Cheesemaking legend Ig Vella dies

Friday, June 10th, 2011

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.

Author: biteclub

Food Dining and Restaurants in Sonoma County and beyond, is Wine Country dining with Drive-Thru Sensibility.

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  2. Ig was a great man he was like a father to me, while i was working for him and his family.
    always listened. good heart and great advice. I will miss him

  3. Thanks Heather for remembering one of our local one of a kind food greats. He was also my Sonoma County Supervisor.

  4. It was a pleasure and a revelation to have known him.He was/remains a Sonoma icon.

  5. We live in Kansas but our favorite vacation, which we take often, is to California wine country. We discovered Vella Cheese early on in our travels and make a point to go there each trip. We have met Ig on several occasions and he will always be the epitome of a man in love with his trade. We will continue going to Vella Cheese whenever we travel to wine country and, for us, Ig will live on in his cheese.

  6. One of a kind. He has left us with fond memories. He lives on.

  7. I G was a legened and will remain one, how manhy people get bridges named after them when they are still alive, he was allways very pleasant to me when i was in there working and had a good seance of humor, my condolences to the entire vella family as well as all the boys and girls down at the plant

  8. Very well said Mr. Catrambone. Thank you.

  9. Thank you everyone for your kind words and thoughts. I have learned so much from my grandfather and am grateful for the time I got to spend with him. His Legacy will live on in the hearts of us all.

  10. Talked to Ig a many times at events where he spoke. Always a straight shooter and told it like it is. Plus he had a wonderful sense of humor. He has left a great legacy. He will be missed by so many.

  11. Ig Vella was a good man, good friend to my family as well as many others in the community. I am grateful to Ig for giving my sons the opportunity to work and learn the business and to become full cheese-makers. He appreciated hard work, instilled work ethics and pride. In was direct, he did it his way, and was always supportive even in the worst of times – the markings of a good friend. My heartfelt condolences to the Vella family. Rest in peace, Ig, you will be missed and always remembered.

  12. Very saddened to hear Ig passed away.
    When I was accepted to the Planning Commission in the early 90’s, it was his seat I took when he left the Commission. So, I went to him to talk, for advice and for anything he could pass on. After catching up and just talking for a while he leaned forward and said to me, “Just dont forget Sonoma is a special place…a very special place.”

    He loved his town and the people. He was the best. I’ll really miss him.


  13. Thank you Heather for well written respectful article on Ig. He was a civic leader, amazing cheesemaker and friend~

  14. No doubt about it, Ig Vella was a man of genius, wit, and style who helped make Sonoma
    County what it is today.

    He will be greatly missed.

  15. Another Sonoma County Icon gone.

  16. Goodnight Cheeseman

  17. Rest in Peace, He will be missed

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