SONOMA, April 17, 2013 – What do dozens of award-winning cheesemakers, hundreds of different types of cheese and thousands cheese lovers have in common? They were all in attendance at the 7th Annual Artisan Cheese Festival in Sonoma County.
This three-day event celebrates handcrafted cheese, cheese-based foods, wines and beers from around California and beyond.
Attendees learn how to taste, buy, serve and enjoy cheeses from the experts. There are education seminars and tastings that are led by experts from around the country. Festival attendees can do everything from tour local cheese farms to meet the cheesemakers to take cheesemaking classes.
A hot topic at this year’s event was sustainability. The festival focuses on helping consumers understand what is meant by sustainability and what the differences are in artisan cheeses versus non-artisan.
There were about 30 different artisan cheese producers handing out samples: hard cheese, soft cheese, aged cheese, infused cheese, sheep’s milk, cow’s milk, goat’s milk and raw cheese.
- Bellwether Farms, Sonoma County: Caramody and Pepato cheeses. The Caramody tastes like you’ve been transported to Italy. It is super creamy with loads of flavor. The Pepato is a raw semi-soft cheese with whole peppercorns throughout. Try this cheese with a good Pinot Noir from Russian River.
- Clover Stornetta Farms, Sonoma County: Herb & Spice Havarti. Clover has teamed up with local California artisan cheesemakers to develop these delicious small-scale craft cheeses. The havarti was my favorite. Excellent flavor and just the right mount of spice.
- Marin French Cheese Company, Marin CA: Schloss and Rouge et Noir Yellow Buck Camembert cheeses. They’ve been making the Schloss since 1901. It has a sharp flavor and slightly pungent nose with hints of caramel and toasted almonds. The Camembert is fuller in flavor than a typical brie. It is softer, creamier, almost buttery in texture with a nice nutty finish.
- Redwood Hill Farm, Petaluma CA, Raw milk feta and smoked goat cheddar cheeses. The feta is super lush and simply delicious. My mouth waters just thinking about it. The Goat Milk Cheddars are a nice new twist on old tried and true cheddar cheese. I loved the smoky flavor and smooth texture. This cheese tasted wonderful with a hoppy beer pairing.
- Shamrock Artisan Goat Cheese, Willits CA: Soft chevre in flavors, like basil, dill and black pepper. With each chevre I tried, they kept getting creamier and better than the last. These pampered goats produce top quality milk for these cheeses. Try their Basil, Dill and Black Pepper Chevre cheeses.
- Winters Cheese Co, Winters CA: Tomato & Basil Cheddar, Gouda, and Garlic & Chive. The Tomato & Basil is lightly sweet and the basil lingers on the finish nicely. The Gouda has perfect middle texture, a rich creamy flavor with a slight tangy finish. And the Garlic & Chive has just enough garlic and just enough onion to perk up your taste buds.
What would a cheese tasting be without the perfect wine accompaniment? Fifteen artisan wineries poured their wines. Many of the wineries featured were local from Sonoma County. A few favorites that were being poured at the festival are:
- Acorn Winery, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County: Acorn makes a delicious Rosato that pairs especially well with cheeses. Also try their Dolcetto, it pairs very nicely with cheese too.
- Russian River Vineyards, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County: Don’t miss their Estate Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast Chardonnay or Rose of Pinot Noir. All go very nicely with cheese pairings.
- Gloria Ferrer, Carneros, Sonoma Valley: Gloria Ferrer makes beautiful sparkling wines, chardonnay and pinot noir. Sparkling wine goes so well with cheese. Try their Brut Rose, Blanc de Blancs and Va de Vi. The Va di Vi would pair wonderfully with the Shamrock Chevre and Marin Camembert cheeses.
- Navarro Vineyards, Anderson Valley, Coastal Mendocino CA: the family has been making hand-crafted wines since the 1970s and it shows. Check out their Rose of Pinot Noir, Premiere Reserve Chardonnay and one of their latest additions, Pinot Blanc.
There were also craft beer pairings. Unexpected, perhaps, but surprisingly refreshing and delightful. Keep an eye on newcomer St. Florian’s Brewery from Windsor in Sonoma County. They are just breaking into the craft beer business and have three delicious brews they are crafting: Brown Ale, Cali Common and IPA. Check out their firefighting back story on their Facebook page.
A few other favorites include:
- Moylan’s Brewery, Larkspur CA: this local Marin County favorite has been steadily climbing the craft beer ranks. There wasn’t a beer I tried that I didn’t like, but a few that rose to the top of my list were The Kiltlifter, Danny’s Irish Style Red Ale, and the Moylander Double IPA. Try any cheese with a nice strong flavor along side these tasty and flavorful brews.
- Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, Half Moon Bay CA: nestled in the sleepy town of Half Moon Bay, this brewery is one of the only hot spots in town. Good food, live music, patio seating, stays open late, and of course excellent beer. Try their Mavericks® Bootlegger’s Brown Ale, Mavericks® Big Break Ale, and Mavericks® Amber Ale.
Ticket prices vary depending on which events you attend. For instance, the Marketplace tickets are $45, the Meet the Cheesemakers with cheese tasting event is $35. There are farm tours you can attend that include tours of the local creameries, lunch, cheese tasting and transportation. Those tickets range between $75 and $135 per person. Seminars and education classes begin at $65. And the Grand Tasting event on Saturday night is $75 per person.
The festival supports the artisan cheesemakers financially. Ten percent of ticket sales benefit non-profit organizations that work to protect and preserve the lands needed by the cheesemakers.
Mark your calendars for next year’s festival. It will be held from March 21-23, 2014.
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