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Praise Cheeses 

How the North Bay became a cheesemaking mecca

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click to enlarge Craig Ramini plans to start making fresh buffalo milk mozzarella this summer. - STETT HOLBROOK
  • Stett Holbrook
  • Craig Ramini plans to start making fresh buffalo milk mozzarella this summer.

The Next Generation

Craig Ramini is a cheesemaker in waiting. Ramini didn't grow up on a farm or even near a farm. He's a high-tech refugee who chucked a successful career to become a cheesemaker. Only he's going about things a bit differently: he plans to make mozzarella from a small herd of water buffalo in Tomales.

To do so, he imported frozen buffalo semen from Italy and artificially inseminated his herd. Once the skittish, black-hided animals give birth and start producing milk, he'll become one of America's only buffalo's milk mozzarella makers. In six months, he hopes to have a small quantity of cheese available.

"I want to make one very rare Italian cheese," he said. "You can pull it off if you have a deep niche."

Ramini looks like a Silicon ValleyÐtype. He drives a Porsche Cayenne and has a well-dressed, casual-Friday style. In Silicon Valley startup fashion, he's tried to minimize his expenses by getting creative. He built his small creamery and milking parlor out of what was a bramble-covered, decrepit dairy facility on Stemple Creek Ranch, purveyor of grass-fed beef.

Because his beautiful cheesemaking facility is not yet making cheese, he's opened his doors to create a de facto cheese cooperative, serving as an incubator for new cheese talent, much in the same way as Karlin at Bodega Artisan Cheese. In fact, some of his cheese mates (Bleating Heart and North Bay Curds and Whey) came from Karlin's. They all pay a fee for use of his equipment, namely, a very nice-looking Dutch-made vat.

Building a creamery is expensive, about $200,000. And even if you've got that kind of money, you also need a place to age your cheese. And you need milk. Sharing the costs makes a lot of sense for startup operations.

"A lot of people think he's nuts to do it," says Dave Doughty, one half of the Bleating Heart cheese team. "We're like Gypsy cheesemakers."

Alissa Shethar, the one-woman show behind the excellent North Bay Curds and Whey, drives all the way from Berkeley for her time in the cheese room.

Making cheese requires a sterile environment, so having multiple users in a facility could be trouble if they're not in sync with hygiene protocol. Plus, repairing a broken vat is expensive. But for Ramini, so far, so good.

Doughty and his wife age their cheese in a 120-square-foot, state-certified building just off their garage in Sebastopol. It's reportedly the smallest milk-processing plant in the state, matching Seana Doughty's small red Mini Cooper perfectly.

"We don't have a problem selling our cheese," says Seana, who, in addition to working a full-time job in Novato and making cheese, is the president of the California Artisan Cheese Guild. "We have a problem of not making enough."

click to enlarge Cheesemaker Alissa Tappan, owner of North Bay Curds and Whey, is a member of a cheese co-op in Tomales. - STETT HOLBROOK
  • Stett Holbrook
  • Cheesemaker Alissa Tappan, owner of North Bay Curds and Whey, is a member of a cheese co-op in Tomales.

In Petaluma, Joel and Carleen Weirauch are in the midst of their first lambing season. They raise a herd of 65 sheep on land they share with a chicken ranch. The Weirauch Farm and Creamery—Madame de Fromage's favorite—has been making cheese for less than year, and so far only with cow's milk.

Now that their ewes have given birth, the Weirauchs will be able to start making sheep's milk cheese later this spring, and should have some on the market by summer. Weirauch spent a year in France and fell for the distinctive flavor. "Once I tasted sheep's milk," he says, "I was blown away."

Like Weirauch's own cheese company, the North Bay's cheese industry is still young compared to other regions such as Vermont and New York. But Weirauch sees good things ahead.

"We're younger," he says. "We're up-and-comers. But in the next few years, it's really going to take off."


See Also: Artisan Cheesemakers in the North Bay

The Artisan Cheese Festival takes place Feb. 23-25 at the Sheraton. 75 Baywood Drive, Petaluma. For info, see

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