Cheeze Biz

— Jules Wesselink's cheese operation, Winchester Cheese Company, couldn't have been smaller when it started. "I went to Holland in 1995," says the Dutch immigrant, "for the 50th anniversary of our liberation from Germany. My relatives over there have a cheese farm with their own cows. They make gouda cheese, and that is where I learned to make cheese. I brought home a cheese-making kit to make two little wheels of cheese. I made the two little wheels of cheese and gave some to friends to taste it. They said, 'Wow, if you make more, we'll buy it from you.' That's how it all got started."

Since the cheese kit, he's used an ice chest, then a 60-gallon stainless steel tank, then 250- and 600-gallon tanks. "Now we have a 1250-gallon tank," Wesselink says.

The business began to take off when Wesselink started selling his cheese at farmers markets around Los Angeles and San Diego. "We went to Hillcrest on Sunday, Ocean Beach on Wednesday, Escondido on Tuesday, and other farmers markets around San Diego," he says. "When we went to the farmers markets, a lot of people started tasting it, and they're liking it. Then they contact us. And we've entered contests and won gold ribbons and first places with our cheese. Now we're in all the Henry's markets and Jimbo's in Escondido and Del Mar. We ship to Beverly Hills Cheese Store, to Murray's Cheese Store in New York, Gramercy Tavern Restaurant in New York, Cambara's Restaurant in Salt Lake City, and Bailey's Wine Country Cafe in Temecula."

Winchester won seven gold medals at the 2001 Los Angeles County Fair and will be featured in an international cheese show in Milan, Italy, in late September. Saveur, the gourmet magazine, did a feature on them in their May-June 2001 issue.

From 1951, when he came to the United States, until his trip back to Holland in 1995, Wesselink was a dairy farmer. The first two years he worked for other people. Then he opened his own farm in Artesia, moved it to Chino, and then to Winchester, eight miles north of Temecula, in 1978. Sixty-four years old at the time of his trip back "to the old country," he figured he would work the dairy a few more years before retiring. Now, he has sold that dairy and concentrates on his cheese -- gouda of various ages, some with flavors added.

Because he buys his milk from the dairy the cheese plant adjoins, Wesselink's gouda is considered "farmstead," a designation signifying that the cheese is made on the same farm that the cows who provided the milk live on. Of eight farmstead cheese makers in California, Winchester is the only one south of Visalia.

Winchester Cheese Company's label shows Holstein cows nibbling long grass in the shadow of wooden windmills. That's a nod to Wesselink's -- and gouda's -- Dutch heritage. The only thing his Winchester location has in common with the label is the black-and-white Holsteins. The cheese plant consists of six refrigerated semi trailers, still on the wheels, clustered together between the dairy's milking barn and the modular building that houses the office and cheese store. An enclosed metal ramp leads from the office into one of the trailers. Wesselink starts a tour of the operation right there.

"You have to wear a hair net," he says, pulling one from a box sitting on a desk otherwise covered with broken-down cardboard boxes. "This is our packaging room, where we do all our mail orders around the United States. Jack, who works on this end and in the store, packages everything in the afternoon and it goes out UPS. During transportation, the cheese does not have to be refrigerated on account of the aging process. That saves us a lot of money."

A door on one end of the packaging room opens to the enclosed ramp, which leads into one of the semi-trailers. Down the whole length of the trailer, six-foot stainless steel racks bearing creamy yellow wheels of cheese line both walls, leaving a narrow passage in the middle. "This is the aging room here," Wesselink explains, "where it's being aged to perfection. We have a mild, which is two months old; we have a medium, which is three months old; we have a sharp, which is six months old; and we have a super aged that's over a year old. We have very little of that in here. Then we have the cumin, with the cumin seeds in it, jalapeño, and the garden herb. These are also aged two months."

Wesselink picks up one of the 15-pound wheels, a foot in diameter and four inches thick, and flips it over. "We constantly have to turn them," he says. "What happens when they're first made, when they're fresh, they tend to bow out a little bit. Especially in the beginning, when they're fresh. So we have to flip them over."

At the far end of the trailer, a man sitting on an overturned bucket coats a wheel of gouda with a yellow liquid, which he applies with a small sponge. "This is Domingo," Wesselink says. "He is painting the new cheese. You know when you buy gouda at the grocery store, and it's got the red wax all over it? Well, we don't use the red wax because when you put that wax on there, it doesn't allow the cheese to breathe, and it doesn't age properly. So we use this coating, which comes from Holland. It's a vegetable-fiber coating that you put on it so the cheese can still breath. And it's edible. You don't want to eat it though, because it sticks in your teeth."

Wesselink continues his reverse tour of the cheese-making process by walking through a door into the adjoining trailer. Here, around 40 wheels of cheese float in tubs mounted at sink height along both walls. "This is the brine room," Wesselink explains. "The cheese, after we make it, goes into a brine bath. We don't put salt in our cheese when we make it, but we put it in a brine bath, and it stays in there for two days. Now these over here," he points to the right where some cheese wheels sit on racks, "are drying, and they go from here into the next room to be painted. We make about 50 cheeses a day."

The dominant feature of the next room is the rectangular 1250-gallon open tank -- about 12 feet by 4 feet -- filled with milk. A man wearing hair nets on his beard and head paces around the tank, eyeing the milk. "This is my son-in-law, David," Wesselink says. "He and my daughter Valerie are the cheese makers." He points to the milk on which a glossy, semi-solid surface is starting to form. "Here you see the milk has come in here. It was pumped in this morning, fresh out of the cows. Then they added the culture to it and the rennet that sets it up."

Wesselink's daughter, Valerie Thomas, who has walked in behind him, explains. "The culture is a bacteria specific to gouda cheese. If we were making another kind of cheese, we'd use a different culture. We get it from Holland. The rennet is an enzyme which helps in the firming up of our cheese. It's a necessary ingredient in our cheese-making. Many rennets are animal-based, usually from an animal's digestive tract. If you're making cow's milk cheese, you use rennet from cow origin. If we were making sheep cheese and using an animal rennet, we'd get it from a sheep source. Another type of rennet comes from a thistle plant. Another type of rennet is grown and harvested. Ours happens to be a vegetable-based rennet. Just by chance we started using that in the beginning of our cheese-making process. One of the benefits has been that people who are on vegetarian diets, who don't want meat products in their diet, can eat this cheese."

Valerie steps to a sink up against the wall of the trailer and begins scrubbing her hands like a surgeon before an operation. "She's going to test the cheese," Wesselink explains. "She's going to stick her hand in that mess, then lift up. If the curd breaks in a straight line, it's ready to be cut."

When Valerie has finished washing her hands she dips her right hand, index finger extended, down through the curd, then curls it back up. The glossy curd splits in a straight line along the length of her finger. She repeats the process all around the tank to make sure the whole batch has set up. "Sometimes it takes the milk 45 minutes to set up," she explains. "Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes it takes an hour and 15 minutes to set up. You don't know. And you can't rush it. You've got to be on its time."

After her last test dip, she nods to David, who is standing by with a "knife" -- imagine a tennis racket but metal with a square head bent 90 degrees to the handle and strings running only up and down -- ready to "cut the cheese." With this knife he cuts the curds first side to side across the tank, then lengthwise. "See the pale yellow liquid coming up through the cut lines," Wesselink says. "That's the whey."

"Remember the nursery rhyme, 'Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey?' " David asks. "I remember thinking, 'What the hell are curds and whey?' When I started making cheese, I found out."

When David is done cutting the curds, he'll drain the whey out of the tank. It will go back to the dairy, where it's mixed with the cows' feed. After that first drain, he'll spray the curds down with hot water, which causes them to shrink and expel any more whey trapped in them. When they're the proper consistency, neither too hard nor too soft, he and Valerie will pack them into wheel-shaped molds. "Then the molds get stacked up four high over there," Jules says, "and they get pressed for about an hour and a half or two hours. Then we turn them over and press them for another hour and a half, two hours. We leave them overnight, and the next morning they go into the brine bath for two days. They're turned every 6 hours while they're in the brine. Then they're taken out and left to dry. Then we put the vegetable-fiber paint on them. From there they go onto the shelf for aging. From that moment on, they're just lying there being turned all the time."

This process produces 8000 pounds of cheese per month, cheese that sells for between $11.35 per pound for the "super aged" and $5.95 for the plain mild. Those are the retail prices. Wesselink won't divulge his wholesale prices.

Wesselink estimates that it would take $150,000 to set up a cheese plant like his. "That's with trailers," he says. "If you had to put up a building it would cost a heck of a lot more."

With four full-time employees and three part-time, Wesselink says his profit margin is narrow but adds, "We are making a living out of it."

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