How good can Willi Lehner's cheese making get?
That question occurs to me as Lehner leads me on a tour of the underground curing cave he's built on his 16-acre spread in the picturesque town of Vermont near Blue Mounds.
Lehner has been drawing praise from big-city food writers for more than 20 years now. The son of a Swiss cheese maker who came to the states in the early 1950s, Lehner has cheese making in his DNA. But even he feels something special is happening these days.
"Taking the leap and building this cave has really put me at another level," says Lehner, who's 52 and a lifelong cheese maker.
He points out the racks of cheeses curing in the climate-controlled cave - Lil Wil's Big Cheese, the Earth Schmier, the Bandaged Cheddar, the Gouda and a farmstead Käse.
"In France, people go to school to learn how to cure cheese," he says. "It's a profession. It's called affineur. I wouldn't classify myself as having their skills, but I've learned a lot from trial and error.
"You get a feel for it," he says, grabbing one of the wheels. "I walk into the cave and I can smell the different smells from day to day. I can smell the changes in the air."
To hear Lehner hold forth on cheese making is like hearing Ed Linville talk about architecture or Ben Sidran about jazz or Kelli Hoppmann about painting or Hans Sollinger about transplant surgery. They're all local masters.
The funny thing is that despite his glowing reputation, as celebrated in the pages of The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly, Lehner is the smallest of operators. He doesn't even own his own plant but rents time at four factories. He produces only about 30,000 pounds of cheese a year. Other Wisconsin cheese makers produce as much in a week or less.
But Lehner and his partner, Qui'tas McKnight, appear to be living life exactly the way they want. They are proponents of self-sufficiency and intensely local food systems.
Lehner's Bleu Mont Dairy is a company of one assisted by McKnight, who helps to cut, package and sell cheese. With its wood heat, windmill power, passive solar and photovoltaic batteries, the Bleu Mont operation is all but energy independent.
Out-of-state customers who call or email Lehner (a daily occurrence, he says) are routinely urged to patronize cheese makers in their own region. Almost all of Lehner's sales are made at the Saturday and Wednesday farmers markets in Madison.
"I'd like to see this [artisan cheese] movement be what it used to be - the landscape dotted with small cheese makers serving their own regions," says McKnight, who documented the couple's pivotal 2005 tour of 16 farmstead cheese makers in the British Isles for the UW's Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development.
"Each affineur provided us with a unique tidbit of wisdom gleaned from years of tradition and experience," she wrote.
Inspired by the experience, Lehner decided to build his cave.
Construction began in May 2006, with Lehner doing much of the work himself. Divided into a large and small chamber, the cave covers 1,600 square feet and is buried beneath seven to 15 feet of earth. The project cost him $130,000.
The cave gives him "rock solid" temperature and humidity control, two essentials for curing. The temperature hovers around 55 degrees, and he maintains the big curing room at about 90% humidity and the small room at about 95%.
Lehner's cheese making suggests the "terroir" of winemaking - that great cheese, like great wine, is a product of a particular environment and cultural tradition.
Lehner is fussy about the milk he uses. Because of the higher enzyme content, he prefers nonpasteurized milk from grass-fed cattle. He's very conscious of the microbiology of his molds and yeasts. Most famously, the rinse for his award-winning Earth Schmier cheese began with him culturing the microbes from a soil sample from his farm.
"This is Willi's art," says an admiring McKnight. "When he gets into the cave and starts working with the live organisms that go into the cheese, he's really getting into his artistry."
Lehner, who's won two big awards from the American Cheese Society in recent years, is much too modest to be the "rock star" of cheese making, as The New York Times recently described him.
Still, after almost five years of working with surface-cured, cave-aged cheeses, "I feel like I'm finally getting a grip," he says. "Something is coming together for me."