By Carla Shryock
Just north of Medford, in the suburban town of Central Point, lies perhaps Southern Oregon’s most luxurious rest stop. It’s known as the Artisan Corridor, and it’s home to internationally award-winning cheeses and wine, and a chocolatier who is one of the 10 best in the country.
Don’t let the industrial neighborhood fool you. Side by side sit three unique businesses dedicated to showcasing their locally crafted products. Each offers tasting experiences on site, often incorporating one another’s ingredients. Each focuses on producing quality products using sustainable, environmentally friendly techniques.
Your gourmet experience is located just a few minutes west of Interstate 5. Take Exit 33 and venture north on Hwy 99 (Front Street) to reach the Artisan Corridor.
311 N. Front St.
Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat 9-6, Sun 11-5
Craig Nelson uses "Star Wars" references when he describes the art of cheesemaking at Rogue Creamery. “You learn to use your Jedi master power to read the cheese. It’s all about feeling the force, and allowing the force of that milk to tell you what’s going on.”
Those master powers are employed every day, whether it’s stirring and analyzing 8,000 pounds of liquid in a vat or manipulating up to 13,000 pieces of cheese through the aging process.
Cheesemakers use their senses of taste, touch and smell to evaluate where the milk or cheese is in the development process. The rest of it, says the Rogue Creamery plant manager and cheesemaker, involves the artisan principle of learning how to feel what the cheese is telling you and when it’s ready for the next step. “Making cheese is a journey, and the journey is not quite a straight road. It’s our job to keep it on its path.”
Rogue Creamery has been following this principle for the past 80 years. The locally owned and operated cheese company creates handcrafted blue cheese recipes, cheddar cheeses and a semi-hard cheese named after a nearby state park, TouVelle. The cheeses have captured international and national awards, including recent wins at the 29th annual American Cheese Society, the largest cheese competition in North America.
The creamery follows old-world sustainable practices to create their cheeses. They use certified raw and pasteurized milk from local dairies, where animals are pasture grazed for much of the year. They use solar energy to help power the station where the milk trucks are brought in. All cheese-making operations, too, are done by hand.
"We don't have any automated systems here," says Craig. "From the farm to your plate, every step of that process is hugely important to us. So it's not only the cheesemaker's hands but the packager's hands and the rest of those people getting that quality produce out so when you buy it on the shelf, the name speaks for itself. From the grassroots to the plate, that's our whole story."
While you’ll find Rogue Creamery cheese at major supermarkets, local artisan and national cheese shops, and also in far-off locations like Australia, Tokyo and Paris, visiting their Central Point cheese shop is a wonderful stop on your Rogue Valley tour. The shop offers specialty food, local wine, craft beer, and more than 100 fine cheeses from around the world including the full line of Rogue Creamery cheeses, which are available for tastings.
Lillie Belle Farms
211 N. Front St.
Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat 9-6, Sun 11-5
Lillie Belle Farms
While traveling in Europe, Jeff Shepherd found himself so drawn to chocolate shops he could not stay out of them.“I’m going to go in here for a minute,” he’d say to his wife, Belle. “I need a couple of things.”
Each shop made and sold its own chocolates. “They were in every town and every village and every city you’d go to. I thought that was incredibly civilized,” Jeff remembers.
Back home in Oregon, the former chef convinced Belle to let him buy $50 worth of chocolate. He used the chocolate and his own organically grown raspberries to make truffles to sell at farmer's markets. People, he said, liked them so much they became regular customers.
That one truffle variety soon grew to six, and Jeff was in the gourmet chocolate-making business. “I literally taught myself. I went out and purchased chocolate from Europe and all these other places and kept experimenting and experimenting, just playing with it.” He named the new company Lillie Belle Farms after his wife and daughter.
More than a decade after his first truffle success, the master chocolatier continues to experiment. Jeff and his staff at Lillie Belle hand-make a variety of gourmet chocolates in the European tradition, but with an American, specifically Jeff Shepherd, twist. The confections range from exotic caramels, luxury truffles, “Bean to Bar” chocolate bars, bon bons, ganaches, and toffees. Out-of-the-box ingredients such as bacon, cayenne pepper, chilies, figs and Rogue Creamery cheese infuse many of his creations.
“This has been a very organic, all-me, kind of mind vision that doesn’t copy any other brand. It’s just who we are.”
Jeff primarily sources organic ingredients for his confections, including the herb grown at his own farm for his best-seller, lavender sea salt caramels. It is this confection that garnered Jeff national recognition in 2006.
“About a week after I got back from the New York Chocolate Show I got a phone call from Omni Media saying, ‘I got this box of lavender caramels on my desk and I work for Martha Stewart and she really likes these,’ ” Jeff recalls. “They wanted 500 1-pound boxes for their corporate holiday gift that year.”
Jeff was recognized in 2009 as one of the top 10 chocolatiers in North America by Dessert Professional magazine. It was, he says, industry validation that he was on the right path, and doing the right thing.
"They told me I had some of the most outlandish thinking, outside of the box, fantastic tasting creations they'd ever seen."
Jeff sells Lillie Belle chocolates online, at stores on the East and West Coasts and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Higher-end shops in Holland and Belgium have also picked them up.
His retail business, Jeff says, is exploding. At his storefront on the Artisan Corridor, his staff will hand out samples after they find out what customers are interested in trying.
"We want them to have fun," he says. "Chocolate should be fun."
Ledger David Cellars’ Le Petit Tasting Room
245 N. Front Street
April – Sept, daily 12-5; Oct – March, Thurs – Mon, 12-5
Ledger David Cellars
An award from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition tells vintners they produce a great wine. Five awards – one for each wine entered – assures them they produce some of the best wines in the nation.
For the Rogue Valley’s Ledger David Cellars, medaling at the 2013 competition was especially gratifying. Among their awards was a gold for their first red wine vintage, the 2010 Orion’s Nebula. According to co-owner David Traul, the blend of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Syrah is a bigger, bolder wine – basically a Bordeaux varietal with a Rogue twist.
“The whole idea with this wine is using the star varietals from our vineyard in any given year to make the blend,” he says. While winning the gold in San Francisco is a lot to live up to, “we’re actually doing that right now with our 2011 vintage, dialing in the blend to make sure it’s consistent with 2010.”
David admits he gets pretty geeky when talking about the Orion’s Nebula logo at the winemaker dinners Ledger David hosts throughout the year. A nebula, he explains, is the burning ground of stars. The abstract logo mark on all the winery’s labels is a representation of Orion’s Belt. “Orion is the only constellation you can see from both hemispheres, and depending on which mythology you look at, it’s the warrior or the hunter and the idea that it takes strength and unity to produce quality grapes.”
David and his wife, co-owner Lena Varner, grow all the grapes used in their wines on a 16-acre vineyard in Talent, halfway between Ashland and Medford. They produce 11 varietals, including Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Chenin Blanc was the first wine they made in 2009, and remains the only Chenin Blanc grown in the Rogue Valley.
Ledger David is focused on growing quality fruit. “Really what sets us apart is the vineyard and having control over the fruit,” says David. While their own winery (in Talent) is under development, they use several different wine facilities to process their grapes. “We take part in all the blending trials and oak profiles so we’re actively involved in the decision-making process for the wine.”
While Ledger David sells its wine to retail and restaurant operations throughout Southern Oregon, demand for its wine dictated they open a tasting room. So late in 2011, they opened their Le Petit Tasting Room on the Artisan Corridor, nestled between the Rogue Creamery and Lillie Belle Farms. A $5 tasting fee gets you six wines, refunded with any purchase, paired with at least two Rogue Creamery cheeses. In the summer, Le Petit Tasting Room offers patio seating and in the winter, a fireside music series.
Carla Shryock is a free-lance writer and photographer based in Salem, Oregon.