vella family