Experience the delights of western Sonoma County's distinctive, hand-crafted cheeses by following the California Cheese Trail, which in Sonoma County 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 tastings, and cheese-making classes, 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, like Ramini Mozzarella in Petaluma.
Since the dairies are spread out, and oftentimes in remote areas, the best way to explore is to start with a good plan.
First: See the Cheese Trail Map, and print a copy.
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.
Start Your Sonoma Cheese Adventure:
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.
Details: 750 Chileno Valley Road, Petaluma, 707-763-1025
Founded in 1931, Vella is among the oldest of Sonoma County’s cheese makers.
Using hand-crafted methods, Vella is known for its dry jack cheeses made entirely from the milk of grass-fed cows, and aged for anywhere from seven months to two years.
Details: 315 Second St. E., Sonoma, 707-938-3232
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. Call to schedule a tour and a picnic tasting, then stay to play with the adorable baby buffalo in the pastures and “calf town.”
Details: 175 Gericke Road, Petaluma, 415-690-6633
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.
Details: 3669 Llano Road, Santa Rosa, 707-584-5283
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. Take a farm tour (offered seasonaly, by appointment only) to watch a cow being milked and pet a calf in the nursery.
Details: 6475 Bodega Ave., Petaluma, 707-664-0452
After running their goat dairy, White Whale Farm, for several years, Anna and Dan Conner took over Pugs Leap in 2010, continuing the high-quality cheese-making tradition.
Details: 5880 Carroll Road, Petaluma, 707-876-3300
Still want more?
An Annual Artisan Cheese Festival is held in Sonoma County each March; visit the festival website for details on the next event.
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 between mozzarella cheeses?
A: 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.