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Cheese Whizzes

A new video digs into Wisconsin's increasingly sophisticated cheese culture.

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Last weekend Wisconsin cheese makers swept the awards categories at the annual American Cheese Society competition in Portland, Oregon, taking home 70 prizes, including 16 blue ribbons in such fields as "blue-mold cheeses made from cow's milk" and "cheddars aged longer than 49 months." Wisconsin's dominance shouldn't come as a surprise--they're not called cheeseheads for nothing. But as western states like California, which produced 2 billion pounds of cheese last year, give Wisconsin, with 2.4 billion, a run for its money, some in the Badger State are turning their attention to artisanal and specialty cheeses--which may have more in common with a Willamette Valley pinot noir than a Kraft Single. "Cheese is a living thing," says Gaylon Emerzian, one of the producers of the new video Living on the Wedge: Wisconsin's Artisan Cheesemakers. "It's like wine, complete with terroir and vintages."

Emerzian, an Evanston-based producer who also runs the kids' cooking Web site spatulatta.com, got a crash course in cheese when she helped Mari Coyne, the farm forager for the city's farmers' markets (profiled earlier this year in the Reader), produce the hour-long video. Friends for several years, they'd been tossing around ideas for a farm-related film project since 2003, when Coyne returned to the States after nine months working on organic farms in France. There she'd done everything from mill grain to castrate sheep, but she and Emerzian hadn't settled on a topic until Coyne went to the tiny Lincoln Square shop the Cheese Stands Alone searching for a cheese to use in a segment on picnics she was putting together for Vince Gerasole's Channel Two spot "Table for 2." Matt Parker, one of the shop's owners, gave her a taste of an organic, washed-rind, Muenster-style round from Willi Lehner's solar- and wind-powered Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, but when Coyne wanted to put it on the show Parker balked. "He said, 'You can't! He's a really small producer, and this is all I have!'" she says. Coyne settled on another cheese, but her interest was piqued, so Parker hooked her up with Suzanne Pingree, a Madison communications professor who happened to have been Coyne's adviser when she was an undergrad studying agricultural journalism. In addition to her academic work Pingree runs the Web site cheeseforager.com, a clearinghouse for information on Wisconsin-made artisanal cheeses, and works with Wisconsin's Dairy Business Innovation Center to spread the local-cheese gospel. "I called Gaylon," says Coyne, "and said, 'Hey, I think we've got our story!'"

They started shooting in September 2004 and wrapped things up this past January. Since then the film (funded in part by the DBIC and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board) has been screened publicly only a few times, though a half-hour version was broadcast twice on Wisconsin public television this spring and has been used by the DBIC for promotional and educational events.

It's structured as a road movie, but the video probably doesn't have much commercial potential. Set to a peppy banjo score, it follows Coyne as she zips around southern Wisconsin in her VW wagon, stopping at dairies and creameries, the farmers' market in Madison, and the biannual Cheese Days festival in Monroe. Some of it is (sorry) a little cheesy--like the periodic groaners used to define cheese-making terms (Affinage, the process of aging and finishing cheeses, is "what cheese makers do in the dark"). But it's also an engaging overview of a subculture that now accounts for 15 percent of the state's cheese production.

There are 1,225 licensed cheese makers in Wisconsin, more than any other state. Coyne visits with just six of them, but they cover a lot of ground, from cheddar and mozzarella to blue cheese and chevre. Again and again her subjects return to the importance of terroir--the idea, appropriated from viticulture, that place is the determining factor in a cheese's identity. The limestone-rich land and wild biodiversity that are Wisconsin's glacial legacy impart a particular character to the diet of the pasture-grazed animals that produce the milk that creates the cheese--giving it, in the words of Pleasant Ridge cheese maker Mike Gingrich, a "rich, varied, more complex flavor profile" that changes from pasture to pasture and season to season.

But it's not just about soil, grass, and geology. In the video Coyne meets up briefly with chef Odessa Piper, founder of Madison's award-winning L'Etoile restaurant and a well-known champion of regional, sustainable agriculture and cuisine. "Industrial cheese and industrial wine," Piper points out, "are basically the same every vat every time, year in, year out." Over a plate of Wisconsin's finest, she holds forth on the living, mutable nature and length and depth of flavors to be found in artisanal cheese. But she thinks a human factor is equally key to Wisconsin's terroir: a sixth sense cheese makers have as they're cutting the curds, turning the wheels, handling the cheeses--a "wisdom of the hands."

Artisanal cheese making, says Coyne, is a hard business. "It takes somebody who's committed to a different lifestyle and to doing something that they have great passion for. Some of them have done really well, and that's a great reward for all their hard work. But it's not really about the money." Until recently, she adds, "Wisconsin cheese had this sort of commodity-based image--it was all large, bulk cheese. It was good cheese, but nothing that was unique or a signature. What's happening now is that Wisconsin is redefining itself and going back to its roots--there are a lot of great cheeses that have been created there, and that depth of tradition and skill sets Wisconsin apart."

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