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Tiburon entrepreneur hopes to make cheese where the buffalo roam

Four of Craig Ramini's water buffalo check out a visitor on Thursday, May 19, 2011, in Tomales, Calif. He plans to make mozzarella cheese from their milk. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost) Frankie Frost

By Rob Rogers

Marin Independent Journal     link to article


Until recently, Craig Ramini's job as a Silicon Valley software consultant kept him on the go throughout the day, traveling from one client assignment to another.

Now, the Tiburon resident spends his days in a Tomales pasture, overseeing his herd of water buffalo. His only regular visitor is his landlord, rancher Al Poncia, who drops by from time to time to talk about dairy production. 

Ramini says he doesn't miss his old life one bit.

"I've spent so much of my life doing deals, traveling on airplanes four times a week," said Ramini, watching his long-horned charges browse contentedly in an ocean of waist-high grass. "This is really wonderful. Peace and quiet."

Ramini hopes to complete his life's transformation this fall, when he plans to become a cheesemaker — and not just any cheesemaker. He wants to become one of the only Americans to produce mozzarella di bufala, that porcelain-white, much-sought-after product made from the milk of water buffalo.

"The flavor, texture and makeup of the milk is different from cows' and goats' milk," said Lynne Devereux, founding president of the California Artisan Cheese Guild. "It's a very rich milk that lends itself to fresh cheese."

To make that cheese, Ramini is turning the Poncia family's long-deserted dairy into what he calls a "state-of-the-art artisan microcreamery," one that he hopes will draw tourists, cheese-lovers and other gourmands from throughout the Bay Area.

"Buffalo mozzarella has a different character," Ramini said. "Until now, people who have traveled to Italy and had the real thing have had to come back here and have cheese made from cows' milk."

One of those people was Ramini's sister-in-law, who was born and raised in Italy, and now lives in Nantucket, Mass.

"One night over dinner, she says, 'Why does buffalo mozzarella have to be flown over here for me to get it?'" recalled Ramini, who said he felt a light bulb appear above his head. "I thought, 'This is it.'"

Ramini "went into full research mode," approaching the notion of becoming a cheesemaker and buffalo whisperer as he would any other business proposal. He visited several ranches near Toronto and learned how to work with buffalo while working at a dairy in Victoria, Australia. He even traveled to Italy, where cheesemakers have perfected the art of making buffalo mozzarella over more than a thousand years.

Armed with that knowledge, Ramini searched for a place where his buffalo could roam.

"He wanted to know 'Can I do it? Where? How? How do I get the land?' and 'Am I crazy?'" recalled Ellie Rilla, community development adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension at Novato and author of the university's report, "Coming of Age: The Status of North Bay Artisan Cheesemaking," which was released in January.

Rilla and other extension advisers put Ramini in touch with Poncia, a former dairyman who now runs beef cattle on his 750-acre Tomales ranch. Both Poncia and his son, Loren, liked the idea of earning extra income from their property, and seeing the dairy that had once been operated by Al Poncia's aunt returned to its former glory. But there was another reason why Al Poncia agreed to the deal.

"A long time ago, sometime in the late '60s to mid-'70s, someone who was pre-eminent in the dairy business told me, 'Al, agriculture in Marin County is dead,'" Poncia recalled. "But I wanted my chance. And I've had it. And luckily, because we've held on up here, I'm now able to provide other people with that opportunity — including my son, who is working very hard with his grass-fed beef operation.

"And now Craig's come along with his boutique cheesemaking plans, and I think that fits into where Marin, Sonoma and the whole Bay Area's agriculture is going," added Poncia, whose grandfather purchased his ranch in 1901. "Our ranch is now producing diversified products for a local market, which is something we haven't been able to do for quite some years."

After signing a lease with Poncia, Ramini purchased his herd — half from a breeder in Arkansas, and half from a mozzarella cheesemaking operation in Los Angeles that had given up on the idea of using buffalo milk. He's spent the past several months training the animals, teaching them to become familiar with him and comfortable with the idea of being milked — something that doesn't come naturally to a water buffalo.

"Today's dairy cow wants to be milked. Relieving the pressure in her udder makes her feel better," Poncia said. "With a water buffalo, it will be a little different. I don't know if you'll take the milk from them, or convince them to give it to you."

Ramini acknowledges that learning to become a rancher, dairyman and cheesemaker in less than two years is a task that would give most people pause. But he believes his careful planning and years as a project manager will help him succeed.

"I think Craig has a really interesting and unique business plan," Rilla said. "Water buffalo is completely unique to Marin, but there was a day when we didn't have a lot of goat herds or dairy sheep. A lot has changed."

Poncia also believes Ramini will do well, though he's all too aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

"Craig has learned a lot. He's a very bright man, he's done a lot of research into what he wants to do, and he's trying really hard. But now he's dealing not with software or equipment, but with animals, their disposition and their temperament," Poncia said. "I think he has the get-up-and-go and the commitment to possibly make it work. But I say possibly, because — well, you don't see everybody jumping into the buffalo mozzarella cheesemaking situation."

Ramini won't have his first batch of milk or cheese until the fall, when buffalo calving season begins. But word of his project has already aroused excitement among the Bay Area's cheese lovers. In April, the fledgling Ramini Mozzarella operation became a stop on the 2011 Marin Artisan Cheese Tour.

"He's a pioneer, and we love that about him," said Devereux, who organized the tour. "People are always interested in what's new, and Craig definitely fits into that category. Maybe he'll inspire other people to start (cheesemaking) from the ground up."

Ramini believes it's no coincidence that the start of his cheesemaking operation coincides with the emergence of other operations throughout Marin, from the new Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. to the established Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., whose Original Blue Cheese was crowned "Best of Show" at the California State Fair last summer.

He is convinced that Marin County is on the cusp of becoming to cheese what Napa and Sonoma counties are to wine — and he believes future visitors to the area will be willing to trek out to Tomales to watch his mozzarella take shape.

"Mozzarella provides more of a show than other cheeses when it's being made," Ramini said. "With other cheeses, once you go from the curd stage and it's put into forms, it's then put into rooms to age. With mozzarella, you put it into hot water, the curds form as molten globs, and someone pinches off the ball — 'mozzare' means pinch — which falls into brine.

"So it's more fun than your average cheddar," Ramini said.