Patricia Elliott, 84, doctor and award-winning maker of cheese


Patricia Elliott with some of her cheeses that are aging at the Everona Dairy in Virginia on Feb. 15, 2000. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
May 25, 2013

During lambing season, Patricia Elliott could be found camped out in her barn in Rapidan, Va., covered in a few blankets, flipping through a stack of New England Journal of Medicine issues as she curled up next to her Friesian sheep. Throughout the night, she kept a watchful eye on her flock before her first human patient arrived early the next morning.

The scene was a perfect marriage of her two passions; family medicine and cheesemaking.

Dr. Elliott was in her late 60s when she ventured into her farmhouse sheep-cheese business. She acquired a border collie puppy on a whim at a local food festival in 1992 and soon after purchased 10 dairy sheep to keep the energetic herding dog occupied.

She decided her new house guests needed to earn their keep. “I was standing out in the pasture with the sheep and started to wonder if they could make money . . . and pay for themselves. I thought maybe [I] could milk them,” she told the consumer cheese magazine Culture in 2009.

The self-motivated, do-it-yourselfer immersed herself in mastering the art and science of cheesemaking while keeping up her medical practice. With little literature and few nearby experts on sheep-dairying practices available, she traveled to Wisconsin and overseas to Greece to hone her skills before opening a commercial, artisan cheese operation, Everona Dairy, in 1998.

Dr. Elliott, 84, died May 4 at her home in Rapidan. She had complications from cancer, said her daughter Susan Wentz.

In 2001, New York Times writer R.W. Apple Jr. identified Dr. Elliott as one of several women around the country who were leaders in the farmhouse cheese movement.

The business, which began with just a handful of sheep, now has a herd of more than 200 ewes that produce about 75 pounds of cheese a day.

Cheesemaking “satisfied a major creative need” for Dr. Elliott, cheese expert and co-founder of Culture magazine Kate Arding told The Washington Post. “It’s that sort of alchemy meets science which I think appeals to a lot of people. She was always asking questions and had a fiercely inquisitive mind.”

Dr. Elliott’s Shenandoah cheese, a raw-milk, alpine-style cheese, received top honors at the 2009 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest and placed 10th at the World Cheese Championship Contest in 2010.

Cheeses from Everona Dairy have been served at the White House and are featured at more than 100 restaurants, hotels and specialty shops, Susan Wentz said.

“Dr. Elliott paved the way for many others in the Virginia cheese-making industry,” Patrick O’Connell, chef and proprietor of the Inn at Little Washington, said in a statement. “Her creamery is the closest Virginia cheese producer to us and provides our guests a strong sense of place and a taste of our terroir.”

Patricia Louise Elliott was born Feb. 2, 1929, in Lansing, Mich., and graduated from high school at age 16. Her parents were both educators — her father a former president of Eastern Michigan University.

She took only three years to complete her bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1948 from Michigan State University, where she also received a master’s degree in zoology in 1950.

She was one of only seven women in her 1958 graduating class at the University of Michigan’s medical school.

She balanced her studies with caring for four children, two of whom were born while she was a medical student.

From 1959 until 1974, Dr. Elliott operated a private family practice out of her home in Adrian, Mich. During that time, she helped launch two programs that offered free medical services to community residents: a crisis hotline and a medical clinic for seasonal farmers, both staffed by volunteer physicians she helped recruit.

After the loss of her parents in the early 1970s, Dr. Elliott decided to move her practice to Richmond. She settled in Rapidan, a small community straddling the Culpeper and Orange county lines, in 1976. In addition to cheesemaking, she worked as an Orange County medical examiner for 34 years, answering round-the-clock requests for investigations.

Somehow, Dr. Elliott found time to train border collies, paint and write poetry. She also made sheep-milk soap, tanned sheepskins and baked crackers to sell alongside her cheeses at the dairy shop.

She continued to see patients and oversee day-to-day dairy operations until weeks before her death. Her son and daughter-in-law, Brian and Carolyn Wentz, will continue to run Everona Dairy, with Carolyn acting as head cheesemaker.

Dr. Elliott’s marriages to Howard Wentz and Burke Crowder ended in divorce. Survivors include seven children from her first marriage, Deborah Wentz of Ann Arbor, Mich., Susan Wentz of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Natalie Carroll of Attica, Ind., Elliott Wentz of Greensboro, N.C., Sally Wentross and Patricia Wentz Burke, both of Portland, Ore., and Brian Wentz of Rapidan; a sister; and 14 grandchildren.

“She was such a pioneer,” cheesemaker Arding told The Post. “Yet she would have never identified herself as one. She was all about the subject matter and never about ego. She was a real inspiration to a lot of people in the industry, myself included.”