Making a cheese statement
By Robert Digitale
North Bay dairies reinvent themselves and prosper as center of artisan movement
Just four years ago, Karen Bianchi-Moreda sat in the audience in Sonoma and listened to experts explain how to make it in the artisan cheese business.
Last week, she herself was a panel member at the Sonoma Valley Cheese conference, explaining how her Valley Ford farm is making and selling its Estero Gold cheese.
In her favor, Bianchi-Moreda has her farm's 440 Jersey cows to give her cheese a rich, buttery flavor. She also has the help of family: brother Steve Bianchi, father Paul Bianchi and now her son, Joe Moreda, a recent college graduate, fifth-generation farmer and a new cheese maker for their Valley Ford Cheese Co.
"You're going to see more diversification from all dairy families," said Bianchi-Moreda. Making cheese and other value-added dairy products will attract those families that "want to somehow stay" on the farm.
A decade ago, the New York Times heralded the emergence of the region's artisan cheese makers, calling Sonoma and Marin counties "a new Normandy, north of the Golden Gate." Since then, the industry has come of age, adding new companies, adding conferences and festivals and further bolstering the region's reputation as a place that produces fine food as well as fine wine.
"It puts a whole new ambience to agriculture," said Stephanie Larson, a UC Cooperative Extension adviser for Sonoma County.
Today the two counties have 22 commercial cheese plants. They include such stalwarts as Vella Cheese, Marin French Cheese, Laurel Chenel's Chevre, Redwood Hill Farm and Cowgirl Creamery. Four additional plants are about to open, according to a new UC study.
It's the largest concentration in California," said Ellie Rilla, author of the study.
The industry continues to attract new blood. A third of the businesses, including Valley Ford Cheese, have been making cheese for three years or less, Rilla said.
Eight years ago, only one company in California, Bellwether Farms of Valley Ford, had a sheep dairy and was producing cheeses from the milk. Today the two counties boast five sheep dairies for cheese making.
In a search for new niches, North Bay cheese makers are trying new recipes that blend goat and cow's milk — with plans soon to add water buffalo mozzarella, a cheese made for centuries in Italy.
Cheese-making classes began last fall at the College of Marin Indian Valley Campus. The short courses, which began last fall, can include a certificate and offer an alternative to classes taught at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and at colleges in other states.
The two counties now produce 8 million pounds of artisan cheese each year, with a retail value of $119 million, according to the study.
That remains a sliver compared with the 2 billion pounds of commodity cheese made in California each year, half of it mozzarella.
But the North Bay, with its sweeping coastal grasslands, today provides only 2 percent of the milk produced in California, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
Huge dairies in the Central Valley are more economical at producing milk, a reality that has contributed to the closing of many dairies in the North Bay, the birthplace of the state dairy industry. Today, Sonoma County has 69 dairies, roughly a third of the number three decades ago. Marin County has 23 dairies.
Lure of organics
To bring in more money, many local dairies have converted to organic production and started making new products with their milk. Cheese making is becoming a common path chosen by such dairy farmers both here and elsewhere in the U.S.
"It's really been a terrific renaissance in small-batch, high-quality cheeses throughout the country in the last few years," said Marilyn Wilkinson of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Wilkinson, who was in Sonoma last week for the town's annual cheese conference, said California, Wisconsin and Vermont are among the states "leading the way."
Among those preparing to enter the cheese business are longtime dairy farmers like George McClelland and his daughter Jana. Their McClelland's Dairy near Two Rock outside Petaluma started producing organic butter nearly two years ago.
"Now that we have the butter kind of going, we're working on the cheese," said Jana McClelland.
Cheese, but no farm
Some of the new cheese makers don't have a farm but possess a passion for the craft.
Among them are Lisa Gottreich and Miriam Block, whose Bohemian Creamery near Sebastopol makes nine different cheeses.
"We invent cheeses," said Gottreich, whose creamery sold its first batch in the summer of 2008. Among their newest creation is HolyMolè, a sheep/cow blend infused with cacao nibs.
Another newcomer is Craig Ramini, who has about 10 adult water buffalo on a ranch near Tomales. He calls the animals "as affectionate as dogs" and says that within the next 18 months he plans to be the first buffalo mozzarella maker here.
"It really is a luxurious cheese," Ramini said. "There's no other word for it."
Tours and festival
Both Ramini and McClelland will be part of farm tours offered by the fifth annual artisan cheese festival March 25-28 in Petaluma.
Lynne Devereux, the festival executive director, said in the coming years she expects consumers to see more cheese varieties made here and to experience how the flavors of local milk are turned into products that define "what California tastes like."
Sheana Davis, the host and creator of the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference and a cheese maker, said farmers like Bianchi-Moreda aren't just making great cheese. They're also finding a way for the next generation to stay in agriculture.
"She saw the future of her children being part of her business," Davis said.