Big Sky Grana from Bleu Mont Dairy tied for third as Best in Show.
For those who wake up at night dreaming of luscious oozing soft cheeses spilling out of their rinds, salty wash-rinds aged to nutty perfection, sharp tangy cheddars, or fresh herbaceous goat chevre, the Festival of Cheese was Lollapalooza.
On Saturday night, the large exhibition hall at Monona Terrace brimmed with tables loaded with piles of nearly two thousand different cheeses, all arranged on white tablecloths. Almost the entirety of American artisanal cheese production was laid out for sampling. It was a sight -- and smell-- to behold.
The American Cheese Society wrapped up its 2013 conference with what amounted to a gigantic party open to the public. Guests hit the escalators, were handed a plate and wine glass and were free to explore America's finest curdled dairy products.
Wisconsin did well in the 2013 competition: Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy placed third overall with a Best in Show prize for both his Bandaged Cheddar and his Big Sky Grana (the cheese I used in a savory panna cotta recipe when it first appeared this summer at the farmers' market). Lehner also won a first prize for his Alpine Renegade.
This year was the first time fresh curds were a competition category, and Wisconsin unsurprisingly swept the awards, taking 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. Marieke Gouda from Holland's Family Cheese also took a first prize, as did cheeses from Fair Oaks Farms, Emmi Roth, the Artisan Cheese Exchange, Carr Valley, Cedar Grove, Klondike Cheese, Montchevré-Betin, and Martha's Pimento Cheese.
Best in Show went to Winnimere made by Cellars at Jasper Hill, also the makers of beloved cheeses Harbison and Willoughby. The creamery was so thrilled when it learned of the honor that sales and marketing director Vince Razionale drove overnight from Vermont to Madison.
Many cheesemakers were in attendance, including Anne Topham, dubbed the grande dame of Wisconsin goat cheese. She's brought her Fantôme Farm chevre to farmers' markets for decades, but retired this year.
"I already miss my customers and the other vendors," she said. "I think I'll come back for a few weekends and sit on a bench near where I used to sell so I can see everyone."
Willy Street Co-op cheesemonger Stuart Mammel, who attended the conference, related a memorable cheese moment when he was asked to help prepare for the festival. He found himself working next to Ricki Carroll of New England Cheesemaking Supply. Carroll was this year's Hall of Fame inductee, and has been a force in American artisanal cheese scene for more than thirty years. The first offices of the American Cheese Society were in her house.
The epic cheese tasting was a fitting farewell to this year's Madison-hosted American Cheese Society conference, which opened Thursday with a keynote address by Odessa Piper. Attendees reveled in the pungent smells and moldy rinds while celebrating the end of the largest American artisan cheese conference ever held.