Sunday, November 6, 2011

Say Cheese: The Sonoma/Marin Cheese Trail

I like cheese. Scotch that, I love cheese. I’ve been on wine trails, hiking trails, even a bourbon trail, but nothing is quite as sensual as a cheese trail. Sonoma and West Marin Counties, north of San Francisco, are returning to their roots as dairies and creameries flourish with tours and tastings of artisanal cheeses from cows, sheep and goats with unique flavors and a definite sense of place.
The cheese trail is spread out (pun intended) covering nearly 30 dairies and creameries, so the easiest thing for cheese trail ingénues is to drive from Petaluma to Point Reyes which can be easily accomplished in a weekend.

At the Weirauch Dairy
Petaluma, off Highway 101, just west of Sonoma, is home to Weirauch Farm & Creamery who focus on sheep cheese, though they make some cow cheese too. Carleen and Joel Weirauch have a farmstead operation; they make cheese from their own herds. Their farm tours are $15 per person and are for cheese club members (so join up!) and you’ll see the entire cheese-making process, and hang out with the sheep in the pasture. They’re cool people and they love cheese – who else would aspire to make sheep cheese for a living? The tour ends with a cheese tasting of which their Harissa-spiced sheep cheese is amazing. Dedicated to sheep, (Carleen tells me one of their wedding presents was their first two sheep – all I got were crappy placemats and weird-o serving trays) Joel spent a year with cheese makers in France learning the ropes. Available at local farmers markets, if you see Weirauch cheese, get some.

Jana McClelland milks a!
For McClelland’s Dairy it’s all about milk, butter, cheese and ice cream…and cows. McClelland’s offers a terrific 1.5 hour tour, and allows you to see firsthand the entire process of running a dairy, complete with sustainable design, as well as sampling their terrific butter, and you get to milk a cow by hand (insert joke here_____). Jana McClelland tells me that milk is 87 percent water (no wonder it looks translucent), whereas her golden-hued butter is 85 percent butter fat, making it rich, creamy with a deep yellow color and a slight nuttiness. A great product and wonderful tour, this is perfect for the kids. McClelland’s is Animal Welfare Certified.
The cool Metro Hotel in Petaluma

While in Petaluma, a surprisingly pretty Victorian town, there are plenty of restaurants, art galleries and antique shops, and the Metro Hotel is a cool place to hang for the night. The building was part of an old estate, formerly the maid’s quarters. The Metro is funky, colorful and off-beat with a decidedly Parisian theme. Rooms have claw foot tubs, hardwood floors, free wireless and it’s within walking distance to downtown. There’s a small continental breakfast every morning which can be enjoyed inside, or on the side garden patio. Or visit Della Fattoria, the best known bakery just up the street with fresh baked breads, scones, croissants, and they use McClelland’s butter in their pastries.

A multitude of cheese at Cowgirl Creamery
Get to the Point
The drive to Point Reyes from Petaluma is less than 30 minutes. Once there Cowgirl Creamery is one of the well-known cheese makers in the region and they are distributed nationwide. Their creamery is the de facto stop for not only sampling Cowgirl cheeses but other locally made cheeses. They also have a cantina on site making sandwiches and salads using their cheese. True to their original vision of supporting local dairies and creameries, you’ll also find organic ice cream from dairies like Strauss. Cowgirl sources their milk (they don’t own cows) from local farmers who produce organic milk, in which to make organic cheese, of which their Red Hawk truly represents a specific sense of place, since it’s only made in Point Reyes due to the large concentration of a specific bacteria in town. There’s a large window to watch the cheese making, frankly a rather dull process since milk is poured into stainless steel vat and it churns away.

Getting Point Reyes cheese ready for shipping
At Point Reyes Farmstead, their tours are something of an event, usually running about four hours, but include an hour long tour of the property, tucked away unseen above Tomales Bay, a visit with the baby calves and ending with a cheese and wine pairing and a chef prepared four course meal utilizing Point Reyes cheese, so you get the farm to table experience. Events begin at $75 but you’ll be immersed in a world you probably didn’t know existed. They are known for their blue cheese, but also make an award winning cheese called Toma, which I adore. The Point Reyes Vineyard Inn is an ideal choice for lodging while there. First off, it’s a house (not a B&B, nor hotel), and you have reign of the kitchen, a TV room and spacious living room. The second reason is that they make wine on the property and the tasting room allows you to sample a variety of wines, including Pinot Noir grown just steps from the rooms. If you stay there, you get a complimentary tasting, otherwise its 5 bucks per person and it’s the only winery in the area.

Street grilled oysters from Tomales Bay
In Point Reyes there’s plenty of hiking, kayaking in Tomales Bay, and visiting the famed lighthouse. It’s quiet here, well, except for the weekends when the small town of 350 more than triples. You’ll find live music and plenty of oysters being grilled outside, harvested from several of the local oyster fisheries in the bay. While on the cheese trail, be warned that tours mean you want comfortable shoes that can get dirty (watch out for them cow patties), you’re on a farm, not a red carpet.

Weirauch Farm & Creamery (
McClelland’s Dairy (
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company (
Point Reyes Vineyard Inn (