“No, buying a business during a pandemic is not ideal!”
Diana Brier concedes this point, less than a week before finalizing her purchase of Henderson’s Valley Cheese & Wine. She laughs a little as she does — a laugh that’s simultaneously nervous and excited, and betrays a reassuring familiarity with taking a terrifying leap of faith.
One would be hard-pressed to find someone better qualified to take the reins at Las Vegas’ longest-running cheese shop. The 37-year-old is one of only 45 people in the country to hold a Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator Certificate from the American Cheese Society. To obtain it, she had to pass an exhaustive test that required her to identify which of 51 possible attributes were present in the aromas of 10 types of milk, and evaluate the taste appearance, aroma, flavor and texture of a dozen cheeses. Brier probably can tell you more about cheese than just about anyone in the valley. Nonetheless, this is not a position in which she expected to find herself.
“It just kind of fell into my lap,” Brier says of the circumstances that brought her here. “Cheese has always been very fortuitous … in my life.”
In 2014, fate first nudged the two of them together. After undergoing open-heart surgery and nearly dying, Brier vowed “to not do anything I hated ever again.” Rather than return to her career as a financial analyst, she took a job at the cheese counter of a Salt Lake City Whole Foods.
“It was that perfect marriage of art and science and passion and love and human ingenuity,” she explains. “I just was totally intoxicated by it.”
Her passion quickly ripened into a career. Brier moved from Whole Foods to the cheese island at Harmon’s grocery chain, before progressing to cheesemaker at Park City’s Deer Valley Resort. From there, she set her sights even higher.
“The ultimate goal was Rogue Creamery,” she says of a celebrated Oregon producer.
While Brier was working a night job selling cheese at a Park City grocery (after her day shift at Deer Valley), fate once again intervened. A customer revealed a friendship with Rogue’s president. The two traded contacts, and after a series of exchanges, she packed her bags for Oregon to serve as the company’s cheese make supervisor.
“It was like having a celebrity reach out to me,” Brier says. “I cried.”
Brier spent nearly two years in Oregon, working for Rogue and furthering her cheese education. Eventually, ongoing health issues forced her to relocate.
Looking for someplace warm and dry, and wanting to be closer to her parents in St. George, Brier found Las Vegas a natural fit. While she didn’t have any business contacts in the valley, she had made plenty of trips here during her time in Salt Lake City.
“I would always sneak away to Vegas, and I always felt so included here.” A friend put her in touch with the owners of MGP Foods, a wholesaler that sells high-end products to top restaurants here, and operates the Cured & Whey retail store at Valley View Boulevard. Through the store and its owners, she discovered the tight-knit culinary community.
“It was a really great way to learn this community extremely quickly,” she says of the experiences, which included an appearance at the Vegas Unstripped food festival, where she used a blowtorch to melt Swiss raclette for hungry foodies.
“It made me feel that I want to … be a part of this community, and be a local. And not just be like, ‘I live here now, so I’m a local,’ but really be involved in the community events and do something meaningful.”
Heading into 2020, the young cheesemaker was preparing to contribute to that community by doing what she really loved.
“I was going to start a cheese-making project here in Las Vegas,” she says. After leaving MGP to pursue that dream, a combination of COVID-19 and conflicts with investors scuttled the plans. She’d heard rumors that Valley Cheese & Wine, just a few minutes from her home, might be on the market. But she had something less ambitious in mind when she ran into owner Solenne Peyronnin in the store one March evening.
“I went in there actually to get some wine,” Brier says “But she could tell I was upset, and we had a conversation about it. I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ And then I said, ‘Is it true that you might be looking to sell?’ ”
Peyronnin confirmed she was considering selling to spend more time with her family. She loved running the wine program, but needed help on the cheese side. Brier had to find a way to become the store’s new owner.
“It was meant to be. It’s five minutes from my house. It’s the first place that I looked at. I love Solenne. So I just knew that I had to figure out a way to make it happen.”
After working out the finances with help from family, Brier took the keys to her new shop on July 27. Peyronnin agreed to serve as wine director.
“It was really important for me to stick with the original sort of intentions there, which is it’s a family-owned place with experts in both fields.”
Before the sale closed, Brier was calculating ways to use the store as a community hub for culinary education and socializing, despite the new challenges associated with COVID. She’s been planning the logistics of teaching classes for “pods” of friends and family members who only socialize together, socially distanced from other pods in rooms equipped with antiviral air purifiers. She has no doubt that Las Vegas has what it takes to meet these challenges head-on — as it has past crises.
“I wasn’t here for 1 October. I was not here for the economic collapse. But I have listened to those stories from the locals. And I have heard how this town surrounds itself after a tragedy and builds itself right back up again.”
She’s excited to be starting something new at a time that isn’t ideal, because she believes the location is.
“I believe in this town,” Brier says confidently. “I trust this town.”
1570 W Horizon Ridge Pkwy., Henderson, valleycheeseandwine.org
The well-balanced cheese board
Diana Brier offers advice on assembling a board to best advantage: Choose three to four cheeses that balance flavors and textures, delivery vehicles for those cheeses, fruits, nuts and an accompaniment. To make it special, add additional options from each category, and some cured meats. For a well-rounded board, go for a mix of texture and milk type.
Always include a fresh or soft cheese. I’ve chosen a chevre from France, a goat’s milk cheese. I love chevre in the summer-time because you’re going to get the best components of the milk when they’ve just had their babies and when they’re out to pasture in the fresh grass.
Add a semi-soft cheese. Lamb Chopper is a sheep’s milk gouda, which can be made with goat’s or sheep’s milk. Serve it with something fresh and bright like an apricot, or something deep like a dark cherry. Or add meat for a savory component.
Select a hard cheese: Cheddars, alpine styles such as gruyere or comte, or aged manchego. Cave-aged gruyere is our selection. If people gravitate toward a cheddar but are ready to elevate their palate, gruyere is a nice way to go. You still get a little bit of that tartness found in a cheddar, but gruyere also has this smooth, savory, nutty, salty taste and a bit of crunch.
For a fourth cheese, select a wildcard: A fun blue or a stinky, pudgy washed-rind like Epoisses are both good choices. Fourme d’Ambert, one of the oldest French blue cheeses made of cow’s milk, comes in a tall, cylindrical shape and is known as the feminine version of blue cheese from France.
Scatter some Marcona almonds, flash-fried and salted almonds from Spain. Coupling chocolate, almonds and the blue cheese together will elevate flavor components that are not often found in this particular blue.
Add a fresh fruit and a dried fruit for texture and flavor differences. I added dried Turkish apricots around the Lamb Chopper to brighten the profile. I also put them near the chevre, because it has a bit of a citrusy undertone and some floral components. So the apricots will fare well next to it.
These can include honey, jams or mustard. Honey is generally a safe bet on a board. Use whatever honey is in your closet, but we do have special honeys that have more expressive flavors of the terroir. Honeycomb can be used to add a little more of an unrefined textural component.
Pair blue cheese with dark chocolate for an incredibly wild dance of flavors on the palate. It’s the same principle as having a chocolate-covered pretzel, where you have the salty and the sweet that marry together.
I love the fattiness of a serrano ham. It’s not too fatty, but the fattiness and the salty, savory component pair nicely with the Lamb Chopper.
Bread, crackers and even fruit are good choices. Crostini are always great on a board, as are crackers or Effie’s cakes. Raincoast Crisps, a multigrain seeded cracker, are wonderful, and go well with the blue and the chevre.