Tyler Nottberg is chairman and CEO of U.S. Engineering.
My best friend, Brooks, and I know better.
On a December morning in 1998, he and I stood on a train platform in western Switzerland. We’d bought tickets from Geneva to nowhere in particular, and we’d arrived right on time. The conductor called out “Gruyères.” Needing not even an exchange of glances to know our next unplanned move, we exited the train to find a storybook village on steep foothills with purple Alps in the distance. The siren song of cheese beckoned.
Brooks and I aren’t twins, though it feels that way sometimes. Our mothers knew each other when they were pregnant and imagined us as friends. We’ve been inseparable for 47 years. We’ve experienced each other’s entire lives. Gruyères was the next stop on the journey.
At the Maison du Gruyère, the cheese factory, we paid for a standard tour to learn that Gruyère milk comes exclusively from cows that graze on Alpine grass. We smelled sweet and sour aromas in the copper kettle room where milk was curdling. According to the Interprofession du Gruyère, farmers have used the same process since 1115 to make cheese. Gruyère even achieved a special European regional designation, like Champagne, that prohibited the use of “Gruyère” to describe anything made outside the region. In the aging cave, where wheels of cheese were racked like gigantic velvet coins, our guide took out a knife, tore into one and handed each of us a piece to savor.
From there, we climbed a steep road to the medieval town, where cafes were just opening. We sat at a table and — again without speaking; as if by magic — a waiter produced a plate of cheese and some white wine. “This looks perfect for you,” he said. We ordered raclette, a rustic dish of cheese melted on whatever’s handy, and listened to our arteries harden.
But we were young. So we roused ourselves to climb to Gruyères Castle. Perched high above the valley and dating to the early 13th century, the fortress contains three capes from the Golden Fleece, one of the most prestigious orders of chivalry in the world. It also contains many, many steps. At the top, in a small room, there’s a piano that was made for Franz Liszt. Whoever carried it up there must have gone easy on the cheese.
The moment we sat on a bench by the piano, the cheese coma found us. A guard woke us hours later. The castle was closing and the sun was setting behind the mountains. Stumbling down the hill, we caught the last train of the day.
Those memories stick with me, along with the cholesterol.
None of it meant anything to the appeals court, however. The judges affirmed a district court ruling that the “gruyere” label cannot be trademarked. Americans have voted with our wallets in favor of generic cheese by purchasing more ersatz domestic “gruyere” than we buy of the authentic Swiss stuff.
Having experienced the region, the people and the product in its native setting, Brooks and I believe the 4th Circuit has used runny logic. This is a loss of something important — perhaps not as bad as Velveeta claiming to be cheese; more like a cover band claiming to be the Rolling Stones. Perhaps I feel so strongly because I lead a business that has been in my family for more than 125 years. A brand to me is more than a word or logo on shrink-wrap; it is the passion, sweat and culture of people who give their best to burnish it from generation to generation. Those who seek the real Gruyère will find it not by its label but by the love on that Swiss mountainside. It’s worth the trip.