Artisan Cheeses of Sonoma

Artisan Cheeses of Sonoma

Sun-drenched days, cool nights and rolling, coastal fog all create the distinctive wine terroirs of Sonoma County. These same elements also cultivate lush, verdant pastures, where the happy cows, goats and sheep graze. Not only is Sonoma the second largest viticultural area in the state, but it also boasts California’s largest concentration of artisan cheesemakers. 

“The dairy history here goes way back,” says Jacquelyn Buchanan, director of culinary development for Laura Chenel’s Chèvre. “Some of the streets are named for dairy families, and some are even named for hay producers.”

Here’s a look at some of the great cheeses being crafted in Sonoma today. A number of the creameries have shops and a few welcome visitors for tours; we’ve included the names of nearby wineries so you can better coordinate your Sonoma wine and cheese tour.

Laura Chenel’s Chèvre

Laura Chenel was a pioneer back in 1979 when she decided to make cheese from her goats. Though Chenel sold her creamery in 2006, her 500 goats still produce milk for the label bearing her name. Most American foodies have sampled her chèvre, but some of the company’s best cheeses never leave the area. Try the decadent Taupinière, an aged goat cheese with a bloomy rind and outer layer of ash, and the new Blossoms, chèvre logs filled with Sonoma County bounty like figs and olives. Look for the cheeses at Sonoma Market, Whole Foods, Petaluma Market, Oliver’s Markets, Oakville Grocery and Oxbow Cheese Merchant. No Nearby wineries: Domaine Carneros, Nicholson Ranch Wineries and Napa’s Artesa Vineyards and Winery.

Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese

Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese is one of the county’s newest kids on the block, pun intended. This little creamery is so fresh that it doesn’t even have a Web site. “Somebody gave my wife some goats, and I said to her ‘Bonnie, we can’t drink two gallons of milk a day so let’s make cheese,’” says Don DeBernardi, owner and cheesemaker. DeBernardi’s delectable, aged goat cheese is known throughout the county as Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese, but his new labels call it Canaa, after the Swiss town where his relatives taught him cheesemaking. Visits to the Petaluma farm are free, just call DeBernardi (707.762.6182). Nearby wineries: DeBernardi recommends Ferrari Carano, Geyser Peak and Kendall-Jackson.

Vella Cheese Company

Ig Vella was an artisan cheesemaker back before such a term was coined. His creamery, the county’s oldest artisan venture, is located in a former brewery in downtown Sonoma, right off the plaza.

Vella, who has made cheese for over seven decades, is easy to spot, as he’s the distinguished gent wearing a white paper hat. Though tours aren’t given, you can peek into the creamery from the store and see the vats where Vella’s famous Dry Jack is curdled. The Dry Jack, aged for two years and rubbed with olive oil, cocoa and black pepper, is a must-try cheese, but if it’s too strong, then sample the Mezzo Seco, halfway between a Monterey Jack and the Dry. Nearby wineries: Sebastiani, Roche and Gundlach Bundschu.

Bodega Goat Ranch

Tours—and even cheesemaking classes—are offered at the Bodega Goat Ranch in Bodega. Cheesemaker Patty Karlin offers eco-tours of her sustainable farm and creamery, which includes a cheese tasting and visits with her goats, chickens, ducks and other species in the menagerie. “We’re a true farmstead, artisan operation,” Karlin says.

While visiting, be sure to taste her Fresco cheese, a goat’s milk version of fresh feta; it is one of the closest cousins of real Greek feta in the country, as it is fresher and less salty than the commercial cow’s milk versions sold at most grocery stores. Also quite tasty is her Goat Manchego. To sip wine with her cheese, Karlin recommends stopping at a “sweet little wine store with a terrace” in Bodega Bay called Gourmet au Bay. Nearby wineries: Cahill Winery, Russian River Vineyards and Lynmar Estate.

McClelland’s Dairy

If only happy cows will do, then a must-stop is the McClelland’s Dairy in Petaluma. This family dairy makes a luscious, European-style butter, and the family has plans to make a cheese once a new creamery’s construction is completed. At the farm’s twice-monthly tours, visitors not only get to pet the calves, but they also get to milk a cow by hand. Nearby wineries: Keller Estate, Adobe Road and Sonoma Valley Port Works.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese

Happy cows can also be found in Point Reyes Station in nearby Marin. The only blue cheese producer in the state, Point Reyes just opened its new education center this spring. Called The Fork at Point Reyes, the school offers culinary and cheese classes featuring Point Reyes Blue and the new, buttery Toma. Nearby wineries: Many within an hour’s drive, including Schug, Kastania and Viansa.

Valley Ford Cheese Company

Karen Bianchi-Moreda’s great-grandparents immigrated to California from the Italian region of Switzerland in the late 1800s, and they started a small dairy farm. Today, Bianchi-Moreda works in the dairy with her sons Joe and Jim, and just two years ago, she began to make cheese. “Like everyone else, I just kind of played with the cheese, and then, this one consistently worked, and I liked it,” Bianchi-Moreda says.

That cheese, Estero Gold, has Sonoma chefs’ hearts all aflutter because of its rich, Asiago-like taste. At this time, her family farm in Valley Ford is too small for visitors, but you can meet Bianchi-Moreda and her sons at local farmer’s markets including Petaluma, Cotati and Healdsburg. Her cheese is featured at the Cyrus Restaurant and several wineries, including Kendall-Jackson, DeLoach, Quintessa and Korbel.

Bleating Heart Cheese Company

Seana Doughty is California’s newest crafter of sheep’s milk cheese—there are only five in the whole state. She’s a native of Southern California who first fell in love with cheese, then swooned over sheep, and now combines both passions with a comedic fervor. “If you would have told me a few years ago that I’d be the owner of 690 sheep, I would have thought you were on crack,” Doughty says. Her first cheese, Fat Bottomed Girl, is sort of like a mix between a young Pecorino and a Brebis.

Doughty can be found each week at the Healdsburg Farmer’s Market, where you can pick up a picnic lunch to enjoy on your winery tours. Nearby wineries: Seghesio, Hawkes and Forchini.

The Epicurean Connection

Cheesemaking is so addictive that local chefs are getting into the action. Chef Sheana Davis loved Sonoma County cheeses so much (she annually organizes the Sonoma Cheese Conference) that she began making her own, Délice de la Vallée, a fresh, triple cream blending cow’s and goat’s milks. She and her cheese can be found at her café/store, The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma. Nearby wineries: Spann Winery (seriously nearby; above the store), Hanzell (across street) and Highway 12 (less than a mile).

Any Sonoma cheese primer would be remiss without mentioning:

Cowgirl Creamery. Enjoy a bevy of bloomy rinds at the original creamery, with a viewing window, café and cheese shop in Tomales Bay.
Bohemian Creamery. This new goat and sheep dairy makes great Italian-style cheeses and is one to watch.
Marin County French. This little factory bested French Brie at the World Cheese Awards.
Achadinha Cheese Company. Recently expanded, this farmstead goat creamery makes the intense, aged Capricious.
Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery. One of the country’s first chèvre makers also crafts a cider-washed gem called Gravenstein Gold.
Bellwether Farms. One of California’s first sheep’s milk creameries, they also craft Jersey milk cheeses, including the especially swoon-worthy Crescenza.

Published on July 29, 2010