Over the past ﬁve years, as Jill and I have hunted, tasted and studied hundreds of cheeses, we’ve also had the privilege of meeting and becoming friends with a number of their makers. While we always give an honest assessment of their cheeses here on the blog, it does make it just a little hard to be objective, then, when sitting in anticipation at the awards ceremony that was the culmination of last week’s American Cheese Society conference in Madison, Wisconsin. We felt not unlike proud aunts in the room as some of our, yes, favorite and beloved cheeses won ribbons and well-deserved recognition.
When Winnimere won the blue ribbon for its class — Farmstead Originals, semi-soft cows milk, aged 60+ days — Jill nudged me and whispered her bet that it would be this year’s Best of Show. And as you know by now, she was right. Now that the surprise and elation has worn off, somewhat, I’m faced with the task of describing this cheese one more time as we kick off “Blue Ribbon Week” here on the blog.
The short version. Winnimere: a raw milk, washed-rind, bark-wrapped cheese available late winter (January/February) through early June (unless you get really, really lucky), from the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Silky in texture, spoonable, with a woodsy aroma and the taste of bacon fat coated with cream, it is an original recipe designed to utilize the rich winter milk of their cows. The cheese is usually washed in beer brewed by neighboring Hill Farmstead Brewing, and it is very much a beer-lovers’ cheese. It is also, still, very much a cheese that reﬂects its Northeast Vermont terroir, with the milk exclusively from Jasper Hill Farms’ small herd of 40-plus Ayrshire cows and the bark coming from spruce trees on the farm. And, for the record, it’s Winnimere, not Winnemere. Call it “Winni” for short.
The long version. As I thought about writing up Winnimere’s big win, I found myself at an uncharacteristic loss for words. We’ve written about this cheese no fewer than four times, already, as its seasonal nature gives us reason to review each year’s vintage anew when it is released. This sought-after cheese marks an important milestone in my own cheese journey: If Humboldt Fog was the gateway cheese that opened my eyes to the world beyond supermarket cheese, Winnimere was my ﬁnal indoctrination into the cult of American artisan cheese and cemented the desire to move beyond casual consumer to make a career out of telling the stories of these cheeses and their craftspeople.
When I ﬁrst visited Vermont in 2009, I immediately felt connected to a place that felt like coming home — reminiscent of growing up in the Pacific Northwest. The combination of clean mountain air, beautiful farmland between trees and waters and a seemingly statewide dairy infatuation that matched my own had me threatening not to leave the shores of Lake Champlain at the conclusion of the ﬁrst Vermont Cheesemakers Festival that summer. Each winter when I ﬁrst pull back the mottled pink top rind of my season’s ﬁrst wheel of Winnimere, the damp forest aroma evokes that same sense of coming home. The mission of the Kehlers at Cellars at Jasper Hill is to create a “taste of place,” and I would argue that winning Best of Show is pretty good afﬁrmation of their success.
In his acceptance speech, cheesemaker Mateo Kehler stated, “Winnimere is a terroir project. It is the soul of our company.” The company, now 10 years old, built much of its current success on winning the Best of Show award in 2006 for its collaboration Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. We can’t wait to see what the next 10 years bring.
On a less reverent note, now, I give you our celebratory Winnimere montage. While the season is ofﬁcially over (one batch was made out of season for the competition), the Cellars crew was able to ﬁnd a few last cases at a distributor and rushed them to Madison for the Festival of Cheese Saturday night. I happened to catch up to them as they hand delivered it to the winner’s table, to great fanfare from the cheese paparazzi (yours truly included).
(Click here for the uncut version of Kehler’s acceptance speech.)
Beyond the Best in Show, the Cellars at Jasper Hill had their best year yet at ACS, winning blue ribbons in their categories for Winnimere, Willoughby and Clothbound, plus a second-place ribbon for Landaff from Landaff Creamery, and a third-place ribbon for Harbison.
BLUE RIBBON GIVEAWAY: We’ve teamed up with the cheese-loving crew at Murray’s Cheese to offer one lucky reader a “Blue Ribbon Beauties” box of winning cheeses. Leave a comment on each post this week for the best chance of winning a shipment straight from Murray’s to you. For our fellow Winni lovers out there, tell us about your ﬁrst taste below, won’t you?
Disclosure: Murray’s is generously providing the giveaway prize, but no other compensation was received.