Rogue Creamery’s David Gremmels is more than a cheese advocate for american producers
David Gremmels is at home in many arenas, a renaissance man with wide-ranging interests and expertise: from 1950s Beat Art to long distance cycling, from fine woodworking to vintage trucks and German Shorthair Pointers.
A principled entrepreneur, he walks the walk of ethical business at his dairy and at Rogue Creamery, the company he has stewarded since 2002. In his spare time, he advances the cause of American cheese and advocates for the handcrafted food from his unique culinary corner of Southern Oregon.
CC: What were those intervening years like?
DG: I ran so far from agriculture; to art, to design, to become a brand manager (with the southern Oregon-based company Harry & David) and, voila, here I am. (laughs) Who would have guessed?
CC: What were you like in high school?
DG: Well, I was a bit of a geek, and I did step to a different drummer. I ran cross country, was student body president and in chorus. I enjoyed sketching and painting and, if there was a free moment, I would spend that time with my dad who was a talented craftsperson. He was a homebuilder and electrical contractor and farmer who worked in his spare time. He was truly passionate about all that he did. I don’t light a candle to his work ethic, but I think some of it rubbed off.
I’m so grateful for the childhood that I had and the experience that was shared by the elders in my family. Certainly, working with my hands, but creating models and methods, missions and visions, has been woven into my life from all that I learned from my family. It’s helped me create a lifestyle and business that is grounded in doing the right thing.
It’s my hope to have a similar influence and impact through the volunteerism I participate in, whether through the United Way, my church or boards like the Oregon Sustainable Board, mentoring future leaders in sustainability. I’m now at a place where I can take the risk to influence and, hopefully, inspire others to do the same, to create a positive change.
CC: In addition to your work at the creamery, you are so busy, flying here to this cheese festival or event or riding in a long-distance bicycle race for local charities. Do you have a mantra or saying that gives you focus?
DG: Ah, that’s beautiful. Well, every morning I have a moment of grounding and meditation. I ask for forgiveness for what I haven’t done, strength for what I need to do, and clarity to have a positive impact in the day ahead.
CC: Rogue Creamery is a real mission-driven company. Many of the people on your team have been there with you from the very beginning. I wonder if you could talk about building that type of culture.
DG: The mission of Rogue Creamery was truly led by the team. When I acquired the creamery from Ignacio Vella in 2002, the three words I brought to it were: safe, healthy and positive, both for the team and for the guests who come to visit us.
Early on, we gathered as a team with the help of a facilitator, and our mission was created. We aligned with: “People dedicated to sustainability, service and the art and tradition of creating the world’s finest handmade cheese.” That’s really what drives us every day.
CC: Your commitment to sustainability begins with your dairy. That relationship is so critical to the success of your business, and you’ve already mentioned what a challenge it was. Can you talk about how you created a sustainable, organic dairy?
DG: To make quality cheese, you have to start with quality milk. Early on, I spent a lot of time visiting dairies in the region and understanding bacteria count to determine the finer producers of quality milk in the region.
Building a relationship with that dairy meant creating a sustainable contract that paid the farmer, Delmar Brink of Rogue View Dairy in Grants Pass, well above the federal milk order. It was unsustainable for him otherwise. If it didn’t work for our dairy, it didn’t work for the creamery.
Quality milk is about quality inputs, meaning quality feed and quality care. Even back in 2003, creating a sustainable agreement meant starting at $17/hundredweight, an unheard-of amount. But, truly, that was the benchmark and that was break-even for the dairy, so I thought, let’s just start there and build our price from there. And it worked, not just for the dairy, but for us.
This arrangement allowed the dairy to follow through on their commitment to providing a quality environment for their animals and stewarding the land. It also allowed me to observe the practices and think about the future of this dairy and progressing it to organic standards.
When Delmar was ready to retire for the third time — the first couple times, I asked for another year and offered to raise his price per hundredweight, and it worked those first few times.
The final time, he suggested I buy the organic dairy right next to him. And so I did, transferring what I’d learned about the business, land stewardship and humane care of the herd to the new farm.
In his later years at the dairy, Delmar had asked me to participate in replenishing and building his herd, so I continued to invest in fine pedigree Brown Swiss and Holstein cows. It was quite easy to just cut the fence and let the cows migrate through to our dairy when it was ready to operate in 2015. Delmar still lives on his farm, and I think he’s proud of the influence he had in the farm I created with his mentorship, and the advice of so many others.
CC: So the new dairy is all organic?
DG: Yes — what a journey from being Food Alliance-certified to being organic. With organic, it takes on a whole different, holistic approach.
We work with the environment, wildlife and intensive grazing, which builds topsoil, both sequestering carbon and holding valuable rainfall. This approach is so good for the soil, for the native grasses that grow on that soil and for the nutrition of our herd. It also provides that soil with the ability to retain rainfall, countering the negative impacts runoff would create. That’s the important part, I believe, living adjacent and bordering Oregon’s wild and scenic Rogue River.
We are also very proud of our hand-raising of the calves. We have one dedicated person for that. Creating that connection between a person and the calves is so important. As they grow into their adolescence, they are transferred to my home farm, where we continue that relationship.
I treat them more like dogs. I call to them and they chase me around the field. I put collars on them and give them names so that connectedness continues.
CC: And you have robots that milk the herd? Tell me about that.
DG: The DeLaval robots tend to the care and nurturing of the animals, milking the cows on demand. When the cow feels the need to be milked, she moves up from the field, many times in small groups of three to five or up to a dozen cows.
In the loafing pavilion, we’ve installed massagers, big brushes that will rotate when the cow moves up to them, going along their sides and up their back. They get some water and queue right up for milking. By the time they get into the milking parlor, they are so comfortable and their milk drops.
Then they go up to the robot, which cleans their udder, and strips and discards the first bit of milk. The cow is milked to a comfort level and released. After milking, she gets organic hay that I grow on my farm or that we buy locally. Then she heads back out on pasture with her group.
After milking, the cows experience a new paddock, since we are constantly rotating pastures. With this method, we are able to build the topsoil to grow grasses and clover so that the cows are grazing from March to mid- to late-November.
All the metrics from each cow are shared electronically with us at the creamery, so we understand the yield of each cow or if there’s a spike in temperature or any attention needed for an individual cow. Because we are practicing organic, it’s so important to be proactive in health and holistic in our approach.
CC: That brings me to the cheese. You started with a very solid line of cheeses when you acquired the creamery, but that product line has increased exponentially. How did that evolve?
DG: The Vella’s (a renowned family of cheesemakers from Sonoma, CA, owners of Rogue Creamery from 1935 to 2002) provided such a strong history and cataloging of the classic signature cheeses created at Rogue Creamery. We had decades of data for myself and the talented team here to look at and research how to take the cheese to yet a different level. The team is innovative, and I believe that innovation is the key to American cheesemaking.
My background is in design, and I like to encapsulate experiences I have on my travels and share those with the team, inspiring and challenging them to move an idea forward into an experience. We’ve done that time and time again. Just when I think this will be our final Blue cheese, we create yet another one.
CC: All your cheeses are really special, but is there a particular cheese in your collection that sets itself apart for you?
DG: Rogue River Blue would be the cheese I’m just so engaged with every day of the year. Today, it’s about allocation and making sure that everyone gets their wheel or two. It’s all about the allocation, within the United States, the UK, France, Japan, Australia.
Also, right now, it’s about the pear harvest. We’re in this idyllic valley surrounded by pear orchards, and it’s about reserving our pears, which we’ll soak in Everclear that’s created for us organically in Ashland. We’ll soak the Syrah grape leaves we pick in the spring in those spirits, and those spring 2018 leaves are destined to wrap the 2019 release.
Also, starting from Autumnal equinox while our cows are still on pasture, I’m thinking about allocation of our capacity for creating next years’ wheels, which are now being put into our caves. Those wheels will continue to develop and naturally rind before we wrap them in the Syrah leaves harvested this past spring, which have been macerating in the pear sprits created last fall, in 2016. It’s a full year cycle.
This has been one of the most challenging brands to migrate to organic because of the spirits. It wasn’t until we discovered an organic Everclear producer in Ashland that we were able to do that. It also really brings it closer to home, connecting our local vineyard, Cowhorn, with our local orchard growing organic pears, Harry & David. It’s truly a taste of the region.
CC: Speaking of your region, you are a traveling Artisan Cheese Ambassador for southern Oregon.
DG: When I acquired the creamery, it was a production facility and, also, a store. This created an opportunity to spotlight the great work that was being done by other producers and makers within the region. It also allowed me to recruit Tom Van Vorhees, a talented cheesemonger, to manage the store and further that work. He has aligned our retail shelves with like-minded producers and makers, telling their story. My hope is those stories not only will inspire the individual to take that product home to their table, but also to tell that story to others, creating a ripple effect.
We’ve been lucky to create an Artisan Corridor here on our small portion of Highway 99, adjacent to the creamery. It’s composed of a small collection of artisan producers of food and wine and chocolates in a section of town that has become a destination in Oregon and beyond.
CC: That, of course, leads to the Oregon Cheese Festival, which has grown significantly over the years.
DG: It has become such an event, attracting people not only from here, but from around the world. It’s now a two-day event celebrating cheese and festivities centered around cheese.
In 2003, the first festival was held inside the make facility of Rogue Creamery. I remember using my woodworking equipment and cutting plywood to put on top of the cheese presses and over vats. Those became the tables for our vignettes of cheese, which were presented by cheesemakers from around the state, who went on to become founding members of the Oregon Cheese Guild that next year.
The festival has evolved so much, from maybe a dozen vendors that first year to more than 120 today. It’s great to invite our cheesemaker friends from Vermont, California, Utah, Washington and Idaho to participate, as well.
I think the greatest day of that festival was when it broke even, and I was able to gift it to the Oregon Cheese Guild in 2007.
CC: Is there an achievement or contribution you are most proud of?
DG: There are so many things I’m proud to be a part of. It’s not just me, I’m proud of the individuals who were a part of organizing and moving diligently forward to create something for the future.
I’m proud of being a part of the Oregon Cheese Guild and its creation and formation and being its first president, but I wasn’t the only one. So many phenomenal people were involved in that process.
And then, the work that so many of us did while on the Board of the American Cheese Society, moving that organization forward into self-management in 2010. Where ACS has moved since that period of time is just remarkable.
Also, being singled out by Secretary of State and, now, Governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, to be the first registered Social Benefit Corporation (B-Corp) in Oregon and becoming one of the top registered companies for its impact on community and environment worldwide, is something to be proud of.
There are so many things that I’m proud of along the way, but I don’t take individual credit for any one of them. It’s those colleagues and friends that I have worked with that I’m most thankful for having in my life.
CC: You have an extensive eyewear collection. What’s going on with the glasses?
DG: Some people invest in shoes or purses; I love my eyewear. There are no boundaries to great eyewear. I love purchasing and shopping for eyewear and sharing that experience with friends.
I’ve pulled friends into a number of eyewear shops with me and they’ve gone out of there with pretty extravagantly fabulous specs. I admit I have drawers full of eyewear, one for every occasion. And, yes, they are prescription.
CC: Tell me about that iconic blue truck that sits outside the creamery. You can’t miss it.
DG: That’s Bertha — I have so many great memories with Bertha. She’s been with me, I don’t even want to tell you how many decades, but since high school. It was just one of those romantic impulses.
I was fly fishing on the lower Kalamath river with my father, and we were parallel to the highway near Happy Camp. I saw this 1948 Dodge Pickup with a ‘for sale sign while we were drifting down the river. My dad said, “Don’t even think about it.”
That evening, as he was enjoying his evening cocktail with his fly fishing buddies, I took his pickup and went to visit Bertha and her owner. I bought her on the spot.
Then it was about getting her home with fellow cheesemaker Kurt Timmermeister and a few other people. We went to Happy Camp and camped out and then drove her 40-45 miles per hour back, which seemed like days. What should have been seven hours took 20 plus hours.
She was in use as my primary vehicle for two decades. Even though my dad was not in favor of me buying her, he meticulously rebuilt her engine, repainted her with his own hands and gifted her to Rogue Creamery. That’s where she sits today.
The team has continued to pamper her during her stay. We updated her paint for our 80th anniversary and she has been the pride and joy of parades locally. She has been photographed thousands of times by so many of the people that come and visit us at the creamery.
CC: What inspires you?
DG: The community around me inspires me and energizes me each day.
I feel like the creamery is owned by everyone who is a part of it. When I’m out and about and listen to people talk about Rogue Creamery when they don’t know who I am, they are such advocates, it’s so beautiful. I get so proud. Sometimes, when they tell me they’ve met the owner, I don’t correct them. They go on to describe the owner as one of our other team members, and I just think, halleluiah. It takes a little pressure off. I can just enjoy my pint of beer. Everyone who touches it is a part of it. That I firmly believe.