One peek at the rolling green hills of Sonoma County is all it takes to understand the region’s appeal for farmers. Influenced in climate and soil by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the towering peaks of the Sierras to the east, the land here in this northern California county just north of San Francisco has rich soil and a Mediterranean climate that has attracted settlers since long before 1849’s Gold Rush. The region’s long history of dairying is undisputed and its winding roads are dotted with family farms, many of them still in operation despite the incessant pressure to house dotcom workers. Could the rich soil and ideal climate be what attracts innovative companies and what makes Sonoma milk taste so good?
In a word: yes. Many of the green pastures and fog-swept coastal cliffs are protected through land trust arrangements organized with Sonoma Land Trust, helping to ensure enough pasture is available for the cows, goats and sheep that then produce a steady supply of the raw materials needed for cheese and other value-added dairy foods. And Sonoma’s dairy ranches are committed to an agricultural system that benefits animals as well as humans. That makes for some happy cows. And goats. And sheep. Let’s take a peek at just a few of these Sonoma-based creameries and a few of their new innovations.
Situated close enough to the Pacific to feel the fog breeze nearly year-round Bellwether Farms is a relative newcomer to the Sonoma dairy scene, Founded in 1986 by nurse-turned-shepherd Cindy Callahan, Bellwether focuses on raising healthy sheep. Of northern European extraction, the East Friesian sheep love the mild climate (heat stress adversely affects milk’s taste) and are free to frolic on the herbicide- and pesticide-free grass (yep, you can taste that in your milk, too). Perhaps best known for cow’s milk Crème Fraîche, Bellwether’s product range includes sheep milk yogurts and a raw sheep’s milk cheese called San Andreas, that like the earthquake fault that runs past their farm, can be life-changing.
Though Bellwether makes ricotta (and that crème fraîche) from a neighbor’s cow milk and whey (the liquid remaining after the milk’s initial curdling), sheep milk whey is traditional (and oh-so Italian) and Bellwether’s Sheep Milk Basket Ricotta is second to none.
Founded in 1968, shortly after the Summer of Love launched epochal change across America (see more about the Summer of Love here) Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery is known for their commitment to all things goat. Founded by Jennifer Bice, Redwood Hill‘s goat milk yogurt, kefir and cheese is about as natural as it gets. The goats are raised free-range and humane and no hormones are used to boost growth or milk production. The farm is certified humane and, as with other Sonoma milk-based products, the flavor in the final product is why this farm wins countless awards. Their Goat Milk Feta recently won a Gold Medal and their Plain Chèvre won Silver at the California State Fair. As innovative companies go, Redwood Hill can likely take credit for kick-starting the kefir craze, If you haven’t tried goat milk products in a while, the evidence is mounting that the time has come to try again. You just might like what you find.
Founded in the depths of the Great Depression, Sonoma Creamery is widely recognized for its Sonoma Jack, a local, only in Sonoma interpretation of Monterey Jack cheese. Laced with bits of habanero or shot through with pesto, Sonoma Jack and its seven available flavors have endured even as Sonoma’s cheese scene has expanded, a legacy product with legs. Recently, Sonoma Creamery re-establshied themselves as an innovative company by expanding into new product categories. Their Mr. Cheese O’s, a line of crunchy cheese and quinoa snacks, are baked into O-shaped rings while Cheese Crisps are shaped like a more traditional cracker. Blended with quinoa and, in the case of Bacon Cheddar Crisps, bacon and quinoa, these Cheese Crisps are totally on trend.
There are countless dairies, creameries and cheese making operations in Sonoma County. While we cannot fit them all in here, newcomer William Cofield, which recently opened a creamery and aging room in Sebastopol’s Barlow Center, makes a bandage-wrapped cheddar and a Stilton-inspired blue cheese that are just coming onto the market.
Innovation does not only come in the shape of technology. It comes in cheese-making, too.