GREEN BAY - The best cheese in the United States is made by Sartori Company in Antigo. Master cheese maker Mike Matucheski's Sartori Reserve Black Pepper BellaVitano with a score of 99.02 (out of a possible 100) wedged its way past master cheese maker Terry Lensmire's cheddar (98.81) from Agropur, Weyauwega, and Marieke Penterman's gouda belegen (98.59) in a night that completed Wisconsin's dominance of the 2017 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest.
"So this is what it feels like, cool," Matucheski quipped from the stage before thanking everyone, starting with the farmers and "those wonderful cows" then Sartori for tolerating him for so many years. Though during my Matucheski-led tour of the Antigo plant last year, it is clear he has mastered both the science and art of cheese.
Sartori won the U.S. Championship in 2009, credit to John Griffiths for that win.
Meanwhile, Penterman was in familiar territory. It's the third time in the last four contests she's been among the top three cheese makers, including a win in 2013. She thanked her husband who supported her quest to make gouda some 10 years ago. It was somewhat of a novelty in 2006. She says when she told neighbors she intended to make gouda, they asked what's that?
This year four gouda made the final 20 cheeses. As a style, only cheddar had more finalists.
One of those being Lensmire's cheddar.
It was the first sweep of the top three spots by Wisconsin cheese makers since 2011.
Returning to Lambeau Field for 2017, the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest run by Madison-based Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association is held biennially. The WCMA conducts the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison on alternating years.
A record number of judges scored a record number of entries in a record time this year. That's not to say it was easy.
Senior judge Stan Dietsche explains how the thousands of entries are evaluated at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest being held in the Lambeau Field Atrium. Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
For example, just a tenth of a point separated the top three hard goat's milk cheeses. Montchevre-Betin's cheese won the class and eventually earned a spot in the finals.
Each class winner is judged a second time, with the top 20 making the finals. Then the top 20 are judged again to select the U.S. Champion Cheese and two runners-up.
Taking a Wisconsin vs. the field look at this year's contest, cheese makers from America's Dairyland turned in a Titletown USA worthy effort inside the Lambeau Field Atrium winning 160 of 303 class awards, including 58 best of class titles. The remaining awards were spread among cheese makers from 23 other states.
Granted, about half of the 2,303 entries came from the Badger State, but 14 of the 20 finalists are Wisconsin made.
Finalists included familiar names like Agropur, Sartor and Marieke. All three landed two cheeses each in the finals. Saxon Cheese, Cleveland, also produced two finalists.
Among first-time finalists is Red Barn Dairy, Appleton. Since opening in 2008, Red Barn has collected 18 medals in U.S. and World Championship Cheese Contests before breaking through to the finals this year. Not bad considering the dairy only entered three cheeses in this year's contest.