I grew up in the wine and cheese rich town of Sonoma, California. I was practically weaned on Cabernet Sauvignon and the cheese on my brown bag school lunch sandwiches was inevitably a Vella's Monterey Jack. Trips to the musty, stone building that housed Vella's factory and shop on Second Street East and tastes of the voluminous free samples were a staple of my childhood from age 5 to 18. Let the tourists have their Sonoma Jack cheese on the town plaza, with its caraway and jalapeno versions; we were a Vella's family.
I didn't know then that Ig Vella had been making cheese in that same spot since 1931, nor could I have predicted that in the American artisanal cheese explosion to come, Vella's would be seen as the patron saint. No less an authority than Steve Jenkins writes in his influential Cheese Primer, "Let there be a visible aura around this text, because elder statesman Ig Vella and his magnificent cheeses are driving forces behind the emergence of American-made cheeses that must be ranked among the world's finest."
Vella's has five age-levels of Jacks. Outside of Sonoma, you are most likely to come across the Dry Jack, which is Vella's most vaunted product. This hard cow cheese tastes more like an aged American cheddar than the Parmigiano-Reggiano to which it is often compared. The cheese is aged seven to ten months and coated with cocoa. There are now older versions as well, the Special Select Dry Jack and the Golden Bear Dry Jack, aged two to four years.
While I love Dry Jack, one of my favorite Vella's cheeses is not widely available outside the wine country. The Mezzo Secco, partially dried Jack, is the level between the young, high moisture Jack and the popular Dry Jack. In the Mezzo Secco, you can still taste the rich, creamy Monterey Jack character along with the beginnings of the aged flavors that will take over in the Dry Jack. It's a window into the aging process and it creates a unique cheese that is equally good on a sandwich, in a salad or on its own. I find the Mezzo Secco to be just as good as the Dry Jack, though it is underappreciated.
Mezzo Secco Jack along with other Vella cheeses are available on the Vella's website.