Blame it on Millie. She was the fawn colored Nubian goat that we inherited on the ranch we were care taking in the mid 1970’s – head-strong, vocal and capable of eating anything in her path – who subsequently proceeded to give birth to twins. What to do with all the milk? Make cheese, of course; a lovely farm-style, crumbly goat cheese that we ate on everything!
Fast forward 30 years, and we are still searching out little-known and interesting local cheese to serve to friends and clients at each wine tasting. No imported cheese in this household! With the plethora of rolling grassy hills and dozens of creative cheese makers locally, we are literally in cheese heaven when it comes to selections. Dozens of aged dairies in the North Coast of California have been resourcefully converted to family owned smaller creameries, and inventive family farmers are now raising sheep and goats as well as smaller herds of milk cows to create imaginative cheeses. Fortunately, they are also doing a good job marketing their wares, which can now be found in fine dining restaurants all over the Bay Area as well as locally owned markets who now flaunt extensive cheese selections; Sunshine Foods (St. Helena), The Oxbow Cheese Merchant (Napa), and Cal Mart (Calistoga), in case you need any options for your next Wine Country picnic. Local cheese with local wines . . . what a concept.
We always offer a selection of goat cheese which we find is a great accompaniment to our Two Old Dogs Sauvignon Blanc. Goat’s Leap (from our own backyard in St. Helena) “Sumi” is an elegant ash coated soft cheese or try their aged “Carmela”. Any of Andante Dairy’s inventive goat cheese selections are successful pairings – “Acapella” soft-ripened, “Impromptu”, an aged hard cheese, or “Minuet”, a triple cream goat cheese. Bohemian Creamery also makes a great tangy cheese called “BoDacious”.
For sheep’s milk cheeses we go with Bellwether Farms’ raw milk farm-style “San Andreas” or the “Pepato” with small peppercorns that both pair beautifully with our HL Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Or, if you can find it, the “Fat Bottom Girl” washed rind cheese from Bleating Heart. (Wine labels aren’t the only brands with entertaining names!)
For cows’ milk, we always start with “The Original Blue” from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, creamy yet pungent and always a winner! For a hard cheese, we like the Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese “San Joaquin Gold” or their “Bandage Wrapped Cheddar”. And we can always count on the selection from Cowgirl Creamery, from their triple-cream washed-rind “Red Hawk”, to the mellow, earthy “Mt. Tam”, or the seasonal Jersey cow milk winter cheese “Devil’s Gulch” which is lightly dusted with dried peppers. After several bites of cheese paired with sips of wine, suddenly the cheese has disappeared and the glass is empty!
There are dozens of books and guides about our local cheese, and even an interesting industry magazine called Culture (look for the cheese centerfold and join their cheese-of-the-month club!), which is akin to the early publishing of the Wine Spectator covering the fledgling wine industry in the early 1980’s. As members of the California Artisan Cheese Guild (which is a great reference for local cheese) and attendees of the annual Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, we have been able to visit many of the creameries in Sonoma and Marin and speak with the farmers and cheese makers first hand. It’s a real treat to visit with cheese makers – sort of like casually meeting Napa Valley vintners in the vineyards and then touring the winery and tasting the end product . . . except that we don’t have as many cow pies to avoid in our fields. Millie would be proud.