Ignazio Vella dies at 82; ‘godfather of artisanal cheese’

As the elder statesman of artisanal cheeses, Ignazio “Ig” Vella gave pointed advice to those who wanted to follow him into the handmade cheese business: “Don’t be stupid.”

He was a gruff straight shooter, and the salvo was his way of warning that success required a willingness to toil for uncertain financial gain.

Once that caveat was spelled out, Vella invariably became an unselfish teacher and tireless advocate for small-scale producers of cheese, according to those in the industry.

He had a lifetime of expertise — his father, Gaetano “Tom” Vella, pioneered Italian-style cheeses in the West after opening Vella Cheese Co. in Sonoma, Calif., in 1931, the year his son turned 3.


The company is best known for its award-winning Dry Monterey Jack, which was originally marketed as a substitute for Parmesan and other hard Italian cheeses that vanished from the American market during World War I.

Ig Vella, who took over his family’s business in the 1980s, died June 9 at his Sonoma home after a long illness, said a daughter, Chickie Vella. He was 82.

“On the West Coast, and beyond, he was regarded as the godfather of artisanal cheese,” said Christine Hyatt, president of the Colorado-based American Cheese Society, which recognized him in 2006 with its first life achievement award.

“He was truly a giant in our community and a mentor to so many,” she said.


A Sonoma native, Vella was born in 1928 and as a boy rode with his father in a Model A truck to deliver cheese.

After his father opened a secondary facility in southern Oregon in 1935, the younger Vella spent summers working there.

When he was 11, he served as a covert translator for his father, a Sicilian immigrant unsure of his English skills.

“I sat in the offices of Kraft Foods while my father discussed business with J.L. Kraft,” the company founder, Vella told the Associated Press in 2000. “My father quizzed me all the way home on what happened.”

A penchant for high jinks got the younger Vella expelled from his local high school, and he graduated from San Rafael Military Academy in 1946.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history at Santa Clara University in 1950, he trained as an officer in the Air Force and served in the Korean War.

He returned to the family business after the war but left in 1964 to spend 11 years as a Sonoma County supervisor and five more as manager of the Sonoma County Fair.

The outspoken Vella possessed “keen intellect” but “conducted his public life like a wrestler conducts a symphony,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat said in 1999.


In the early 1980s, he took over Vella Cheese Co. in Sonoma while his father ran the Oregon company until 1998, when he died at 100, his family said.

The younger Vella produced cheeses that were “magnificent” and “must be ranked among the world’s finest,” cheese expert Steve Jenkins wrote in his 1996 book “Cheese Primer.”

They include about a dozen offerings — Italian-style cheeses and an array of jack cheeses — all still made by hand.

After Vella sold the Oregon creamery in 2002, he actively mentored new owners David Gremmels and Cary Bryant, who have won many awards for their Rogue Creamery blue cheeses.

In Sonoma, Vella’s daughter Chickie took the reins of the 11-person company a few years ago. Her son is a cheese maker there.

“You always knew where Ig stood,” his daughter said, and he often made his point with colorful language. “My poor mother, she couldn’t win to save us children from swearing.”

In addition to his daughter Chickie, Vella is survived by his wife of 59 years, Sally; another daughter, Ditty; a son, Thomas; two sisters, Maria Vella and Zolita Vella; six grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. Another daughter, Sara, died at 32 in 1992.

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