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The Fat of the Land
If there's a central theme to Cowgirl Creamery's story and local cheese in general, it's that there would be no cheese without local dairies—and local dairies require wide-open spaces for pasture. Given how close the grazing lands of Marin and Sonoma are to the urban center of the Bay Area, it's miraculous that way out West, cattle still outnumber people. But it's not an accident.
Development pressure to turn rolling hills into subdivisions or estate homes is massive. That's why MALT's work has been a key component in keeping local farmers on the land and local cheese and other products in stores. MALT does this by buying farmers' development rights and placing a permanent easement on the land that prevents paving over the pastures. The money farmers receive can be used to pay off debt and inheritance taxes or invest in new infrastructure. There are now 11 dairies and six creameries on MALT-protected land.
But when Corey Goodman and Marcia Barinaga bought a hilltop ranch above Marshall, locals weren't sure what would become of the land, even though it had a MALT easement. Goodman and Barinaga, after all, weren't farmers.
Barinaga had a Ph.D. in microbiology and was a science writer for the journals Science and Nature. Her husband was a former professor at Stanford and Berkeley who started a biotechnology venture fund. They had a weekend home in West Marin, but decided to move to the area full-time. They bought an 800-acre ranch with striking views of Tomales Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore, and built a house on it.
The deep-pocketed couple from the East Bay didn't strike locals as the ranching type. But it didn't take long for their worry to prove unfounded.
Barinaga's family is Basque, steeped in the tradition of sheep ranching; her cousin works on a sheep ranch in Idaho. After moving to West Marin, Barinaga learned about MALT.
"We got more involved when we realized how important it was to keep every bit of land in production," she says. "We need ranches to be active. If you love West Marin, you love the agriculture. That is the community out here."
So she became a sheep rancher and a cheesemaker. Her move to West Marin allowed her to reconnect with her Basque roots—and make some outstanding sheep's milk cheese patterned after Spain's famed Idiazabal cheese. Together with an assistant, she makes about 6,000 pounds of cheese per year inside a shipping container converted into a creamery.
She made her first commercial cheese in 2009. Conley told Barinaga it was so good that she shouldn't change a thing. So she hasn't. Sheep milk is a seasonal product, and when it sells out, as it often does, it's gone. But Barinaga's herd of 85 ewes just starting lambing this month, meaning there'll be new cheese later this spring.
Like the Giacominis, Barinaga says the help from Cowgirl Creamery was critical.
"They are the most generous and community-minded people," she says. "It's almost like they were a partner in my business."
Before she moved to the ranch, Barinaga had never interacted with sheep before, but something in her family history and what she says is an innate connection with the animals awakened in her.
"The cheese is great, but for me it's not about the cheese first," she says. "I have an affinity for sheep. I like to say we're all descended from shepherds."
Because she has no children, people often suggest her love for her sheep is an expression of her maternal instinct. But she corrects them: "It's an expression of my pastoral instinct."
For Jim and Donna Pacheco in Sonoma County's Chileno Valley just outside of Petaluma, selling development rights to the Sonoma County Land Trust allowed them to keep the family farm.
With easement in place and cash in hand, they built a creamery and an aging room on their 240-acre ranch to make their exceptional aged goat cheese. (I tried a lot of cheese in the course of writing this story, and their Capricious cheese, a crumbly, raw milk goat cheese, was one of my favorites.) In a story similar to the Giacominis, the price of milk was flat while the cost of production was rising.
"Like a dog chasing its tail, we just kept going around and around," says Donna Pacheco.
Adding a commodity like cheese was a lifeline. "This is survival," she said. "This is how we make a living."
Instead of selling to stores who might not care for her cheese properly, Pacheco sells cheese at farmers markets—32 in all.
In addition to Capricious, Achadinha Cheese Company also makes a mixed goat/cow's milk cheese from a Portuguese family recipe called Broncha, which changes slightly from year to year, depending on the ratio of milk.
"It's consistently inconsistent," Pacheco jokes.
While Cowgirl Creamery influenced a new generation of cheesemakers in Marin County, Sonoma County's cheese industry got a push from three pioneering women: Patty Karlin, Sheana Davis and Colette Hatch.
Karlin has been making goat cheese from her ranch and creamery in Bodega since 1984, making her one of the county's oldest cheesemakers. Nearing retirement now, she's actively looking to sell her operation, Bodega Artisan Cheese.
In addition to making some good cheese, Karlin opened her creamery doors to scores of young cheesemakers looking to learn the way of the curd. Some of her disciples include Saint Benoit Yogurt, Bohemian Creamery and Bleating Heart.
"She's been an incubator of young cheesemakers," said Dave Doughty, who makes sought-after sheep's milk cheese at Bleating Heart with his wife, Seana Doughty.
Sonoma's Sheana Davis is a one-woman cheese impresario. She started the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference 10 years ago, a showcase of national and local cheese. She owns the Epicurean Connection, a cheese shop in downtown Sonoma and has taught home cheesemaking at the Sonoma Inn for 12 years. She's also helped launch or market more than a dozen cheese companies, including Redwood Hill, Bellwether and Matos. And she makes her own cheese, Delice de La Vallee, a fresh, triple-cream cow and goat's milk cheese, and Creme de Fromage, a triple-cream cow's milk cheese.
As a Sonoma native, her cheese roots run deep. She apprenticed under the late Ig Vella, who started Sonoma County's oldest creamery, Vella Cheese Co. Vella died last year, and this year's cheese conference was dedicated to his memory. Davis keeps Vella's prized cheese knife framed in her shop.
Davis sees the North Bay's dairy industry coming full circle. Before industrialization and commodity markets, many dairy farmers made their own cheese. It wasn't sold commercially, but that changed as the industry got bigger and more mechanized and dairy operations moved to Central Valley. But the backlash against mass-produced food ushered in by Alice Waters and others created a new market for small-production milk and artisinal cheese.
"You're not going to make it selling commodity milk or cheese anymore," she says.
Even though there are now a growing number of local cheese companies, Davis doesn't think the industry has reached saturation yet. "We're still in our infancy," she says. "It's just the beginning."
In fact, Davis predicts there will soon be more local, dairy-based products other than cheese, like sour cream and kefir. She also surmises that we'll start seeing "dairy-designated" cheese, just as wineries tout a single vineyard.
More than anything, she says the industry needs to do a better job of banding together and marketing itself. "Strength in numbers," she declares. "That's how we're going to be able to grow together."
America at large doesn't have much of a cheese culture. For years, brie, gouda and green cans of dusty Kraft Parmesan cheese were about as fancy as cheese got. So when French-born Colette Hatch came to Sonoma County, cheese was the last thing on her mind. Like many others moving here, she was interested in wine.
But soon the East Coast transplant found herself setting up specialty cheese counters at Food for Thought (now Whole Foods) in Sebastopol, Santa Rosa and Petaluma. Given the lack of cheese available then, she didn't expect the cheese counter to take off.
"It was really the beginning of the awareness of local and well-made food," she says. "I'm coming from France, where local food is an everyday thing. Here it was new."
Little by little, she got shoppers to try cheese, educating them on what was then a foreign subject. And most of the cheese was foreign. "We didn't have any cheese in Sonoma County," she says. "I used to bring cheese from France."
But as the North Bay's cheese industry began to grow, so did a local cheese culture.
"I realized I was part of this big thing that was going on," she says. "I thought I was going to do wine, but something told me, 'Cheese is bigger than you think it is.'"
When Whole Foods acquired Food for Thought, she left. Hatch is now the cheese buyer at locally owned Oliver's Market, and acts as a gatekeeper and cheerleader for local cheese. She also teaches at the Cheese School in San Francisco and has a consulting business under the name "Madame de Fromage," a title bestowed upon her by a Press Democrat article years ago.
Right now, she's loving cheese from Penngrove's Weirauch Farm and Creamery. "Their cheeses are absolutely impeccable," she says. "They have no flaws."