The late summer Sonoma and Marin rural terrain radiates a golden Wild West feeling that makes you want to abandon city life for the dirt and dust of cowboy movies. Just turning east off Highway 101 onto Highway 37 north of Terra Linda evokes a sigh of relief. It’s the beginning of my cheese tour.
Following the signs to Sonoma, find Vella’s Cheese on Second Street East, a block east and a block north of the northeast corner of Sonoma Plaza and Mission San Francisco de Solano. Located in a stone building that once housed a brewery, the tiny cheese producer wins medals all over the world, particularly for its Dry Jack.
Vella’s Cheese proprietor Ignazio (Ig) Vella served as a Sonoma Country supervisor and director of the Sonoma County Fair. With cheesemaker Roger Ranniker, Vella makes sensational lightly salted butter, a creamy blue cheese, a Toma soft ripened Piedmontese-style cheese, and a perfect Asiago. Vella’s high moisture Monterey Jack comes au naturel, and is also available in spicy flavors, all of which are achieved with natural ingredients such as Mezzetta peppers and garlic from the Sacramento Valley. The Vella partially dry jack and cheddars are mouthwatering. The company shop also sells Laura Chenel’s goat cheeses (since she isn’t open to the public), as well as crackers and sausages. The proprietor is usually around to answer questions.
Vella gets all of its milk from Mertens Dairy about three miles south in Schellville, where cows ingest no growth hormones or animal products. All Vella cheeses are made with vegetable coagulant, not animal rennet. Orange colorings come from annatto seed, and all cheeses include a maximum salt content of one percent by volume.
While you are in Sonoma, be sure to visit Ig Vella’s daughter’s cheese shop, appropriately called The Cheesemaker’s Daughter, on East Napa Street just a half block east of the Plaza. Ditty Vella and partner Gary Edwards carry the finest imported cheeses anywhere, Nan McAvoy olive oils, divine natural Greek yoghurt with honey, local breads, and the best gelatos and coffees. Ditty encourages tasting as part of your educational and cultural experience!
The Sonoma Cheese Factory on Spain Street on the north side of Sonoma Plaza offers cheeses and decent sandwiches and hamburgers, but no longer makes cheese here.
To get to Spring Hill Jersey Cheese west of Petaluma, take Hwy. 116 to Hwy. 101. From 101 take the Washington Street exit and go west. Washington Street’s name becomes Bodega Avenue (some places called Bodega Highway). Follow it eight miles and turn left onto Spring Hill Road at Two Rock Church. After one mile you arrive at 4235 Spring Hill Road, with pumpkin and potato patches in front and a long, straight dusty driveway back to the barns, cheese “factory,” tasting room, milking station, and calf hutches. Owner Larry Peter lives in the main house, a classic 1876 Sears Catalog relic.
Spring Hill is a rare find: it makes estate grown cheeses. Peter sold his car and got around Petaluma for five years on a bike to save money, buy a house, fix it up and sell it—all to start this farm and make cheese.
He keeps only Jersey cows, because their milk contains higher butter fat content, although they produce less milk than Holsteins. They are milked right outside the cheesemaking building, and the milk goes directly into the pasteurizer and cheese vats. Spring Hill produces delectable quark, ricotta, cheddars and jacks, fresh curd, Gianna (like Taleggio), Dry Jack (his just beat mentor Vella’s at the International Cheese Competition), Old World Portuguese, a brie, and a dry brie, all with no antibiotics, additives, or preservatives.
If you have time to venture out to Sebastopol, visit a real Portuguese-American cheesemaker, Joe Matos, at his Jose Matos Cheese Factory, at 3669 Llano Road. From the Azores, Joe makes just one fabulous cheese: white, called St. George.
Otherwise, turn right as you leave Spring Hill Jersey Cheese, then turn right on Chilean Valley Road, and right (west) on the Petaluma-Pt. Reyes Station Road, which will take you quickly to Marin French Cheese Co., formerly known as Rouge et Noir, just southwest of Novato Boulevard, and then on to Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station. Marin French Cheese Co. majors in bries and camemberts, some with flavorings, but also makes Schloss and Breakfast cheeses. Try samples of Triple Crème Brie, Quark, and Crème Fraiche. They also use non-animal rennet and Jersey milk. Here you can buy soft drinks, sandwiches (romaine lettuce in separate bag), Marin and Sonoma wines, shirts, and even pot holders. Kids can fish in the pond, while loads of people enjoy picnic tables, Frisbee, and a generally delightful atmosphere. Great place to stop on your bike.
Continue out westward to Point Reyes’ Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods, both located in a redone Giacomini family barn. Chefs Sue Conley and Peggy Smith started Tomales Bay Foods, a much-needed assemblage of fine local produce, wines, deli, espresso drinks, and Strauss Family Ice Cream. With friend and cheese director Maureen Cunnie, Cowgirl cheeses are made exclusively with Strauss Family Dairy organic milk, which comes from the dairy a few miles north in Marshall, also the home of Hog Island Oysters. You can usually watch cheesemaking in progress in the tiny tidy glassed-in factory.
Be sure to try Cowgirl’s Red Hawk, Mt. Tam, St. Pat, clabbered cottage cheese, fromage blanc, and crème fraiche. They also offer the best of other producers’ cheeses from around the world, including Point Reyes Original Blue by the Giacomini family, Joe Matos’ St. George, a special selection from famed Neal’s Yard in London, and Redwood Hill Camellia. Top it off with a memorable Strauss Family Farm ice cream cone, and you are equipped for the drive back to Berkeley. Enjoy!
Kathleen Hill is co-author with husband Gerald Hill of Sonoma Valley-The Secret Wine Country.