map of Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail
The Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail was the first segment created for the California Cheese Trail. (Map courtesy of and copyright by the California Cheese Trail)

California’s Milky Way: Tour California’s Boutique Cheese Makers and Learn about the Craft of Cheese Making

The California Cheese Trail began as the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail.

Story by April Orcutt

Just north of San Francisco in vast, rural parts of California’s Marin and Sonoma counties, the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail weaves for 100 miles among green pastures, oak- and chaparral-covered hillsides and narrow canyons of redwood trees. Red-tailed hawks and osprey fly overhead, deer graze in the hills, and, at sunset, bobcats survey their terrain.

cows on a grassy hillside
In addition to seeing wild flowers, oak- and chaparral-covered hillsides, redwood trees, spring visitors to Marin and Sonoma counties also see dairy cows nibbling on the natural grass on the hillsides (photo by Michael Kamerick — all rights reserved)

The informal two-lane Sonoma-Marin section of the California Cheese Trail winds through both nature and farmland. It connects family farms and food artisans who create small batches of distinctive cheeses from local grass-fed cows, goats and sheep. In these two counties, 22,000 acres have been dedicated to making cheese, yogurt and other milk products.

Like wine, which this area also produces in abundance, cheese reflects the terroir, or flavors of the soil, climate, humidity and environment of the place where it’s made, and the green grasses of spring in Sonoma and Marin counties contribute to the sweetest milk and cheeses.

cows graze on hillside
Dairy cows graze on green grass on the hillsides of Northern California’s Sonoma and Marin counties in spring. (photo by Michael Kamerick — all rights reserved)

Gabe Luddy, the great-grandson of Vella Cheese’s founder, says milk from grass-fed cows is sweeter. “You’d have a hard time matching our Jacks, even if you matched all the ingredients,” he adds. “Just like wine’s terroir, our climate, temperature and natural bacteria make a difference.”

orange California poppies
California poppies, the state flower, mix with purple lupine and can be abundant in Marin and Sonoma Counties during spring. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

As a bonus, that backdrop of green grass along these back roads also holds expanses of orange poppies and purple lupines set against a blue sky, creating some of the counties’ most beautiful spring drives.

a couple relaxes and picnics by a pond
Picnicking by the Marin French Cheese Company’s duck pond nine miles southwest of Petaluma, Calif. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

The casual Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail passes creameries that are open to the public year-round and others that offer tours monthly from April through October or by appointment. Some have cheese-making classes, cheese tastings, or shaded picnic areas. Several are “farmstead” creameries, meaning the cheese makers raise their own animals, only use milk from their own herds, and make and package their cheese — the whole process is done in-house (or “in-ranch”).

Visitors can download the California Cheese Trail map at CheeseTrail.org and the California Cheese Trail app from various app stores. Always call creameries ahead, preferably a month in advance, to check for the latest information and make reservations for cheese tours.

While cheese-making has become au courant, with the number of cheese artisans increasing dramatically in the last couple decades, the craft dates back a century and a half in these dairy-friendly counties of Northern California.

cheeses
The Marin French Cheese Company sells a wide variety of their own and other cheeses made by local artisans along the Sonoma Marin section of the California Cheese Trail. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

Marin French Cheese Co.

More than 150 years ago, in 1865, Jefferson Thompson started the Marin French Cheese Co. near Petaluma to make soft-ripened cheeses for dockworkers in San Francisco. The stevedores, many of whom were Europeans destined for or fleeing from California’s gold fields, ate pickled eggs and beer for lunch around 10 a.m., but eggs were in short supply.

Thompson bought 700 acres of pastureland 30 miles north of the city and began making egg-shaped soft-ripened cheese balls and selling them at bars where the workers ate lunch. Soft-ripened cheese is still the specialty of the Marin French Cheese Co.

The Cheese Factory, as it’s known locally, now sells 40 varieties of cow and goat cheese, including its traditional breakfast cheese as well as bries, Camembert, Schloss and blues. Visitors taking the tour watch artisans hand-make cheese. They can purchase various cheeses plus bread, crackers, sandwiches and cookies in the store and settle in at picnic tables by a duck pond.

The surrounding landscape probably looks the same as in Thompson’s time, with cows wandering on hills that remain bright green and dotted with orange, purple, yellow, red and white wild flowers in spring.

7510 Pt. Reyes Petaluma Rd., Petaluma, Calif.; 707–762–6001; marinfrenchcheese.com

Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk cheese
Red Hawk cheese, named for the large number of red-tail hawks that live in the area, mellows at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station. Because of the salt air and particular climate conditions here, Red Hawk cheese cannot be made even a few miles inland. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

Cowgirl Creamery

Artisans at Cowgirl Creamery, at Tomales Bay Foods in the four-block-long village of Point Reyes Station, hand-make and sell organic semisoft cheeses using milk from nearby dairies. Visitors can watch the cheese-making process through large windows.

Red Hawk, which honors local red-tailed hawks, is a distinctively pungent, some would say “stinky,” variety that gets its reddish rind from a native bacteria that flourishes in the area’s salty air and cannot be duplicated even a few miles inland.

charcuterie plate
Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station near Point Reyes National Seashore has a deli selling a variety of cheese-inspired dishes. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

Mount Tam, dubbed for Marin County’s dominant peak, 2,572-foot Mount Tamalpais, has an earthy flavor described as reminiscent of white mushrooms.

Pierce Point, named for a peninsula in nearby Point Reyes National Seashore, is a summer-only cheese washed in moscato wine and rolled in dried herbs.

St. Pat has a green rind, made by wrapping the cheese in organically grown local stinging nettles that have been frozen so the sting disappears. It represents the green hills of spring, the season when this cheese is made and sold.

80 Fourth St., Point Reyes Station; 415–663–9335; cowgirlcreamery.com

Matos Cheese Factory

At the other extreme of artisan cheese-making is Matos: 40 cows, one farm, one family, one cheese. The family brought the recipe from São Jorge in the Azores in the 1970s and now sells wedges of “St. George’s cheese” at its unassuming farm near Sebastopol.

3669 Llano Road, Santa Rosa; 707–584–5283; cheesetrail.org/cheesemakers/matos-cheese-factory/

Foggy Morning Cheese
Nicasio Valley Cheese Company’s tasting room and shop in the tiny settlement of Nicasio, Calif., is open seven days a week. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.

Near the tiny settlement of Nicasio in west Marin County, the Lafranchi family makes a dozen varieties of farmstead cheese from the organic milk of the family’s own cows. Open seven days a week, the small store sells local products and their own Foggy Morning, Foggy Morning with Basil & Garlic, Halleck Creek, Nicasio Square, San Geronimo, and other locally-named cheeses.

5300 Nicasio Valley Road, Nicasio; 415–662–6200; nicasiocheese.com

Vella Cheese Co.

The third and fourth generations of this artisan cheese-making family produce and sell several varieties of Jacks, cheddars and Italian-style cheeses in their tiny shop two blocks northeast of Sonoma Square. The plaza is surrounded by galleries, trendy shops, restaurants and Mission Solano, built by the Spanish in 1823.

315 Second St. E., Sonoma; 800–848–0505 or 707–938–3232; vellacheese.com

organic cheese tasting sign
A number of the cheese makers along the California Cheese Trail produce organic cheeses. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

Petaluma Creamery

The creamery, which began more than a century ago, is larger than some of the other local artisan cheese-making companies. It makes and sells a wide variety of natural and organic cheddars and Jacks plus curds, butter and sour cream. It’s only half a mile from many boutiques and cafes in beautifully refurbished century-old buildings along the Petaluma River.

711 Western Ave., Petaluma; 707–762–3446; springhillcheese.com

The following are open occasionally, seasonally and by reservation only — no drop-ins.

picnic basket
All the supplies needed for a romantic picnic are sold at the Marin French Cheese Company. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.

The hilltop Robert Giacomini Dairy and its 330 dairy cows overlook 12-mile-long Tomales Bay and the hills of Point Reyes National Seashore.

“Farmstead” means the Giacomini family controls the entire cheese-making process for its 10 cheeses — including Toma, fresh mozzarella and two blues — from the births of the calves through the milking and aging to wrapping of the finished cheese. Visitors can book ahead for private cheese-tastings at the Fork culinary and educational center.

14700 Highway One, Point Reyes Station; 800–591–6878 or 415–663–8880; pointreyescheese.com

Achadinha Cheese Co.

Want to cuddle a baby goat or calf? Depending on the time of year and the tour, Achadinha occasionally offers up-close-and-personal meetings with their babies. Tours are by appointment on the 290-acre Pacheco Ranch, where 50 goats and 125 cows graze year-round just a couple miles southwest of Petaluma. Their milk gets made into hard, aged cheeses named Cowpricious and Broncha and into fresh cheeses that include four flavors of California Crazy Curd: Mellow Yellow (plain), Hot Hilda (cayenne), Herbie Curd (herb), and Lonely Goat (garlic). Call ahead to schedule a private-group cheese-making class on a weekday.

750 Chileno Valley Road, Petaluma; 707–763–1025; achadinha.com

Tomales Farmstead Creamery

From spring to fall, call ahead for tour information and to make appointments for tours of 160-acre Toluma Farms in west Marin County two miles from Bodega Bay. Consider buying some goat or mixed-milk cheese and driving west for a picnic on Dillon Beach, a dog-friendly strand (but bring a jacket in case of late-afternoon fog).

Toluma Farms, 5488 Middle Road, Tomales; 707–878–2041 or 707–878–2142; tolumafarms.com

deli counter
The Marin French Cheese Company sells a wide variety of their own and other cheeses made by local artisans along the Sonoma-Marin section of the California Cheese Trail. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

When You Go

Spring is the best time because the hills are green and dotted with orange, yellow and purple wild flowers, and some of the cheese can only be made when the cows, sheep or goats eat the fresh green grass.

Check websites or call for the latest information. Advance reservations required in many cases.

Getting Around

Petaluma is a central location with several lodging options. The cheese makers are dispersed around the two counties so driving is the way to explore. Major car rental companies have offices at or a short shuttle ride from San Francisco International Airport, Oakland International Airport, and Santa Rosa Sonoma County Airport. (TIP: Ask for an all-electric vehicle — they’re really fun to drive on curvy rural roads.)

Further Information

California Cheese Trail: CheeseTrail.org. Search for the California Cheese Trail app at the places you get your apps.

ABOUT THIS STORY:

Variations of April Orcutt’s Cheese Trail story were published in National Geographic Traveler as “California Milk Run,” National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel newsletter/website under “California’s Trail of Cheese,” the Los Angeles Times as “Nibbling Encouraged Along the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail,” and the Dallas Morning News under “California’s Milky Way: Tour California’s Boutique Cheese Makers and Learn About the Craft of Cheese Making.” Her Dallas Morning News story won best U.S. Travel Destination Story in U.S. Travel’s IPW Travel Writing Awards.

See more of April Orcutt’s stories in:

BATW Stories of Culture, Travel & the World on Medium
and
Travel Insights & Outtakes on Medium
and
April Orcutt on Medium (AprilOrcutt.Medium.com)
and
AprilOrcutt.com/

I hope you enjoyed “California’s Milky Way: Tour California’s Boutique Cheese Makers and Learn about the Craft of Cheese Making.”

The rural countryside along the Marin section of the California Cheese Trail near Tomales Bay and Point Reyes National Seashore can be beautifully moody with the intrusion of late-in-the-day summer fog. (photo copyright April Orcutt — all rights reserved)

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