Monday, February 06, 2006

Profiles in Wisconsin Cheesemaking: Mike Gingrich, Uplands Creamery

Growing up on a Midwest dairy farm instilled in Mike Gingrich a love for the land and a deep appreciation for farm life. Even after marrying his high-school sweetheart, Carol, and leaving the Midwest for California on a career path with Xerox Corp., his yearning for rural life endured. When children arrived, Mike and Carol decided the time was right to make a life change and return to the farm. “I had such fond memories of my childhood on the farm. I wanted our kids to have the same experiences, so we bought a small farm in southwestern Wisconsin. We had only about 30 cows, but it was enough to convince us that we had made the right decision,” Mike said. Eventually, the couple partnered with friends Dan and Jean Patenaud to buy a postcard-perfect 300-acre farm near Dodgeville, Wis. They manage it using a traditional, but no longer common, rotational grazing style of farming. Says Mike, “We’ve never looked back.”

Neither has he looked back on another life-changing decision: the decision to use the uniquely flavorful milk from his farm to produce a signature artisan cheese. “The farm was operating smoothly and didn’t need both Dan and I to manage it, so we began looking for another venture. Cheesemaking seemed a natural choice, particularly given the quality of our milk. I had it evaluated by experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who confirmed that it did have flavor components related to pasture grazing that were different than conventional milk. I’d also heard repeatedly from old-time cheesemakers that spring milk made the best cheese. Armed with those insights, I became hooked on the idea of doing a seasonal cheese that would showcase our unique milk supply.”

Gingrich went to work getting his cheesemaking license and researching a wide variety of cheeses to determine what he’d make. “Our style of farming and milk production, with the cows moving from one fresh pasture to the next from spring through fall, resembled the traditions followed for centuries in the alpine regions of southeastern France,” Gingrich said. “Ultimately, we settled on a farmstead, raw-milk Beaufort-style cheese. The aging techniques we use were developed in the Middle Ages, when cheeses similar to ours were aged in limestone caves and washed frequently with a brine solution. We named it Pleasant Ridge Reserve because our farm is located on lands within this Uplands region once called Pleasant Ridge. The terroir of our farm is so important to the quality of our milk, and ultimately to our cheese. And our cheese is made right on the farm, so we wanted it to have regional identification.”

Pleasant Ridge Reserve is widely recognized as one of the best artisan cheese made in America. In 2001, its first year of production, it took Best of Show at the prestigious American Cheese Society competition. It was named America’s best cheese in the 2003 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, and made a repeat performance at ACS in 2005, taking Best of Show for a second time. It is the only cheese to have ever won both the ACS Best of Show and the U.S. Contest top prizes.

They journey into artisan cheesemaking has brought Gingrich unexpected pleasures and nurtured in him an even stronger belief in the importance of farming, of the land and of local food production. His happiest moments as a cheesemaker? “Seeing the sheer joy and sense of discovery on peoples’ faces when they taste my cheese for the first time. That’s a great feeling,” he says.

Uplands Creamery
4540 County Rd. ZZ
Dodgeville, WI 53533