Sonoma County, CA: Say Artisan

The pastures of Sonoma County provide abundant nourishment for its cows, sheep, goats, and buffalo. Their wholesome milk yields a whole lot of artisan cheeses to try.

Published: 6/28/2017

There’s a lot to be said for an all-natural, small batch cheese made by hand. It tells a unique story that begins with the land where its grass or clover grew, was chewed, digested, milked, and mindfully nurtured into an exceptionally delicious product.

Just as the secret to making great wine is starting with the best possible premium quality grapes, the secret to making great cheese is starting with the best, highest quality raw milk. And, as with the winemaker, the cheese maker considers many factors including environment, temperature, and certain ingredients to make quality cheese. After adding cultures and coagulants to the milk, the cheese maker curdles it to break it into curds and whey. The curd is then cut, stirred, and cooked at different temperatures for various lengths of times to create the desired flavor, texture, and aroma.

Sonoma County is widely considered the epicenter of California’s artisanal cheese movement. In fact, more than 22,000 acres of land in Sonoma and its neighbor, Marin County, are dedicated to the production of cheese as well as yogurt and crème fraîche. The area boasts the largest concentration of artisan cheese makers in California who follow conscientious animal husbandry practices and focus on quality above quantity.

OPEN FOR VISITS

The cheese makers of Sonoma County can be discovered in idyllic spots near Point Reyes National Seashore, Bodega Bay, and across the region near historic towns, villages, and wineries. Some are closed to the public but sell their products in local food shops, farmers’ markets, and grocery stores. Others have facilities or retail locations open to the public on a regular basis. Still others hold regular tours. Each cheese producer you visit will give you a deeper appreciation for the amazing diversity this region has to offer. Besides exceptional cheeses, you’ll meet people driven by a passion for their land, their animals, heritage, and the craft of making exceptional cheese. Because many of these producers are located in remote areas and can easily become too busy to greet guests, it’s advisable to call and make arrangements to visit well in advance. The Cheese Trail Map of Sonoma and Marin counties, available at cheesetrail.org, provides a handy map and list of cheese makers who are open to the public on a regular basis.

CLASSES AND TOURS

Sonoma County’s distinctive handcrafted cheeses can be discovered in many ways. Because most artisan cheese makers juggle tending to their land and animals, crafting their cheeses, and doing everything else it takes to run a small business, we suggest you make appointments for classes and tours a month or more in advance. Some farmstead tours require a month’s advance booking or only offer two or three tours per year. Tour styles vary. In downtown Petaluma, Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Co. and Petaluma Creamery offer 45-minute tours for groups of 10 McClelland Dairy or more by reservations made at least two weeks in advance. Other cheese producers offer farm tours. McClelland’s Dairy invites guests to pet baby calves and watch cows being milked. Achadinha Cheese Company, makers of fresh farmstead goat and cow cheeses, offers a traditional farm tour that includes a sweep through the family ranch with a stop at the cheese plant and a cheese tasting. It also offers a hands-on cheese-making class that includes the full tour plus lunch in the family’s party room. Two Rock Valley Cheese offers intimate tours of the cheese-making facility led by owner Bonnie DeBernardi. It’s not unusual to find her husband and master cheese maker, Don, at work and willing to chat about his process. It’s also not uncommon for a goat to join you along the way.

A DRIVING TOUR

One fun artisan cheese route begins in the historic agricultural town of Petaluma, with its charming turn-of-the-century buildings and quaint downtown. Stop at Petaluma Creamery where you can sample Spring Hill Cheese, organic jersey cow cheese made in the traditional style. Head north on Highway 101 out of town and take the 116 exit toward Sebastopol. Make a right on Llano Road, which takes you to the Matos Cheese Factory located on their farm to sample St. George, a buttery, slightly nutty, semi-hard cheese made in the style of the Azores. From there, make a short jaunt (right on Highway 12, left on Irwin, and left on Occidental) to Bohemian Creamery, a goat farm and cheese shop located just a mile from downtown Sebastopol. This tiny farm stand-style establishment is a great place to sample goat, cow, sheep, and water buffalo milk cheeses side by side. From there, follow Highway 12 to the town of Sonoma where the retail shop of Vella Cheese Company, one of the oldest cheese makers in the area, is located just one block from Sonoma Plaza. Vella’s aged dry Jack cheese is legendary, and there are also several cheddar and Italian-style cheeses to discover. From Petaluma to Healdsburg, from Point Reyes to Bodega Bay, Sonoma County offers nearly 100 types of artisan cheeses to sample. So be sure to bring your palate and a good-sized cooler, too.


As seen in the issue Summer/Fall 2017 of Touring & Tasting Magazine.