It's rare that this happens, but I actually remember the first time trying Rogue River Blue, during one of the first days of my first job in cheese. I think it was all that I recommended to customers for about three weeks.
Production of the cheese only started in 2002, but it's taken home numerous gold medals despite its newcomer status. Most notably, it won first place in the blue category at the World Cheese Awards in 2003 and in the blue category at the American Cheese Society conference in 2004.
What makes it unique is its clothing. It's wrapped in local grape leaves which have been macerated in Clear Creek (also local) pear brandy. The presentation on a cheese board is pretty pretty, too, with its leaf sheath and slate blue veining.
Texture-wise, the wheels are smooth and silky, with intermittent crunches typical of many aged blues. It's about a 4 on the strength scale, at least at this point in the year, becoming stronger and more piquant with age. Its flavor is toasty and sweet. There are notes of coffee and cured meat, and as you approach the rind you'll find brighter, sweeter, and edgier notes that may come from its proximity to the alcohol-swathed exterior. It's cheddar-y tasting, too. Very complex.
Made exclusively with high-flavor summer milk, it must be reserved a year in advance. It's harder to find in the summer, by which time retailers may have run through their supply from the season before. Rogue will only buy as much milk as they need for their pre-orders and they make the cheese just once a year, often making it scarce to come by. Oh, and it's made from raw milk, too.
The new vintage doesn't come around until the fall, and wheels during that time can still be considered young. We're at high season right now, and the cheese will continue to age nicely through the beginning of summer or so, if it's been stored properly, of course.
As intriguing as its flavor and make process is that it's the first raw milk artisan cheese to get its export license; Neal's Yard Dairy distributes it in Europe. Even though this practice has yet to catch on with so many other of our country's writeaboutable small-scale cheeses, we regard this as encouraging: as one of the only American artisan cheeses that has a presence overseas, representing the present and future of American cheesemaking, we have a lot to feel proud of.
(Image: Nora Singley)