How and Where to Go Cheese Tasting in Sonoma County

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What needs to be said about cheese? It’s delicious and it’s versatile! You can put cheese on almost anything to amplify the flavor or you can enjoy it straight out of the package. There’s no wrong way to eat it.

Other than just gobbling it up, there are a few things you can do to improve your palate to experience more flavors from the large variety of cheeses.

The first and quite possibly the most important tip: the better the milk, the better the cheese will be. Make sure the milk used in the cheese you are tasting comes from healthy, grass fed dairy cows, sheep or goats.

If you are tasting cheese in Sonoma county, then you are in luck as this region is home to over 30,000 grass fed dairy cows, over 35,000 sheep and over 22,000 acres of land dedicated to making cheese and dairy products.

With the number of animals that are in Sonoma county, the climate and the number of acres of open farmland for the animals to roam and graze, it’s no surprise that some of the best cheese in the world is produced in Sonoma County.

Learn About Cheese

Cheese making started in Sonoma county in the 1800’s. An interesting historical fact about the renowned wine region is that when Prohibition began in the early 1900s, many vineyards stopped producing wine and started making cheese.

During that time was the start of the cheese revolution in the west that led to distinctive, hand-crafted cheeses that can be found in Sonoma today. Now, there are over +130 distinctive, different types of artisan cheese found in this region.

Far too many to list here, so instead, we will cut the cheese into (8) different categories.

  • Fresh Soft Cheese: As the name suggests, fresh and soft texture. Blanc, Chevre, Cottage Cheese, Curd, Feta, Mascarpone, and Ricotta are some examples.
  • Fresh Firm Cheese: Workable texture with fresh flavors. Breakfast Cheese, Burrata, Le Moutier, and Paneer are some examples.
  • Soft Cheese: Mold is sprayed on these cheeses to help the rine and with ripening. Acapella, Brie, Camembert, Aged Chelsea, Aged Feta, Bartlett, Muenster, Munster, and lots of varieties of blues cheeses are a few examples,
  • Semi-Soft Cheese: Most typically used with cooking. American cheese, mozzarella, blue cheese, baby swiss, and havarti are a few examples.
  • Semi-Hard Cheese: Good for melting as it is firm with a slight crumble. Fontina, Gouda, Mild Cheddar and Monterey Jack are a few examples.
  • Hard Cheese: Typically crumbly, low moisture cheese that you would grate. Asiago, Aged Gouda, Cheddar,  Parmesan and Swiss are a few examples.
  • Semi-Firm Cheese: Typically pungent and crumbly with low moisture. Monteo, Reverie, Gorgonzola, Shepsog, Sulguni, Sulguni, Swaledale and Tavoliere are a few examples.
  • Firm Cheese: Typically savory, pungent and crumbly with very low moisture.Beaufort, Coastal Cheddar, Goat Milk Feta, and Tuada are a few examples.

Do you know how much milk it takes to make cheese? To make (1) pound of cheese, it requires (5) pounds of sheep’s milk or (7) pounds of goat’s milk or (10) pounds of cow’s milk!

Tips on Mold and Storing Cheese: To keep cheese fresh, store cheese in wax or butcher paper and then place it in the refrigerator’s crisper. Sometimes, you’ll find that mold has started to grow on the cheese. At first, this can be pretty disgusting to see. However, as long as the mold isn’t on a semi-soft or fresh cheese, you can just scrape it off and save the rest.

How Cheese is Made

There are over +130 different types of artisan cheeses that are handcrafted in Sonoma county. Each one requires a different process to go from milk to cheese. However, the same basic process is used regardless if you are creating Monterrey Jack or Muenster.

This is our abridged version of how cheese is made: First, the milk is selected from the dairy. Next, the milk is standardized to make sure it has a proper fat content ratio. After, the milk is and pasteurized with heat to kill off any pathogens that might be in the milk (there are varieties that skip pasteurization). After the milk has cooled, an ingredient is added to the milk to cause it to coagulate. This can be acid or rennet (an enzyme) in addition to starter cultures.

Once added, the coagulation occurs with heat and typically within one hour. After, the curd is what is coagulated and what is cut out. Next the batch is then heated to separate the rest of the curd from the liquid whey. After the curd has been removed, it begins a texturing process which helps to remove more whey.

The last steps are what creates different types of cheese from the curd. Each type of cheese has a very specific set of instructions for the final steps. The final steps are: salting, brining, forming, storage, aging and packaging. The directions for each step varies depending on the cheese being made. How each step is executed will impact the type, the flavors, the attributes and the qualities of the cheese that is being made.

As an example to illustrate the differences in cheese recipes, to make a common Blue Cheese, the directions after salting the cheese and before aging the cheese is to spike the cheese with a meat skewer. This creates veins and allows the blue mold to travel through the cheese during the aging process.

How to Taste Cheese

It’s a fact that no two cheeses taste identical. Even if they are from the same farm, cow, goat or sheep. This is because each farm has its own unique geography which produces its own unique micro-climate. That in turn creates unique pastureland which produces milk with a wide variety of different flavors, qualities and attributes.  

To recognize and amplify the unique flavors, qualities and attributes of cheese, it helps to taste it in a particular way.

First, examine the cheese visually. Looking it over will introduce its general appearance, color and texture to your visual cortex. In turn, this can trigger an enhanced sensory perception for smelling and tasting the cheese.

After you have thoroughly inspected the cheese, it is time to smell the cheese. Some are pungent, others are faint. Depending on the type of cheese will determine if you can smell it from a few inches or several feet away. If it is very strong, try to release some of its intensity from the room by opening a window. The fresh air combined with smelling the cheese directly will allow you to pick up subtle notes that might have been overwhelmed before.   

Take a moment to note the different aromas. What smells appear first, what are the strongest smells, and what smells linger? Note; you will not want to smell test all cheeses. Since 80% of taste comes from smell, it is okay to do a brief smell test or skip it all together when the smell of the cheese is too powerful.

Next is the bite, the feel and the taste. These three steps are grouped together because they happen simultaneously. Slow down when you are tasting cheese and identify different aspects within each step and enhance your overall enjoyment. For instance, when you bite into the cheese, is it hard and crumbly? Or is it soft and smooth? When you place the cheese on your tongue, is it firm or soft? When it warms in your mouth, does it become soft and workable or is it crumbly and granular?

After the bite and the feel, is the taste. Put the cheese on your tongue and wait for 10 or more seconds. This allows the warmth of your mouth and your saliva to start melting the cheese. At this point, what do you taste? Some common flavors that can be detected are: salty, sweet, meaty, smokey, pungent, peppery, onions, caramel, sourdough, tangy, buttery, fruity, floral, vegetable, spicy, herbal, rosy, piney, nutty, mushrooms, and sour.

After the taste, you can swallow and wait for the aftertaste to linger. What notes are left behind, what is the remaining flavor in your mouth?

Now go venture out in Sonoma county and enjoy some of the best handmade cheese in the world!

Where to Taste Cheese in Sonoma County

Sure, you can find plenty of cheeses at different grocery stores and delicatessens around Sonoma. However, if you want to taste the best cheese for free straight from the farm, then you’ll have to venture out to one of the following cheese makers:

If you are looking for a more behind-the-scenes tour of a cheese factory, the following companies offer cheese tours:

If you want to buy local cheese at the store, here are a few of the local brands you can find in the grocery stores in Sonoma county:

  • Andante Cheese
  • Bellwether Farms
  • Bleating Heart Cheese
  • Clover
  • Dacheva Son’s Cheese
  • Laura Chenel’s
  • Saint Benoit Creamery
  • Weirauch Farm & Creamery
  • Straus Ranch
  • Point Reyes
  • Cowgirl Creamery