Posted by Jim Pionkoski on November 18, 2015
We are often asked why we started Wisconsin Cheese Masters. It's a relatively simple story.
After years spent in the marketing field, I wanted to start an on-line business. This was almost 10 years ago, after the initial bubble of on-line retailers had burst. The only issue was I had no idea what I was going to sell.
We (Katie my wife and our daughter Casey) were on our annual family "drive-around". We visit many parts of this beautiful state and we were in one of our favorites - the "driftless" area. This southwestern part of Wisconsin was untouched by the glaciers of the last ice age leaving steep valleys between the rolling hills. Most of the valleys feature a small spring-fed stream (perfect for trout and thus fly-fishing).
We had nothing particular to do one morning and headed out toward the Mississippi River. Along the way it became unusually foggy and we slowed down in time to notice a sign that simply said "Cheese Factory", in front of an old farmhouse. Laughing, we decided that it was time for three Wisconsinites to visit our first cheese factory.
We expected to find curds or cheddar when we went through the door but instead were told that the only cheeses made there were Blue and Gorgonzola. We considered ourselves borderline "foodies" and I remember thinking, "How can we get out of here without trying the cheese?" I was sure it would be nothing like its French or Italian counterparts.
I was right. Each of their two creations was the best we had ever tried. And we said so. Our host replied, "Well, there are both world champions" and, then apologized, "but we're not Master Cheese Makers".
This was certainly a flood of new information. There are World Cheese Championships? Wisconsin cheeses have won them? What are Master Cheese Makers?
Within minutes our eyes had been opened to the world of Wisconsin cheese right under our noses. In fact, Wisconsin perennially wins about a third of the World Championship titles, more of the U.S. titles. And, most compelling for a marketer, there were only 39 Master Cheese Makers in the entire U.S. and every single one was in Wisconsin.
You would think that the idea of selling on-line and finding a universally recognized product with an unbeatable pedigree would have been enough to make the leap. It took a disappointing trip to the grocery back home in Milwaukee a few weeks later to finally make the connection.
We were out of Montforte Blue. We looked for it at the fine grocery store in our neighborhood. They didn't have it and had not heard of it. We went to other stores with the same result. "It's a World Champion cheese! It's made 100 miles from here!" Blank stares all around.
Finally it clicked. If I lived near the Best Cheese in America and can't buy it at the store, how can anyone else? We dedicated our next "drive-around" to finding other Wisconsin Cheeses we have never seen before. And, FINALLY, Wisconsin Cheese Masters was born