Facing a Cheese Challenge, Major Grocery Chain Caves

Wegmans Builds Home for the Aging of Bries, Chevres

To meet a cheese challenge, Wegmans caves. Eric Meredith in the new Wegmans cheese cave building. Illustrates FOOD-CHEESE (category d), by Becky Krystal (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Monday, June 2, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Jon Hrichak/Wegmans Food Markets)

To meet a cheese challenge, Wegmans caves. Eric Meredith in the new Wegmans cheese cave building. Illustrates FOOD-CHEESE (category d), by Becky Krystal (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Monday, June 2, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Jon Hrichak/Wegmans Food Markets)

I can’t believe this is goat cheese.

The Wegmans 1916 Aged Goat Cheese is smooth, silky, a little grassy but not at all punctuated by the sharp tang that turns off so many people from other goat’s milk varieties. The four-inch round also bears little resemblance to the plastic-wrapped logs that disintegrate in your hands; it’s easily cut into wedges.

“You don’t want it to crumble,” says Carrie Lesio, the cheese team leader behind the case at the Wegmans in Pittsford, N.Y. The ideal consistency, she says, is more akin to that of peanut butter.

This dairy perfection has been achieved thanks to Eric Meredith, the recently anointed Wegmans affineur (cheese ager), and his new toy, a 12,000-plus-square-foot cheese cave building not far from the company headquarters outside Rochester, N.Y. (Most of the 84 Wegmans stores are in New York and Eastern Pennsylvania, but there are two in New England, in Northborough and Chestnut Hill, Mass.)

The caves are not drippy subterranean spaces but rather seven high-tech rooms in which Meredith and his team have begun to ripen cheeses that will be distributed to stores around the country. The conditions in the caves, each of which can hold up to several thousand small pieces of cheese, are meant to mimic those in the real caves used in Europe.

Small producers and outfits such as Murray’s Cheese in New York and Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm have been aging cheeses for a while. But with its large-scale affinage operation intended for nationwide grocery store distribution, Wegmans is breaking new ground, according to cheese expert and cookbook author Laura Werlin.

Wegmans has “been at the forefront of cheese, and particularly American cheese, for a long time,” Werlin says. “Aging their own cheese seems like the logical next step.”

The Wegmans project represents a shift in the American model of cheesemaking. Cheesemakers here typically are responsible for the entire chain of cheese production, from animal to final product. In Europe, the process is divided among the dairy farmers, who are responsible for the animals and milk; the cheesemakers, who use the milk to make the green, or fresh, cheese; and the affineurs, who age the cheese.

“Aging cheeses isn’t easy,” Meredith says. This from a man who used to work in a converted railroad tunnel in France and now has 21st-century technology at his fingertips.

The idea at Wegmans is to take the pressure off cheesemakers by cultivating relationships with local producers who will hand over their fresh cheese to Meredith’s group to ripen. To jump-start the process, the company has provided funding for a program through Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that will work with New York cheesemakers in creating safe, high-quality products.

Meredith’s current stock of aging cheese includes American and European selections. The affinage facility cares for the cheese from the time it comes in the door to when it’s ready to be shipped out to Wegmans stores. The caves control for temperature and humidity, and measures are in place to prevent contamination and cross-contamination of the very sensitive cheeses.

Take the 1916, named for the year Wegmans was founded. “That fresh 1916 is a Petri dish looking to sponge up anything in the air,” Meredith says.

The goat cheese evolved from a partnership with Vermont Creamery, in Websterville, a village of Barre, Vt. Wegmans gets the cheese at three or four days old and ages it for 2 1/2 to three weeks. Six days after receiving it, the affinage staff uses vegetable ash to stencil a Wegmans logo onto the top of each round. As the cheese ages, the growing rind combines with and grows over the ash. During my special-permission tour, we see the various stages of aging as Meredith yanks open the cave doors.

Other cheeses there are of the washed-rind variety. Meredith is experimenting with two Rieslings, including one from New York, as a bath for St. Nectaire, a six-week-aged French cow’s milk cheese. He also developed a bourbon wash for Pie d’Angloys, a three-week-aged French cow’s milk cheese.

The booze gives the cheese a lovely color that can range from golden to orange. More important are the changes wrought on a microscopic level. The washes allow water-loving bacteria on the cheese to proliferate and help develop distinctive flavor and texture, Meredith says.

In addition to the caves, the building includes a 45-degree brie room, a massive space housing 50 to 60 of the roughly 300 cheese varieties in the Wegmans cheese shop. There are fetas, blue cheeses, cheddars and, of course, brie. Although those products don’t receive the same individual treatment as their cave cousins, Meredith says, they still are carefully evaluated by his team and can leave for stores only once they’ve been sampled and “blessed.” The system means stores can now order their cheese four days, rather than six weeks, in advance.

Quality control and consistency across stores was a primary motive for building the affinage facility, says Cathy Gaffney, Wegmans’s director for specialty cheeses, deli and kosher deli.

A cheese’s journey from Europe can take five to six weeks, during which time the partially ripened, chilled product might age a little more. But the stores had no idea in what stage of the aging process the cheese would arrive. Stores would then engage in a little “countertop affinage,” Meredith says, tasting the cheeses and deciding whether they were ready to sell.

With the help of then-consultant Meredith, the Pittsford store seven years ago became the first location to install a misting case that keeps the store’s own ripened cheeses and others at their ideal state — in other words, not in shrink-wrap, which would suffocate them as it would any other living, breathing thing.

The cases keep the cheese at about 40 degrees and the humidity at 90 percent. They’re now found at 13 Wegmans locations.

Inside the Pittsford case, cheeses are displayed like jewels atop wood slats. Mist rolls under the glass of the sloped case in a near-constant flow. Shoppers approach the case in a steady stream, nibbling on samples and consulting with Lesio and her colleagues, “the concierges of the cheese case,” as Gaffney calls them.

Staff expertise and customer tastes have come a long way since Gaffney, a born-and-bred “dairy princess,” started working with the cheese department 11 years ago.

“I realized people were throwing away perfectly good cheese,” she says, recalling the ripening Camembert that was tossed as brie gone bad.

Now, cheese staffers are well trained, even accompanying Gaffney to Europe on cheese-buying trips. Staff education also will take place in the cheese caves’ tasting room, in person and via webcast.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” Meredith says. “So is a taste.”

The affinage operation is still in its infancy, but Gaffney and Meredith are hard at work on a 24-month plan. One notion centers around Banon, a creamy French goat cheese that matures while wrapped in chestnut leaves. Wouldn’t it be great, Gaffney and Meredith asked, if they could ripen their own Banon? The French supplier of the cheese wouldn’t sell Wegmans the chestnut leaves.

Gaffney is now pondering how else to get them, even if it means growing her own trees.