Sartori Cheese has taken two best-of-class awards at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison for its high-end Parmesan.
Following judging on Tuesday, Gary Domke took best-of-class in the hard cheese division with his Sartori Reserve Extra Aged Asiago, produced in Antigo.
And Team Sartori Whey of Plymouth earned best of class in the shredded cheese division for its Sartori Reserve Shredded SarVecchio Parmesan.
The awards were announced as judges and the public prepare for tonight’s finals, where 16 best-of-class winners will complete for the grand prize.
This is the first year the international contest has charged admission to its finals, which historically have been low-key affairs attended by just a handful of spectators and reporters. But with a growing number of foodies seeking to outdo each other in their pursuit of local, sustainable, organic and handcrafted fare, the artisan cheese competition has become a hot ticket among those looking to get their gouda on.
The contest held every two years in Madison typically draws more than 2,000 entries from nearly two dozen nations. Usually, only the judges taste the cheese, but this year 400 ticketholders will be able to sample 15 of the top entries, mingle with Wisconsin cheesemakers and meet the international panel of judges. The event is sold out.
“In the past, unless you were a super cheese geek, this is not something you went to,” said Jeanne Carpenter, executive director of Wisconsin Cheese Originals, an organization of artisan cheese fans. “But getting to try 15 different cheeses from 15 different countries, plus meeting the best of Wisconsin’s cheesemakers, people love that.”
Experts compare specialty cheeses to wines: Both have subtle variations based on their region of origin, year of creation and the techniques employed by master craftsmen.
Judging in cheese and wine contests is similar as well. Judges roll entries in their mouths, search for nuanced characteristics and then discard the samples.
The three-day contest began Monday with judges grading 2,500 entries in 82 cheese and butter classes on flavor, texture, body and color. The winner in each class advanced to the semifinals, where the top 16 were chosen for tonight’s night’s competition.
Being chosen best in show can mean big business. Some previous winners have talked about a crush of demand for their cheese following the announcement. After Swiss cheesemaker Christian Wuethrich won in 2006 with an Emmentaler, he raised its price more than 10 percent, from $8 to $9 per pound.
Switzerland has dominated recent championships, taking top honors in each of the past three contests. Wisconsin consistently outperforms other U.S. states. The Dairy State won 21 of the 79 categories in 2010, while second-place New York had six wins.
In division judging, Domke’s aged Asiago scored 99.55, narrowly edging two Austria entries which scored 99.45 and 99.35.
Antigo’s Sartori plant was well-represented in the division, with Aaron Quick of Antigo entering a Reserve Extra Aged Fontina and a Classic Fontina and Domke bringing a Classic Romano. Joe Pagel of Antigo entered a Classic Asiago and Mike Matucheski an Extra Aged Classic and a Reserve BellaVitano Gold.
In the shredded cheese category, the score was even closer, with Sartori receiving 97.60 to 97.55 for a colored cheddar/Monterrey offered by Jerome Cheese Company based in Idaho. Sartori Team Whey also brought a Reserve Shredded Merlot BellaVitano, a Reserve Shredded Black Pepper BellaVitano and a Reserve Shredded Salsa Asiago.
Other Sartori entries included:
—Hard mixed milk cheese: Mike Matucheski, Limited Edition Pastorale Bend, second with 97.15. Winner was Central Coast Creamery of California, 98.70 for a cheese it labeled Seascape.
Matucheski also entered a Limited Edition Mixed Milk Blend
—Flavored cheese with sweet condiments: Mike Matucheski, Reserve Merlot BellaVitano and Limited Edition Cognac BellaVitano. The division was won by a Quebec entry.
—Flavored hard cheeses: Mike Matucheski, Reserve Espresso BellaVitano, Reserve Basil and Olive Oil Asiago, Reseve Black Pepper BellaVitano, Reserve Rosemary and Olive Oil Asiago, Reserve Mediterraneain Fontina, BellaVitano T, Reserve Salsa Asiago, Reserve Balsamic BellaVitano, and Limited Edition Cannella BellaVitano. A cheese from Switzerland was the winner.
—Parmesan: John Griffiths, Antigo, Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan; Gary Domke, Classic Parmesan; Mike Matucheski, Natural Rind Parmesan. BelGioioso Cheese of Pulaski’s Parmesan was the winner.