Sonoma and Marin counties are wild for cheese. So much so that there is a Cheese Trail Map, created by the Cheesetrail.org agency to showcase the 30-some artisan farms, creameries, and cheese makers spanning the coast to the town of Sonoma.
Beyond eating the cheese, visitors can meet the cheese, with an array of dairies open for tours, tastings, and face-to-face rendevous with the animals that generously contribute the milk. Cows, sure, but how about goats, sheep, and even Italian water buffalo?
Just be sure to call for reservations as far in advance as possible, since the dairy owners are usually very busy making their wonderful cheese.
Ramini Mozzarella, Petaluma/Tomales
Fact fact: Mozzarella di bufala is the official name the Italian government uses to recognize cheese production strictly within the Campania region of Naples. So American made cheese of that style must be called “mozzarella made from buffalo milk.” Both are different from the more mainstream mozzarella found in America that’s made from regular cow’s milk, called fior di latte. This is the closest you will ever get to real Italian-style mozzarella (ricotta, too) from a local maker, since owners Craig and Audrey Ramini raise real Italian water buffalo on their bucolic, open pasture ranch. Tours include a tasting, and optional playtime with the dewy eyed baby buffalo in “calf town.”
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, Pt. Reyes
The Giacomini family’s 300-plus Holstein cows roam over 700 acres overlooking Tomales Bay, then tromp into the dairy to do their part in making the artisan Point Reyes Original Blue and Bay Blue cheeses, plus Point Reyes Toma table cheese, and hand-pulled mozzarella. Visitors can say hello to some cows, then tour the state-of-the-art creamery that sits just steps from the cow barns, complete with a full-scale kitchen and videos demonstrating how the cows munch on harvested almond hulls and power the property via an ingenious natural “electric” system - their own captured methane.
Tomales Farmstead Creamery/Toluma Farms, Tomales/Petaluma
This boutique operation released its first cheese last summer, as an aged creamy goat variety, from owners David Jablons and Tamara Hicks, plus a core group of shepherdesses and cheesemakers. The Petaluma area was originally settled by Miwok Indians, and so cheeses here are named in their honor, including Kenne (meaning "one,” for a soft ripened goat milk cheese), or Atika (meaning "two," for a soft ripened cheese of both goat and sheep milks). Tours include a visit to the milking parlor and creamery, meet and greet with the animals, a hike up to the fields to learn about organic pasture management system, and tastings.
Weirauch Farm & Creamery, Petaluma
You need to contact the proprietors to see about getting a tour (email firstname.lastname@example.org), but the effort is worth it. The Animal Welfare Approved, pasture-raised flocks of Friesian sheep are gorgeous, friendly, and happy. The results show in the cheese, including both sheep and goat varieties, in names like Saint Rose, Primo Fresco, Mi-Ewe, Peau de Peche, Tomme Fraiche, and Doubloon.
McClelland Dairy, Petaluma
This third-generation family dairy was founded by Irish immigrant Robert McClelland, and is now operated by his son George, George’s wife Dora, and their daughter Jana. Though the took 3rd place winners in the 2010 national American Cheese Society Conference, they actually specialize in European-style, organic artisan butter. Still, it’s a don’t miss, since visitors are able to watch a cow being milked, milk a cow themselves, pet a calf in the nursery, and visit with the resident chickens.