We go to northern California to soak up the wine and the feel of the place, to look at the vine-corrugated hills and the way the soft sun hits them. But there is an aspect of Napa, Sonoma and Marin Counties we often forget: the working farms, the grazing land, the old dairies. The cheese. Cheesemaking arrived in the area with the first Spanish missionaries, who made sacramental wine for God but kept cheese for themselves. Some of the country's best cheese is made here, in the largest dairy-producing state in the union. I had heard that many of the smaller, more interesting cheesemakers even welcome visitors--inspiring visions of a wine-country tasting tour that wouldn't impair your driving. Which is how, on a typically brisk, temperamentally beautiful Bay Area morning, my fiancée, April, and I find ourselves awake very early, armed with maps, a good folding knife and a plan to eat as much cheese as we can.
April's father, Michael, who lives just outside San Francisco, has agreed to drive. Our first stop is Cowgirl Creamery on Point Reyes, between Tomales Bay and the Pacific. Hardly another car passes as we wend our way through Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Point Reyes Station has the sleepy feeling of an Old West town, if the Old West was green and misty and not far from the ocean. An old hay barn houses the cheesemaking facilities, the walk-in ripening cave and the retail counter. As we poke around the cheese displays, Kate Arding scoops up a sample and the day is off to a good start. Arding is from England, a veteran of her family's mustard business by way of the New York art scene. Before cheese was her profession, it was a habit serious enough to lead to financial trouble: "It was because of cheese that I racked up my first overdraft," she says, tenderly stroking a weeping monolith of farmhouse Stilton. (The cheese leaks whey as it sits.) Working at Neal's Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, London, she met Cowgirl co-owners Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, who convinced her to sell cheese at their Point Reyes store. They deal in imported and local varieties along with what they make in the barn: cottage cheese, fromage blanc and an excellent firm and slightly nutty-tasting cow's milk dome called Mt. Tam, for Mount Tamalpais, the highest point in Marin County. All of which we try. All of which we like.
Arding shows off the cheeses ripening in the cave--a large, windowed, delicately calibrated refrigerator. "They're very volatile, these cheeses," she observes. "Well, the cheesemakers are volatile, too." As if on cue, a ruddy, rubber-booted Dutchman materializes from the lab, where he works on new varieties of cheeses, and introduces himself as Fonz Smits, the "dairy technologist." He speaks eloquently of the local milk (from freely grazing, hormone-free cows at the old-fashioned Straus Family Creamery up the road), of the bounty and beauty of this land--a vision of cheese-filled utopia.