Restaurants & Bars

The Great Rogue River Blue Scandal (or, Something Stinks. Who Cut The Cheese?)

mczlaw | Aug 15, 200502:19 AM     11

Visits to the cheese counter at Whole Foods are usually marked by nose-holding, mock histrionics by my 8 y/o daughter. Stinky cheese bums her out. Gracie was relatively silent during our last visit because she knew her dad was on a serious mission--sniffing out the virtual disappearance of this year's release of that most sublime of Oregon-made cheeses, the international award-winning Rogue River Blue. I'll mostly stick to known facts, though I can't avoid a few quasi-Holmesian deductions.

The fame of the Rogue River Blue among cheeseheads is understandable. Even cheesey Europeans give it medals. It's perfectly midway b/w goopy and crumbly, blue mold tangy with just a hint of sweetness, and not excessively salted. It is also dunked in peach brandy (Oregon made, of course) and wrapped in grape leaves. Its release is an annual rite of summer, and this year's release promised something different than in the past--relative abundance. Production of the Oregonzola and one other line was halted so that Rogue could quadruple production of its seasonal specialty.

Mid-July was the targeted release date from the creamery to the distributors. This happened on time. Affineurship being what it is in this country, the distributors started sending the RRB out to retailers a couple weeks later. I called on Distributor "A" with whom I've had dealings over the years and asked for a wheel. After first evading the inquiry and trying to sell me one of the common Rogue products, he conceded that the RRB was once again "on allocation," and he was only selling to his regular retail customers. "What a lousy state of affairs," I said. (Actually, I might have used a word similar to the title of my favorite Steve McQueen movie, "Bullitt"). I was perplexed. What about that massively increased production? No answer, though I could sense an indifferent shoulder shrug over the phone.

The next day I asked a restaurateur friend if he could get some of the RRB from "A". No problem. He's a regular customer. We'd go in on a couple wheels and share it around. All thumbs up until I came to pick up my portion of the booty. Seems the sales person he works with played the same game with his customer as my contact had played with me, though rather more successfully. He'd been sold two wheels of the relatively plebeian Oregon Blue Vein. As my friend said (before dashing off overseas), "I was wondering what all the fuss was all about. It just tasted salty to me."

A week or so later, I talked to the sales guy for Distributor "B". We were acquainted, and I had bought a few things from him six months or so ago. I figured he would have some RRB to spare for sure. Rumor was that "B" was tight with the Rogue Creamery operators, having recently helped finance some part of the operation. "Sorry, Mike, all gone," he said when I called. "You should have called last week."

In the meantime, I had broken down and checked out retail availability. Elephant's Deli, which has a nice cheese counter in their new location, had no RRB at all. In fact, their cheese buyer said she wasn't even aware of the release. (This was odd since it comes out the same time every year, but I digress.) I also went to my local, City Market. Their story is that they managed a few wheels (six to be specific) as did their sister store, Pastaworks. I picked up a small chunk--at about $25/lb. Ouch.

Now, the dirt, which is confirmed from three separate sources. One party is responsible for scarfing nearly the entire supply of this year's RRB. No it's not the Hunt brothers. Apparently their failed effort to corner the silver market three decades ago was enough for them. No, it was your pals at Whole Foods. Their own cheese guys have proudly admitted that they are sitting on a hoard of over 100 of the precious five pound wheels. Funny thing, they said they were only going through about two wheels a week. According to his math, that means they would sell it out by New Year's. My slightly different--and I think more accurate--calculations tell me that at that rate, they will still have some into next summer when the next batch is released. (One source told me that Whole Foods does a lousy job holding cheese. If true, don't expect them to be saving the best for last.)

When the Hunt brothers tried to corner the silver market, their idea was that by controlling supply, they could artificially inflate the price and reap obscene profits. I have a feeling there might be an element of that going on here too. The "sale" price for the RRB at Whole Foods is $23.99/lb., down from the regular price of $25.99. Mr. Cheese Guy tries to tell me that that's essentially their cost, so if he sold me a wheel at 10% off, which he's willing to do (bless his heart), poor Whole Foods will be losing money on the deal. At this point, I have two thoughts. One is in the nature of, "what the f***? $100 for a small wheel of cheese?" The other is, "what kind of dope does this guy think I am?" To be fair, maybe no one told him that retail mark up on cheese is about 75% over wholesale. At least that's what the guy with Distributor "B" told me (with a smile and a wink), when I passed along this story. And he should know, since "B" sold Whole Foods those 100 wheels. So even with my discount below the sale price, I am sure Whole Foods' numbers would be OK this month.

That's pretty much the story. In the grand scheme of things (counting world hunger and global warming, for example), a little cheese scam in Portland, Oregon is not such a big deal. For whatever it's worth, I didn't buy the wheel. I am wondering if I really want to do any more business with Whole Foods. If I do stop in again, I'm not going to shush my daughter when she holds her nose at the cheese counter. I may join her instead.

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