The California Cheese Festival on March 21-23

“Artisan and farmstead cheeses take centre stage at this 3-day Sonoma Valley festival.”

Cheese FestivalpicWalking into the ballroom of the Sheraton Sonoma I’m hit by the persuasive funk of hundreds of cheeses ripened to their peak of perfection. Row upon row of chevre, washed rind, surface-ripened, blues, fresh cheeses, and hard cheeses beckon to me with their intriguing terroir. This is where California’s small batch cheesemakers have come to show-off their best cheeses and to mingle with their peers. For the next three days I’ll be living and breathing great cheese at the California Cheese Festival and, along with a couple of hundred eager aficionados, I’m ready to tour, taste, learn and discuss.

Long considered Northern California’s food epicenter, Sonoma Valley is known more for its wines, but part of the pleasure of visiting any area is discovering its small food producers. Touring the back roads and stopping at farms, wineries, and other local food artisan shops is a great way to get to know a region. Going to a food festival is an easy introduction to the local foods, and most the work will already be done for you by the curating of a selection of the best for you to try.

Here we go!

Day One: We break up into groups and board busses to meet some of Sonoma’s best cheesemakers at their farms; to go behind the scenes to see how they make their cheeses. We drive through morning fog along winding and hilly roads to the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. Before long the warm Cali sun burns off the fog and reveals a fine day. We sample a selection of Swiss- and Italian-style cheeses, visit their Holstein cows, and don booties and netted caps to go inside the gleaming cheesemaking room. Head cheesemaker Brian Ackerly shows us how they brine the cheese and salt the curd.

Next up is a 4-course alfresco lunch at nearby Keller Estate Winery. The cooking is light and fresh and showcases the cheeses. I enjoyed the Market Beets and Peppery Green salad with a wedge of Cypress Grove Chevre Herbs de Humboldt best, but the Keller Estate Olive Oil and Almond Cake was a close second.

Meet The Cheesemakers and Their Cheese is the night’s entertainment, where we get the opportunity to explore the cheeses on our own and to talk to the makers. Some I’ve heard of, like Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog (a soft, creamy and tangy goat cheese with a line of ash running through the center—available in BC), others are new discoveries, like Point Reyes Farmstead’s Bay Blue (a mellow and sweet blue cheese with a salted caramel finish), and Cow Girl Creamery’s Organic Red Hawk (a lush triple cream, washed rind made with wild bacteria).

Day Two: The daytime is dedicated to seminars. There are plenty of choices and they run the gamut from Cheese Making for the Extreme Hobbyist to Cheese Meets Beer, from Old World, New World Cheeses to The Secrets of Making Stretched Cheese Curd. I decide on a tasting seminar and a workshop that is hands-on. New Kids on the Block, with food writer and author Janet Fletcher, is a round table tasting session where a panel of six cheesemakers talk about their cheeses and their lives as we sample and evaluate their newest cheeses. In the afternoon Fresh Cultured Cheeses session I learn how to make tomini (a fresh cheese eaten in northern Italy as an appetizer) from Louella the Milk Maid. Louella has worked on sheep, goat, and cow farms in the USA and Europe and learned cheesemaking from some of the best. Her class was energetic, fun, and educational. After we all took turns at making the cheese, we ate the results with fresh tomatoes and basil. So good.

Nighttime brought the area’s restaurants to the hotel for The Grand Tasting, an evening of grazing. The chefs prepared dishes that used many of the cheeses I had tried throughout the weekend. I ate Duck Tart with Pennyroyal Farm’s Boont Corners Tomme (a semi hard mountain cheese), Truffle Gnocchi with Laura Chenel’s Chevre, Huilocoche Sopes (corn masa tartlets) with Bleating Heart’s Shepherdista (raw sheep’s milk) and Deconstructed Cannoli with Bellwether Farms’ Whole Jersey Milk Ricotta, to name just a few.

Day 3: Sunday started with a cheese-inspired brunch, followed by the Artisan Cheese Tasting and Market Place, as well as various cooking demos. I opt for a little solo touring and head off north to explore the Dry Creek wine region, northwest of Healdsburg. Early evening, I catch the plane back home, bolstered by a wonderful weekend of good cheeses, good food, and a little early spring warmth.

California’s Artisan Cheese Festival, now in its 8th year, runs from March 21-23, 2014. For information on this year’s festival go to

Sonoma Valley is just north of San Francisco, which is a mere 2-hour direct flight from Victoria or Vancouver. Or do as I did last March and fly via Seattle to the tiny Santa Rosa airport, located smack dab in middle of the valley and a quick 15 minutes away from the festival by car.

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