Dry Jack, considered by experts to be one of America’s finest cheeses, is produced in Sonoma by hand-crafted methods at Vella Cheese Company (315 Second St. E., Sonoma, 707-938-3232). Founded in 1931, Vella is among the oldest of the Sonoma County’s cheese makers.
Dry Jack has such a limited production that it’s among the 200 rare or endangered regional foods listed on the prestigious U. S. Ark of Taste. This program, sponsored by Slow Food USA, was created to help people learn about and eat Ark products, with the end goal of keeping these cherished foods on our plates.
Legends about the invention of Dry Jack vary, but all center on San Francisco or Sonoma County. The most oft-heard story credits a San Francisco cheese wholesaler named DeBernardi with creating the cheese — accidentally — when he left a supply of regular Monterey Jack in storage for too long. By the time he returned to it, it had become hard, flakey … and delicious. In fact, it had a texture and taste similar to dry Italian cheeses such as Parmesan and Romano.
So when World War I interrupted the importation of Italian cheeses to America, DeBernardi had a ready market for the cheese he’d named Dry Jack. Other Italian cheese makers in the region began making the cheese, too.
What’s it like? Vella’s Dry Jack is mellow, with a pronounced nutty flavor. It’s made entirely from the milk of grass-fed cows, curdled on site in huge vats, formed by hand into eight-pound wheels, placed in muslin sacks, cured in brine, rubbed with a mix of oil, pepper, and cocoa – and then racked to age for a minimum of seven months. And Vella's Special Select Dry Monterey Jack is aged at least one year and up to two years, for a firmer texture.
Bottom line: it’s great to munch, fabulous accompanied by sliced apples and nuts (or pretty much anything), perfect for grating over pasta. It's also won countless awards over the years. Recent wins for Vella's Dry Jack include a 2014 Silver Medal at the California State Fair and a 2011 Gold Medal at the Los Angeles County Fair. Vella's Special Select Dry Monterey Jack earned a 2014 Gold Medal at the Los Angeles Dairy Competition and the 2012 Best of show at the California State Fair.
Vella offers variants of the basic Dry Jack, including the Golden Bear Dry Monterey Jack (aged two to four years) and the Habañero Dry Jack (aged for a year to let those spicy little peppers mellow).
So on a visit to Sonoma, do your part to keep Dry Jack alive. Visit the 1904 historic stone building — a former brewery — where Vella cheeses are made. In the tasting room, try a sample of Dry Jack or the many other hand-crafted Vella cheeses made on site, such as high-moisture Jack cheeses, Asiago, Toma, raw milk Cheddars, and more.