Everybody does the wine-tasting route in northern California. But to see a less familiar side of the region, take a trip that won't impair your driving: An artisanal cheese-tasting tour.

By Adam Sachs
Updated March 31, 2015

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.

On to Petaluma. Approached from a bumpy dirt road, surrounded by steep, straw-covered hills under a huge bright sky, Cindy Callahan's Bellwether Farms looks just as it does in the photographs in Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook--Callahan, a former nurse from the East Coast turned sheep farmer, is one of Keller's favorite purveyors. Though she doesn't run regular tours or have anything resembling a tasting room, Callahan seems happy to show off the hay barn, the milking shed and the cheesemaking room in the old veal barn.

It's hard to view the ripening room without pangs of desire. The shelves are lined with white plastic cheese molds; in the old days, these would have been woven baskets. The sheep's-milk ricotta is here, as is crescenza, a buttery cheese made of Jersey cow milk from a neighboring dairy farm, and the pecorinos Callahan learned to make on a trip to Italy nine years ago. After the pecorino is salted and unmolded, it is turned every day until a rind forms and it is ready to be delivered to the French Laundry, Chez Panisse and Callahan's other customers. Bellwether baby lambs are also a favorite of the few restaurants Callahan can manage to supply. She is aided by her two grown sons and her daughter-in-law, but clearly the effort of running the business is great. Today Callahan seems tired, but she becomes animated at the mention of the pecorinos. "It's kind of a crazy thing to do in your old age," she says, descending the steep hill, slick with hay and dung, from the shed to her house. "But, anyway, it's fun."

Our next stop is the 22-year-old Matos Cheese Factory of Santa Rosa, which we find with some difficulty since there is no sign off Llano Road marking the business. The land is flat and hardscrabble, the dusty road blocked by construction, the down-at-the-heels rural-suburban scene a far cry from the wide open spaces of Petaluma. As we approach a small compound of farm buildings, and chickens and cats, we're convinced we've taken a wrong turn. Across from a silo is a little building, a worn yellowish shade, with a painted sign over the front door that reads open. When I do, an alarm goes off and keeps going until I shut the door again. Finally, a woman arrives, seeming surprised to see us.

"Are you Mary?" I ask, recalling the name of the woman I'd spoken with on the phone a few days earlier.

There's a long pause while she meets our hopeful stares with one of unyielding silence and troubled befuddlement. It occurs to me that she might believe I'm asking not about her name but about her marital status.

"Are you the woman from the cheese factory who is named Mary?" I ask.

Recognition. The lights go on, figuratively and literally, and I can see that the room is stacked to the ceiling with shelves of drying cheese.

Mary Matos is the wife of Joe Matos, a fifth-generation Portuguese cheesemaker from the island of St. George in the Azores. And the Matos Cheese Factory, it turns out, is indeed open to the public and open for business. Production is limited to a single cheese, a semihard, versatile round named after the isle of Mr. Matos's birth. Made from the raw milk of the family's own cows, St. George is a bit like Havarti, but more pliant and buttery. Showing off the drying room (where the wheels are aged for at least two months) and the production area (where the whey is squeezed off the cheese), Mary Matos warms up and praises her cheese. When she describes how it melts, her tone is nearly giddy, and we are smitten. "Take it," she says, holding out a pie-slice-size wedge. "Once you pick it up, you won't put it down." I suspect that she's right, we won't be able to stop, and at five dollars a pound, why fight it?

Next stop, Sonoma. The Vella Cheese Company is in an old stone brewery not far from the town's plaza. The Vellas--Tom, Zolita and later their son Ig--started making cheese here in 1931. Their specialty was Monterey Jack, a California staple invented by David Jacks in 1882. There are, in fact, many jacks here--including dry jack, introduced as a gratable alternative to its more pliable relative and appreciated by local Italian families for its nutty, Parmesan-like flavor. Standing at the counter, staring at lists of cheese, and rounds and wedges of cheese, and winning-cheese ribbons (Special Select Dry, "U.S. Champion 1995­-96") and framed cheese news clippings, I nibble happily on cheese curds, the rubbery little pellets that will be pressed into Cheddar; Vella hands them out as samples on Tuesdays, Cheddar-making day. Their orange coloring is natural: It's derived from annatto seed, which comes from a Caribbean tree of the same name. It seems the only purpose of this tree is to color Cheddar and to delay me here reading about it while I nibble the nubby curds.

There has been much cheese, but we can't quit yet. After a quick detour to the nearby Sonoma Cheese Factory (just to compare jacks), I telephone our dinner destination. We're going to a restaurant in Sonoma, called The Girl & The Fig, that's said to have a good local cheese plate, and I want to make sure they're ready for us.

"We've always got cheese!" chirps the kind lady on the phone.

"Roger!" I shout back, directing Michael to drive on. It is fair to imagine that he is now wondering about his daughter's taste in men.

Earlier we'd stopped for a roadside picnic, packed by Cowgirl Kate. A quick tasting tour of some of the cheesemakers we wouldn't have time for today: an elaborately named goat cheese from Sebastopol's Redwood; Humboldt Fog; Hyku from Goat's Leap in St. Helena; and an Alpine Shepherd from Yerba Santa. It would be easy to imagine Northern California's artisanal cheesemakers as a--pardon me--homogenized group. But consider the disparate backgrounds and approaches of the artisans we've visited--from Cowgirl's specialists and experimenters to the one-cheese, one-family, one-ancient-recipe tradition of the Matos family. What started as a hobby and grew into a passion for Cindy Callahan was for the Vellas the evolution of an old California tradition. Eating cheese where it is made is a lot like drinking wine at a winery. The cheese doesn't really taste any better for being close to the source, but the stories of the people who make it help us appreciate how different these cheeses are from the mass-produced varieties at the supermarket--and from each other. Plus, the samples are plentiful.

A local guidebook dedicated to celebrating the many splendors of Sonoma warns: "Most people who move here gain weight." To which I would only add that, with some hard work and careful planning, this is something the dedicated traveler can accomplish in a single, tantalizing day.

Adam Sachs is a senior staff writer at GQ magazine.