Winery adds cheese to its fermentation lineup.
Wine and cheese are a winning combination in more ways than one. Of course, they taste wonderful together. But as the owners of Woolridge Creek Winery outside Grants Pass, Oregon, found out, pairing house-made cheese with its wine also helps differentiate the winery, draw in customers and complement the winery’s bottom line.
The winery’s Crushpad Creamery started with a shared passion for wine. In 2002, Kara Olmo and her husband Greg Paneitz arrived in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, drawn by the hot summer days and cool nights.
Teamwork. They teamed up with Ted and Mary Warrick, who had begun farming grapes in the valley in the late 1970s. Greg would use the winemaking skills he honed in France and California, Kara would draw on her hotel administration and marketing training, Mary would keep the books, and Ted would manage the sloping vineyard, which has since grown to 52 acres of winegrapes.
Woolridge Creek quickly developed a reputation for skillfully crafted wines. But the hyper-competitive world of the wholesale wine business was turning out to be an uphill climb.
Attraction. “Selling wine is really hard, and the farther you get away from home, the harder it is,” says Olmo.
Custom-processing grapes for wineries around the country proved a successful niche, but Olmo, Paneitz, and the Warricks realized they needed to build local markets, too. The key would be building critical mass.
As neighboring wineries opened tasting rooms, the isolated valley began drawing locals for an afternoon excursion, as well as tourists visiting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival an hour away and fishermen angling for salmon on the nearby Rogue River.
“Having more wineries increased visitors,” Olmo says. “Red Lily opens down the street and we see more people, not less, purchasing wine. I believe in the collective power of us.”
But as visitors considered their steadily growing list of choices, the Woolridge Creek team sought a way to stand out from the crowd.
“Just saying, ‘we have the best wine’ isn’t enough,” Olmo points out.
Though zoning laws make on-farm restaurants a challenge for wineries, serving tasting platters with wine is permissible and promised to be a good fit. So did expanding into cheese, which tapped Olmo’s training in fermentation (she and Paneitz met while they were studying winemaking) and her long-time cheesemaking hobby.
Complex. Intensive study with local cheesemakers yielded recipes and a creamery design. Olmo earned licenses in pasteurization and milk handling, and a new room beside the winery was state-certified as a commercial dairy plant. Olmo and Paneitz convinced local dairyman Jerry Noble to sell them milk after swearing they would pasteurize every drop.
Olmo has turned that milk—and milk from a nearby goat herd—into cheeses ranging from creamy chevre and fromage blanc to sturdy, Alpine-style tommes rubbed in herbs and spices. A tasting plate of three to four cheeses, enough for two, costs $10.
Local flavor. Inside the tasting room, manager Karen Sinclair says the cheese platters are “an easy sell.”
“It seems like when you offer it, eight out of ten times they want to taste the cheese,” Sinclair says.
Trying to squeeze a profit from such a small creamery on its own would be tough, notes Olmo, but because the winery covers overhead costs already, cheese sales boost the bottom line.
The next step is to expand their fermentation repertoire to house-made salami and products made from local pears, figs, and hazelnuts. That would add new flavor profiles to complement Woolridge Creek wines, another $25 sampling platter for the menu, and new ways to share local bounty.
“By providing cheese and wine on-site, we’re offering visitors a true farm-to-table experience,” says Paneitz. “From a business standpoint, people are coming here because of it.”