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Cheesemakers' Paradise

Author: Karen Pavone
March, 2013 Issue

Cheesemakers in Marin and Sonoma counties continue to be artisan trailblazers.

 
Scattered amid the rolling pastoral landscape of rural Marin and Sonoma counties are a collection of visionary entrepreneurs: a new generation of farmers who are reinventing themselves and their way of life as artisan cheesemakers.
 
Dubbed the “Normandy of Northern California,” after the famous cheese-producing region of France, the North Bay is fast becoming a cheese making mecca. According to statistics released by the University of California Cooperative Extension in 2011, it’s home to the largest concentration of artisan cheesemakers in the state: 28 at present (and counting)—comprising more than half of California’s 43 niche cheese companies. These producers generate an estimated 8 million pounds of artisan cheese annually, which, at an average price of $15 per pound, makes for a $119 million industry in Marin and Sonoma counties alone.
 
Though many are familiar with big name producers like the Marin French Cheese Company, which carries the distinction of being the oldest continually operating cheese factory in the United States, most are less acquainted with the numerous small farmstead operations that are giving seasoned veterans a run for their money.
 
This new wave of cheese entrepreneurs has gone beyond the typical pedestrian offerings consumers expect to find in the grocery store dairy aisle, turning out unique varietals with names like “Capricious,” “Estero Gold” and “Foggy Morning.” The word artisan, with regard to cheese, refers to a product produced primarily by hand, usually in small batches, using Old World techniques and traditions. More than 95 types of artisan cheese are currently produced in the North Bay.
 
By definition, farmstead cheese is made with milk sourced from the farmer’s own dairy animals and processed on the farm site. Nearly 46 percent of the artisan cheese produced in the North Bay qualifies as farmstead. While all farmstead cheese is artisan, not all artisan cheese is farmstead, as some producers buy milk from other dairies to supplement their production.
 
These farmstead cheesemakers are combining science and alchemy to transform milk from their grass-fed sheep, goats and dairy cows into transcendental wheels of gastronomic delight that are garnering endorsements from restaurateurs, chefs and foodies. Collectively, their passion for cheese is creating a profitable renaissance in the local marketplace and beyond.
 

Family tradition

Artisan cheesemaking is relatively new to the United States, arriving 200 years ago with European immigrants whose recipes and methods reflected Old World traditions from the villages of their heritage. These immigrants, primarily of Portuguese, Irish, Swiss and Italian descent, established the many dairy farms prevalent throughout Marin and Sonoma counties around the mid-1800s.
 
Today, many descendants of those first immigrants still occupy the land their ancestors settled more than a century ago. This new generation is rediscovering traditions of artisan cheesemaking to expand, diversify and add value to their dairy operations, creating robust businesses they hope to pass on to future generations.
 
Take the story of Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, an organic farmstead owned by the Lafranchi family near historic Nicasio Square in West Marin.
 
Established in 1919, the dairy has been family owned and operated for three generations, recently expanding to open the farmstead cheese company in 2010. Cheesemaker Scott Lafranchi, a former CPA, began making cheese to honor his father, Will, who dreamed of producing authentic Swiss-Italian style varietals like those from his family’s ancestral village in Maggia, Switzerland.
 
When Will passed away in 2002, his children banded together with the shared goal of making their father’s vision a reality. Traveling to Switzerland, the family met local master cheesemaker Maurizio Lorenzetti, who mentored Scott Lafranchi in the fine art of creating regional artisan cheeses like the ones his father so fondly remembered.
 
Now nearing three years in production, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company has distinguished itself as a family operation on the rise. All six Lafranchi children are involved in every aspect of running the farmstead, from dairy management to distribution and everything in between.
 
The company currently produces eight classic varieties of award-winning organic Swiss-Italian farmstead cheese, including Foggy Morning, a soft, mildly tangy spreadable farm style cheese similar to a fromage blanc, available plain or with basil and garlic; Loma Alta, an aged, semi-soft bloomy rind variety with buttery flavor, nutty undertones and a rich mouthfeel; and Nicasio Square, a firm, washed rind cheese aged for 30 days with a pronounced earthy, pungent flavor.
 
Nicasio Valley Cheese Company also has the distinction of being the only certified organic farmstead cow’s milk cheese producer in California.
 
To the north, off winding Chileno Valley Road west of Petaluma, sits Achadinha Cheese Company, a 230-acre, family-run farmstead owned by Jim and Donna Pacheco.
 
Originally established in the 1800s, the ranch was purchased by Jim’s father in 1969 and operated as a traditional dairy until 1997 when the family started milking goats as well. Jim was raised on the property and is a third-generation dairyman. He and Donna took over the business when they married in 1990, continuing the legacy farming tradition. They started making cheese in 2001.
 
Donna is the cheesemaker and driving force. Raised in a military family with no prior farming experience, she started making cheese to add value to the dairy’s bottom line. “We knew we couldn’t make it just selling our milk,” she reminisces, “so we looked for additional ways to increase our profit margin. For us, making cheese was a logical solution.”
 
The name “Achadinha” (pronounced Osh-a-deen-a) pays tribute to the small town in Portugal where Pacheco’s father is from. His cousins in the next village, who hand-milked cows and made cheese in the old tradition, provided inspiration for the current family business. The farmstead currently produces four artisan cheeses: a goat’s milk feta brined in sea salt; two goat and cow’s milk blend cheeses including a fresh curd and a mold-ripened table cheese called Broncha; and Capricious, the company’s signature hard aged grating cheese, which is big on flavor. It was named one of Saveur’s Fifty Favorite Cheeses in the United States in 2005 and continues to be a customer favorite.
Nearly 14 years have passed since Pacheco began honing her craft, increasing early production from about 10 wheels of cheese per week to around 60 at present. True to her process, she still turns and presses each wheel by hand. Last year, Achadinha Cheese Company produced an average 7,000 pounds of superb handmade artisan goat and cow’s milk cheeses each month with demand for their products steadily increasing.

 

All four of their children, ages 11 to 20, have major roles in the operation, from animal care to sales and marketing. Sharing the trials and triumphs of running the business, Donna believes, has brought the family closer. “You have to love what you’re doing,” she smiles, “because it’s such hard work.”
 
Further west, in a remote outpost near Bodega Bay, lies Valley Ford Cheese Company, a 640-acre dairy where the Bianchi family has established its acclaimed farmstead cheese business. Although the dairy, Mountain View Jerseys, is celebrating 95 years in operation, the Bianchis have only been producing cheese since 2008.
 
Karen Bianchi-Moreda, a former teacher and athletic director at Tomales High School, returned home to the ranch for the challenge of managing the family’s new cheese plant. Initially, she started as the cheesemaker, “playing with milk,” taking a cheesemaking course and reading voraciously about the topic. In those early solo days, she produced about 400 pounds of cheese per week.
 
When sons Joe and Jim Moreda joined the business after earning degrees in dairy science from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, production exploded. These young men proudly represent the fifth generation of their family to call the dairy home. Joe took over as cheesemaker, freeing Karen to expand her focus, while Jim concentrated on dairy management. Their collective enthusiasm has enabled output to reach current estimates of 4,200 pounds of cheese per month.
 
The Bianchis have patterned their product after the Swiss-Italian traditions of their heritage, transforming high-quality milk from their Jersey cows into award-winning cheeses. Most recently, Highway One, a creamy, Fontina-style cheese, won gold at the California State Cheese Competition and Best of Show at the 2012 Sonoma County Harvest Fair and it’s Estero Gold took gold at both those judgings. The 2011 Estero Gold Reserve took “Best of Show” at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair that year as well.
 
This buttery Asiago-Montasio-style varietal boasts grassy, fruity overtones when young, aging to develop complexity and a nutty flavor similar to a parmesan.
 
“I’m living my dream every day and making a product I believe in,” Karen confides when asked about the business. “It just doesn’t get better than that!”
 

Career change cheesemakers

Starting a farmstead cheese business from scratch is a challenging undertaking that requires investment capital, commitment and, perhaps, a little crazy thrown in for good measure. Just ask fledgling artisan cheese entrepreneur Craig Ramini of Ramini Mozzarella, a West Marin startup based near the small coastal town of Tomales.
 
Ramini currently leases 25 acres of pristine organic pasture land for his starring draw: 21 head of water buffalo. Amid the typical herds of Holstein and jersey cows that dot the fertile landscape, his magnificent, broad-horned beasts certainly stand out, as does his quest to become one of the first cheesemakers in the United States to produce world-class Italian-style mozzarella di bufala. Make no mistake; true buffalo mozzarella is a meltingly soft, creamy textured cheese bearing no resemblance to the bland, often rubbery cow’s milk version available in the United States. Derived from the high fat content of buffalo milk, this highly prized cheese raises the culinary bar to unparalleled heights.

 

A former Silicon Valley software consultant with a keen business acumen and knowledge of marketing, Ramini decided to reinvent himself three years ago, embarking on a journey to perfect the process of making authentic Old World Italian mozzarella. His quest has been fraught with set-backs. Some of the stumbling blocks have included acquiring the animals, coaxing milk from semi-feral adult buffalo never habituated to traditional dairy practices and producing a consistent product of superior quality.
 
His is a story of perseverance, tenacity and patience—with a hefty dose of trial and error. “It’s been a series of steep learning curves,” Ramini admits of starting an unconventional new career path with no prior dairy experience. “But it’s all fun and that’s why I do it.”
 
It would appear his considerable investment, both financial and personal, may finally pay off. From March to October 2012, he produced about 1,400 pounds of buffalo milk mozzarella. Only about 400 pounds was (in his opinion) edible, but the process let him perfect his master recipe. He also got the attention of some prominent local chefs, including Alice Waters, who praised his initial efforts.
 
At an expected market price of $30 per pound, Ramini hopes to ramp up production in earnest this spring and stands poised on the brink of success after three years of paying his dues. His continuing journey as an emerging cheesemaker bears watching.
 
Bohemian Creamery is another example of a budding company whose cheesemaker transitioned into the career. Owned and operated by West Marin native Lisa Gottreich, Bohemian’s creamery and small herd of Alpine dairy goats occupy seven acres of leased land on a hilltop just outside Sebastopol.
 
The (now) Santa Rosa Junior College Italian instructor was (then) working as an operations analyst at Redwood Regional Medical Group when an unexpected divorce led to a reevaluation of her priorities. A self-taught cheesemaker who experimented as a hobbyist in her home kitchen, Gottreich invested in a herd of 40 dairy goats. Ready for a change, she decided to take a leap of faith and follow her passion for cheesemaking.
 
She began by leasing a small, 50-gallon vat creamery in Bodega, where she operated for a year and a half before reestablishing herself in Sebastopol by using a USDA loan to refurbish her present creamery, including an upgrade to a 200-gallon vat. In the four years since she started making cheese, she estimates her production has increased seven-fold, and hopes to double current quantities in the next five years.
 
In addition to producing farmstead goat cheese, Gottreich also sources sheep and cow’s milk off-site to make other inventive varieties of Italian-inspired artisan cheese; 10 in all. The unique, whimsical names of her varietals like “BoDacious,” a soft, tangy bloomy rind fresh goat cheese, and “Cowabunga,” a fresh lactic cow cheese stuffed with cajeta-goat caramel, are representative of Gottreich’s unconventional spirit and experimental recipes.

 

She admits cheesemaking is a humbling pursuit that’s not for everyone. “It’s a marriage of art and science,” she says thoughtfully. “Milk is a moving target and cheese is a moving product, affected by lots of variable factors—some in your control, some not. Just when you think you have it perfected, something else comes along.”
 
Still, she wouldn’t change a thing. When asked to sum up her business philosophy, the reply is simple: make kick-ass cheese.
 

Sustainably minded

North Bay artisan cheesemakers approach their craft with a fervor that borders on obsession, starting with sustainable farm practices that embrace a humane quality of life for the animals in their care and ensure productivity of their farmlands in the future.
 
Sonoma County natives Joel and Carleen Weirauch (“why-rock”), the husband-and-wife team behind Weirauch Creamery outside Petaluma, embody this mind-set. For the past year and a half, they’ve been making an organic cow milk cheese from locally sourced Jersey milk, and a farmstead sheep milk cheese from their flock of East Friesian and Lacaune cross dairy ewes. Their rustic, European-style varietals are inspired by regional recipes Joel learned while working with artisan producers in France. Their aged Saint Rose farmstead sheep cheese, a delicious unpasturized semi-soft product with nutty overtones, was recently awarded a coveted 2013 Good Food Award. This distinction recognizes products of superior taste and quality that are produced with social and environmental responsibility.
 
The Weirauchs have worked hard to make their small-scale operation an environmentally sound business, starting with their USDA-certified organic cheesemaking facility: a remodeled state-of-the-art mobile classroom unit. Employing practices like rotationally grazing their flock, irrigating pastures with recycled water from the creamery and using solar power fit their “green” business model. “Our intention is to live light on the land and put the welfare of our animals first,” Carleen says with pride as she notes the pastures they lease are certified organic, and their flock of dairy sheep is certified humane through Animal Welfare Approved.
 
For this couple, who are both environmental studies graduates—Carleen (Sonoma State University) with an emphasis in energy management and Joel (Evergreen) with an emphasis in mycology—feel balancing environmental responsibility with cheese production is key to their business ethos. “We’re not just product-centric,” Carleen notes, “We’re part of the growing agricultural shift that calls for more ethical and ecologically sound business practices across the board.” They hope to one day own their own farm, operate the dairy completely off the grid and offer a wide range of diversified seasonal products and educational services to the community.
 

Meeting a growing demand

Because of their small size, farmstead cheese entrepreneurs are involved in all areas of growing their businesses, from animal care and production to marketing and sales. They employ a host of creative strategies to find their target audience.
 
The majority interviewed for this piece have established a strong presence at Bay Area farmers markets. All acknowledged the importance of making a personal connection with the consumer, understanding that, the more potential customers taste their cheese, the greater the likelihood they’ll come back for more. Markets are one popular venue that attract increasingly savvy consumers who want to know where their food comes from and who produces it.
 
Wholesale distributors are used by many to bring their products to a wider audience at specialty retail outlets. Boutique cheese shops, like The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma and The Cheese Shop in Healdsburg, cater to a clientele looking for fine artisan products while grocers like Oliver’s, Paradise Foods and Whole Foods Markets pride themselves on carrying regional cheeses not found in larger commercial chain stores. A few cheesemakers, like Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, have onsite tasting rooms where patrons can sample their products and even catch a glimpse into the factory through a glass viewing window.
 
Wineries and wine shops have also leveraged the trend to support local farmsteads, using cheese pairings as a way of enhancing and adding value to the tasting experience of showcasing their vintages. Ramini partnered with Napa Valley-based Del Dotto Vineyards to gain early exposure for his mozzarella cheese, offering tastings at wine club events and receiving rave reviews that helped propel his stature as an up-and-coming cheesemaker.
 
Many local fine dining restaurants have started including a cheese course on their menus showcasing artisan offerings to eager diners who become ardent fans. Lisa Gottreich of Bohemian Creamery primarily markets her cheeses to top chefs in upscale restaurants around the Bay Area. Her unique varietals are found on the menu at 38 celebrated eateries, including Chez Panisse and Michael Mina, giving her products a certain cache by association.
 

Promoting the industry

Educating consumers about artisan cheese and attracting attention to their niche product is clearly key to the continued success of the industry. According to Rick Lafranchi, who oversees marketing and sales at Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, the average person consumes about 32 pounds of commercial cheese annually, verses around three pounds of artisan cheese.
 
“Our challenge is trying to grow the overall percentage of artisan cheese consumption in the marketplace,” Lafranchi speculates, “and to do that we need national exposure. When we promote the region as a place to go for fine artisan cheese, we all benefit.”
 
Savvy “foodie” consumers are already catching on, but reaching a broader audience takes time. With hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking to the North Bay annually, looking for ways to tap into that potential audience becomes key.
 
The Sonoma-Marin Cheese Trail map, sponsored by local land trusts and various agencies, promotes agritourism by educating visitors about the wealth of award-winning cheesemakers in the two counties, encouraging patronage of onsite tasting rooms and specialty retail outlets carrying locally produced cheese.
 
Industry events that showcase local cheesemakers and educate the public have also attracted growing crowds. This year’s tenth annual Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, hosted by Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, will spotlight the rising new generation of cheesemakers leading the artisan and farmstead cheese movement. The event, which takes place February 23-27 at MacArthur Place in Sonoma, will include forums, tastings, speakers and more.
 
The seventh annual California Artisan Cheese Festival, coming March 22-24 to the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma, offers another opportunity for aficionados to discover established and emerging artisan cheesemakers. Patrons will be treated to tastings, chef demonstrations and pairings, expert panel discussions with industry professionals and more.
 
Cheese making isn’t a business for the faint of heart. It takes patience, dedication, long hours and an inherent love for the unpredictability of the process. As their businesses grow, these artisan cheesemakers are riding an unprecedented wave of popularity.
 
 
Karen Pavone is a farm to table blogger and advocate, www.northbayfarmtotable.com, living in Novato.

 

 

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