Experience the delights of western Sonoma County's distinctive, hand-crafted cheeses by following the Cheese Trail, which winds through about a hundred miles of canyons, pastures, and oak-covered hills, linking close to 30 farms and creameries.
Depending on the property, you can reserve full tours, cheese teastings, and cheese-making classses, then visit with the farm's goats, cows, sheep, or even water buffalo. Some of these properties are historic, such as Sonoma’s Vella Cheese and Sebastopol’s Joe Matos Cheese Factory. But others are relatively new, such as Ramini Mozzarella in Petaluma, Weirauch Farm & Creamery in Petaluma, and Epicurean Connection in Sonoma.
Since the dairies are spread out, and oftentimes in remote areas, the best way to explore is to start with a good plan.
First, download the Cheese Trail Map. Choose your spots, then call ahead; some cheese makers are open to the public on a regular basis, some are open seasonally or only by appointment, and some are just plain too busy making cheese. Make sure to check as far in advance as possible as some tours need reservations a month ahead or only have two to three tours per year.
Regardless of where you visit, you’ll see firsthand that the slogan “Happy cows from California” really does come true in Sonoma County.
Study some facts before you go, and impress your friends (plus the cheesemakers).
Q: How many goats does it take to make a pound of goat cheese?
A: Two can easily get it done in 24 hours. Larger goats like French Alpines produce an average of nine pounds of milk per day (8.6 pounds = 1 gallon), and it takes about 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese.
Q: What are those little things hanging down from under the goats’ necks?
A: They are called wattles, and, as with the beards, some does (females goats) have them, while others don’t.
Q: What’s the difference betweenmozzarella cheeses? Mozzarella di bufala is the official name the Italian government uses to recognize its production strictly within the Campania region of Naples. So American made cheese of that style must be called “mozzarella made from buffalo milk.” Both are different from the more mainstream mozzarella found in America that’s made from regular cow’s milk, called fior di latte.
Here are just a few interesting picks for your cheese adventure:
Vella Cheese Company. One of the highlights of this operation founded in 1931 is a visit to the cheese aging barn. Hundreds of cheese await perfect ripeness in the old fashioned way, wrapped in various cloths, ash and seasonings like jalapeno and garlic. The cheese is made right in the small store and factory in front of the barn, all from hand and using fresh raw milk for flavors like cheddar, Asiago, Toma, Romanello Dolce, dry Jack and a specialty high moisture Jack. (315 Second St. E., Sonoma, 707-938-3232)
Achadinha Goat Cheese Company. Jim and Donna Pacheco’s 900 goats graze year-round on verdant pastures at the Pacheco Family Dairy, with grass supplemented with alfalfa and brewers’ grain from local breweries. Donna handcrafts all cheeses and makes her own smoked summer goat sausage. (750 Chileno Valley Road, Petaluma, 707-763-1025)
Bodega Artisan Cheese. In the heritage farmstead tradition, these country cheeses are produced in small batches from one- to two-day old milk, then immediately made into cheese. This seals in the fresh, mild flavor, even in the aged cheeses. Owner Patty Karlin also offers cheese-making classes. (Bodega, 707-876-3483)
Ramini Mozzarella. This is the closest you will ever get to real mozzarella di bufala in most of America, since owners Craig and Audrey Ramini raise real Italian water buffalo on their bucolic ranch. Come for a tour and a picnic tasting, then stay to play with the adorable baby buffalo in the pastures and “calf town.” (175 Gericke Road, Tomales, 415-690-6633)
Joe Matos Cheese Factory. Joe and Mary Matos grew up in the Portuguese Azores on the lush volcanic island of Sao Jorge, noted for its delicious cheeses. They relocated to Santa Rosa in the 1970s, carrying the recipe for their native cheese with them. 3669 Llano Road, Santa Rosa, 707-584-5283
McClelland's Dairy. This third-generation family dairy was founded by Irish immigrant Robert McClelland, and is now operated by his son George, George’s wife Dora, and their daughter Jana. They specialize in European-style organic artisan butter, and visitors are able to watch a cow being milked and pet a calf in the nursery. (6475 Bodega Ave., Petaluma, 707-664-0452)
Pug's Leap Cheese at White Whale Farm. After running their goat dairy, White Whale Farm, for several years, Anna and Dan Conner took over Pug’s Leap in 2010, continuing the high-quality cheese-making tradition. (5880 Carroll Road, Petaluma, 707-876-3300)
Weirauch Farm & Creamery. Joel and Carleen Weirauch raise dairy sheep for seasonal production of raw aged cheese. They’ve made creative re-use of portable trailers for milking and cheesemaking in an Animal Welfare Approved method. (Petaluma, 707-347-9401)
Epicurean Connection. This is a retail cheese shop and gourmet deli, but owner Sheana Davis makes her own Delice de la Vallee, a triple-cream blend of cow's and goat's milk, and Creme de Fromage cheeses (you can enjoy them at the French Laundry, among other places). The petite, quaint shop offers cheese flights, beer flights and wine flights, along with a takeout and dine-in cafe menu of sandwiches and salads. Check out the Milk & Butter Bar, featuring raw, pasteurized and goat milk products, with butters in flavors such as bacon-maple. (122 W. Napa Street, Sonoma, 707-935-7960)