Over the past 83-plus years, it’s been quite a journey to build Sartori Cheese into an innovative, world renowned and multi-award-winning cheese processor. It annually produces such iconic cheeses as BellaVitano, MontAmoré — and its new varietal, Cherrywood Smoked Cheddar that came out in June — along with word-class Asiagos, Parmesans, Romanos and Cheddars. But that’s exactly what fourth-generation President Bert Sartori is doing with the help of Master Cheesemakers Ken Kane and Pam Hodgson, 40 licensed cheesemakers, four master cheesemaker apprentices and a dedicated team of 800 employees.
“There’s no doubt that the key to our success is our team members, Sartori told Dairy Foods during an onsite visit to its headquarters in Plymouth, Wis. “Without their commitment to creating quality cheese each day, and bringing their talents and creativity to create new-to-the-world cheeses like BellaVitano, I'm certain we wouldn't be where we are.
“Our BellaVitano and MontAmoré are our flagship cheeses that a lot of people would recognize us for,” Sartori continues. “We recently added a naturally cherry smoked version of our MontAmoré®. I had some on my eggs this morning and boy was it good. People were excited for it, and maybe even a little mad we didn't do it earlier.”
One of the Top 10 specialty cheese brands in the United States with an estimated annual revenue north of $100 million, the family-owned Sartori Cheese produces 22 SKUs of premium artisan cheeses. The cheeses are freshly made 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with an all-important ingredient — farm-fresh milk from Wisconsin family farms because “great cheese starts with great milk,” Sartori notes.
Carefully aged from 60 days to 22 months, Sartori cheeses are handcrafted in the tradition of the great cheeses of Italy. They are available in four distinct categories:
- Parmesan, available in Classic, SarVecchio and Tuscan Blend that feature subtle fruity notes to nutty sweetness with a uniquely creamy taste and a crystalline crunch.
- Asiago, one of first cheeses the company produced after its founding in 1939, is available in Classic and Rosemary & Olive Oil. These cheeses deliver a nutty flavor with a creamy, buttery finish sure to enhance any recipe.
- Cheddar, with more than 80 years of innovation and craftsmanship, the Italian-inspired white cheddars are available in MontAmoré, Old World, Farmhouse and Cherrywood Smoked varietals. Tasting notes range from smooth, creamy and velvety soft to extra sharp with a firm, crumbly texture that is interspersed with crystals for a crystalline crunch.
- BellaVitano, which hit the market in 2008, is a line of rich, caramelly Cheddar cheeses blended with savory farmstead Parmesans. A Sartori original, these award-winning hard but creamy cheeses are soaked or hand-rubbed in an array of flavors such as Merlot, Espresso, Black Pepper, Raspberry Ale, Tennessee Whiskey, Chardonnay, and Garlic & Herb, a new flavor that debuted in January.
A rich heritage of cheesemaking
Located in Plymouth, Wis., in Sheboygan County in southeastern Wisconsin, S & R Cheese Co. (the present-day Sartori Cheese) was cofounded in 1939 by Italian immigrant Paola Sartori, Bert’s great grandfather, who had just a third-grade education when he boarded The Finlandia for a better life in America. On board the ocean-liner, Paolo met a man employed at northern Wisconsin’s Stella Cheese, founded in 1923 as one of the first Italian American cheese companies. He convinced the 20-year-old to also work at the company — where for 12 years Paolo threw himself into learning all facets of the cheesemaking business.
Something special happened at Stella that would forever change the trajectory of the Sartori family. Paolo met and befriended Louis Rossini and the two decided to start their fledgling company, the aforementioned S & R Cheese Co., on the grounds of a former brewery, the Plymouth Brewing Co., which was constructed between 1891 and 1912. Paolo handled the business side of the company, while Rossini was the cheesemaker, Sartori says.
“When my great grandfather was looking at founding Sartori, he looked all over the Midwest and ended up settling in Wisconsin. The work ethic of the team, the rich history of agriculture, and the climate made it an ideal place for dairy farming,” the president states. “That first building, where we are now standing and where I worked many hours as a teenager, is the historic East Main Caves. It’s really a neat legacy because since 2017, this building has been on the National Register of Historic Places.”
The company’s rich history, commitment to crafting the finest artisanal cheeses from the finest milk produced at Wisconsin farms, and a four-generation family legacy has been pivotal to the company’s success, Bert Sartori says. The legacy includes Sartori’s great grandfather Paolo, his son, Joe, who attended the University of Wisconsin via the Center of Dairy Research and eventually replaced cofounder Rossini as head cheesemaker. The third generation, Joe’s sons, Paul, Jim, and Bert’s dad, Steve, all joined the family business as well.
“My dad was the youngest and ended up taking over the company at the age of 32,” Sartori explains, crediting his dad for getting him interested in the business at a young age. “My dad … had me working at the plants as a kid and I learned so much from him. Two years ago, my dad transitioned out of the CEO position and I settled into my presidential position.
“When Sartori Co. started, we only had a dozen team members, and the first cheese we made was an asiago, in 1939, that we still make today,” he continues. “My grandfather did a great job creating new cheeses, improving the quality, and continuing to innovate. We’ve grown to a little more than 800 team members producing a little more than 20 different varieties of cheese with a lot of different recipes in those varieties.”
Sartori proudly points out that the cheesemaking company that bears his name has been innovating since its inception. In fact, Sartori Cheese was responsible for several technological advancements within the dairy industry. It was among the first cheese companies to embrace the use of milk trucks for bulk transportation; patented a cheese curd machine and curd mixing and kneading machine; and experimented with the cheesemaking process, particularly the curing of Romano cheese.
Headquartered in Plymouth, (population 8,652), Sartori Cheese operates out of two cheesemaking plants: the historic East Main caves and West Main — which are literally steps away from each other. It also runs a northern Wisconsin converting and cheesemaking plant in Antigo, Wis., about three hours north of Plymouth.
“We operate out of two cheesemaking plants and two converting plants in Wisconsin with deep roots in the community,” explains Master Cheesemaker Ken Kane, who has worked out of the West Main plant since 2005. “Our two creameries utilize local family farm-sourced milk. Our conversion plant, also in Plymouth, houses 10 lines converting all of our cheeses for our loyal retail, ingredient, and foodservice patrons.
“Our West Main Creamery houses our raw milk intake, cheese production plant, block packaging, and an onsite whey plant,” Kane continues. “Our Antigo Creamery houses the same operation and includes a curing facility and wheel converting area as part of the building operations.” (For more on Sartori’s operations, see this month’s “Inside the Plant” feature).
Not only is the state of Wisconsin known as the Dairy State because it ranks No. 1 in dairy production and the slogan “America’s Dairyland” graces some Wisconsin car license plates, the relatively small town of Plymouth is known as the “Cheese Capital of the World” because as Bert Sartori puts it, “Plymouth is ground zero for the Wisconsin cheese industry. It’s estimated that 25% of the nation's cheese is processed and sold from Plymouth-based facilities, making the community the ‘Cheese Capital of the World.’”
According to Kane, Wisconsin has 1,290 licensed cheesemakers — more than any other state — and has stringent state standards for cheesemaking and maintaining overall dairy product quality.
“Wisconsin is the only state that requires a license and we take this very seriously,” Kane notes. “It takes 18 months of training to be eligible to take the exam to obtain your license. The importance of this license is that Wisconsin is the Dairy State; we have a great culture of agriculture and pride in what we produce that takes a lot of time and passion.
“I love telling people I’m a cheesemaker, to be part of that culture,” he continues. “The Master Cheesemaker Program is a whole other level.”
Kane explains that to become a Master Cheesemaker one has to have held his/her license for 10 years, be making cheese for at least five years, and undergo an oral exam and plant visit which covers everything, field to fork. After being accepted into the program, apprentices are graded for three years, with the final hurdle being a comprehensive exam. “Some call it a 40-hour exam,” Kane states, because it covers a lot and “is really meant to vet out one’s cheesemaking acumen and knowledge.
“I was fortunate to be with Sartori, who fostered the culture to achieve that title,” he adds. “I hope to have many of our talented cheesemakers who are continuing in the Italian tradition to produce some of the best cheeses in the world enter into that program.”
Internationally recognized artisan cheeses
As a cheese powerhouse, Sartori’s artisan cheeses continue to receive national and international acclaim. Ryan Gillespie, Sartori’s vice president of marketing since 2020, notes that the company has won dozens upon dozens of awards in the United States and internationally (Italy, England, etc.)
In fact, Team Sartori’s Tennessee Whiskey BellaVitano recently took home Gold at the prestigious International Cheese & Dairy Awards (more than 5,500 entries) in the “Cheese with Alcohol” category, while its Sartori's SarVecchio Parmesan was awarded Silver in the “Cheese with Health Benefits” category.
“At Sartori, we are proud that we are one of the most award-winning specialty cheese brands in the world,” Gillespie says. “It’s a good sign that we’re in line with our company goal — to make the best cheese in the world.”
From humble beginnings, Sartori cheeses now are available in virtually every grocery story in 50 states along with a number of club stores and many specialty cheese stores, and mom-and-pop stores. It is available internationally in such countries as Germany, Canada, and Australia.
Sartori specialty cheeses also are available at several food service locations. For example, on its menu at 458 restaurants across the U.S., Noodles & Company offers Alfredo MontAmoré with Parmesan-Crusted Chicken that combines spaghetti noodles, four-cheese blend alfredo, roasted mushrooms, tomato, spinach, and parmesan chicken that is topped with MontAmoré cheese and cracked pepper.
And with charcuterie and cheese boards being all the rage for backyard gatherings, wine and cheese tastings, weddings, and more, the brand’s cheeses are elevating tasting experiences. In fact, Sartori recently cemented a partnership with Illinois-based restaurant and winery chain Coopers Hawk, which regularly receives 20-pound wheels of its extra-aged savory SarVecchio Parmesan for use in its appetizers, salads, and cheese boards at 45 locations.
“Our SarVecchio Parmesan is our most highly-decorated Parmesan, with hints of lightly-roasted caramel and aged to crumbly perfection,” Bert Sartori says. “It achieved Super Gold Medal status at the 2019 and 2017 World Cheese Awards and is the longest aged cheese we produce (almost two years).”
Available in 5.3-ounce wedges, five-pound quarter wheels, and 20-pound wheels, the SarVecchio Parmesan’s rind is a great addition to sauces, Kane adds.
“It grates beautifully and is the one Parmesan that you can chunk off and eat as a snack. It’s salty, lightly fruity, nutty, and savory — a truly decadent cheese.”
“Churning out” cheese now and in the future
As Sartori Cheese has developed and expanded over the past 83 years, the company has never lost sight of its six key founding principles: Family, Commitment, Authenticity, Ingenuity, Integrity, and Humility, according to Bert Sartori.
“Even today we are finishing our specialty artisan cheeses by hand,” he says. “It takes a lot time, ingenuity, and patience to perfect the process. As noted, our SarVecchio Parmesan is a 20-month-old cheese. You generally only need to age Parmesan for 10 months, but we think the extra time really accentuates the finer qualities of that cheese.”
Producing world-renowned cheese and aging cheese is not an easy job, Bert Sartori notes.“Take, for example, our BellaVitano. That cheese is aged for around 10 months. But you have to realize, when our cheesemakers were making this, that first attempts don’t usually come out well, so you’re out time and money. It could take five to 10 years to create something really special.
“But investing in the process is what Sartori is all about, he continues. “I’m so proud that when we say ‘Sartori Family,’ it’s not just my family. It extends to our family farms, which produces the freshest possible milk, and the way we treat and invest in our people, and the long-term collaborations we try to establish with our customers.
“All of those come together around a culture that fosters ingenuity, creativity, and authenticity to create some really unique cheeses,” Sartori concludes. “I’m most excited for the people who have just joined our business, and how well they’re integrating with our team and all the potential that brings. I’m excited for the future — as we continue to deliver quality, creativity, and a special experience for all.”