Not Into Wine? Consider A Trek Along The California Cheese Trail

Most people know that California leads the United States in wine production, but this state enjoys a space at the top for milk production as well. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), California has held the status as the country's primary dairy state since 1993, with the highest production of milk, butter, and ice cream. It comes in second for cheese production — only after cheese-famous Wisconsin — and in celebration of this beloved product, the California Cheese Trail gives people the opportunity to visit the source. 

Founded by Vivien Straus, who co-manages the organization with her brother and business partner Michael Straus, the California Cheese Trail offers a print map and searchable digital maps, an events calendar, and an online shop featuring home delivery. "Vivien created the Cheese Trail because she simply wanted to help," according to the trail website. "Today, many of California's 79 cheesemakers attribute 20% to 80% of their sales to customers discovering them via the Cheese Trail!" Each stop is unique, so browse to find a new purveyor wherever your California travels take you. Here's a taste of some of our favorites to prime your appetite. Check listings for all businesses for opening hours and events — production of cheese is highly seasonal, so before you hit the trail, ensure each stop is welcoming visitors during the time you're on site.  

Sample cheese with local names at Schoch Family Farmstead

Schoch Dairy on the El Camino Real in Monterey County's Salinas Valley has served as a slice of California dairy history since it was established in 1944. Two Swiss brothers founded the farm based on their European know-how and family traditions that are honored by the Schoch family today, despite decades of changes and challenges to the dairy industry. Dedicated to land stewardship driven by a family-ownership model, the Schoch family has hinted on its website that visitors might soon be able to experience the farm as an agri-tourism destination. 

According to the Schoch family, the average milking herd in California can top out at 1,000 heads, yet this farm is home to fewer than 80 purebred Holstein cows. Rather than compete with the big guys or be subject to pricing offered by cooperative dairies, the Schoch family turned to artisanal milk, yogurt, and cheese sold at local farmers markets, grocery stores, and restaurants. Monterey County-based culinary writer and educator Camilla Mann told Tasting Table that for entertaining she always picks up Monterey Jack — Schoch is the only local dairy making the county's namesake cheese. According to the CDFA, Monterey Jack is native to California, derived from a cheese produced by missionaries in the state over two centuries ago. All of Schoch's cheese names give nods to local places. Mann points out Mt. Toro Tomme, named after a peak in the Sierra de Salinas Mountains; East of Edam, an homage to Steinbeck's novel; and Junípero, titled after the Franciscan monk who founded the Carmel Mission.

Meet goats and sheep at Tomales Farmstead Creamery

Toluma Farms occupies 160 acres near the Pacific Coast on the ancestral homeland of Coast Miwoks, indigenous people who lived in the area before Europeans settled in California's Marin and Sonoma Counties. This educational farm is home to dozens of sheep and hundreds of goats that supply milk to Tomales Farmstead Creamery.

This property employs an organic pasture management system that rotates the animals to different spaces to graze. The goal is to have the smallest environmental footprint possible. Tomales Farmstead Creamery is also one of the rare dairy farms to milk two different types of animals. The creamery produces eight seasonal cheese releases from goat and sheep milk as well as Jersey cow cheeses made with milk from the Silva Family Dairy. To try all three milk types in one cheese, grab a block of Teleeka, a bloomy rind, triple milk cheese made of sheep, goat, and cow milk.

Pair cheese and wine at Pennyroyal Farm

Pennyroyal Farm is part vineyard, part creamery, part farmstead — a culinary dream for anyone who loves local Northern California products. All things come together in a thoughtful way, such as the trellis system at Pennyroyal Vineyard (23 acres of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir) that permits it to be weeded and suckered by Babydoll sheep. Visitors can experience this for themselves with a visit to the tasting room, farm tours, or farm events (including the sought-after opportunity to see baby animals). There is also a farm to table membership option that delivers fresh products in seasonal shipments.

Each cheese at Boonville-based Pennyroyal Farm is named using Boontling, a unique regional language from the 19th century. Pennyroyal cheeses blend sheep and goat milk on a seasonal basis ranging from around 20% sheep milk during the beginning of the year and eventually 100% goat milk when the sheep stop milking during colder seasons. Try Laychee, which is the Boontling term for milk — a fresh and light cheese that undergoes two days of acidification, but no ripening, so it's produced in only a few days. 

Enjoy flower power at Garden Variety Cheese

Mann also pointed us in the direction of Garden Variety Cheese based in Northern Monterey County on 40-acre Monkeyflower Ranch. "Every so often the Monkeyflower Ranch has an open house," she says. "The sheep are fed on pasture as well as hay and brewer's grain from one of our favorite local breweries, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. It's just a neat melding of local producers. And each cheese is named after a flower." Consider Cosmos, a raw sheep milk feta aged in brine for over 60 days, or Sweet Alyssum, a fresh spreadable sheep cheese made with pasteurized milk. Each ewe is also named after a flower, and the team at Garden Variety prioritizes animal welfare with seasonal milking and breeding. 

Fans love attending farm tours and dinners, which are announced on the creamery's website alongside open house details. Garden Variety Cheese also sells its products (including meat from Monkeyflower Ranch) at local farmers markets and through an innovative investment offering that allows customers to receive a discount on their favorite products by purchasing shares that help this farmstead balance cash flow throughout the year and manage the seasonal nature of small-scale dairy production.

Stock up at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.

"We always, always, always stop at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. to pick up picnic supplies and cheeses when we hike into Point Reyes," Mann dishes. "Bay Blue and Toma are our favorites. If you are a fan of stinky cheese (which I am), Cornelia is a winner." We checked it out, and cow's milk Cornelia is indeed described as "stinky" by the Point Reyes team. Also interesting: The Italian word translates to "wheel of cheese made by the farmer herself."

Point Reyes Farmstead is owned by the four Giacomini sisters, the fourth generation of this dairy family responsible for transitioning what was a larger family business into the artisanal, sustainability-focused cheesemaking facility that it is today. The farm features methane-powered renewable energy, water conservation methods, carbon sequestration, biodegradable packaging, and — for cow comfort — state-of-the-art robotic dairy parlor technology. As for people, fans can enjoy The Fork, an education and tasting center where farm meals, private events, and other experiences are held in this hospitality space with a full kitchen. 

Don't miss the shop at Harley Farms Goat Dairy

Keeping with the flower theme, Mann also recommends Harley Farms Goat Dairy, in San Mateo County's town of Pescadero. She fondly recalls this as a favorite stop for her children when they were small. "There are lots of animals for them to visit and lots of cheeses for me to eat," she says. "Their farm shop also has great bath and beauty products made with goat's milk, and their cheeses are usually pressed with beautiful wildflowers." 

According to the dairy's website at the time of this writing, the resident baby goat count is 108, and a cheese called Van Goat Chèvre — made with edible flowers, basil, and sunflower seeds — is on offer, delivering on the expectations of loyal customers and families. Harley Farms also offers tours, hosts weddings, and is home to a cadre of working animals, including the goats (of course) but also Anatolian shepherds, Jimmy the guardian alpaca, and Caramel "the boss cat."

Watch makers in action at Nicasio Valley Cheese

A local market favorite, Nicasio Valley Cheese has a place in Mann's kitchen as well. "I use the San Geronimo as a raclette and the Foggy Morning is a tiny fromage blanc that I love to spread on my homemade sourdough," she says. "Sometimes I add avocado slices. My family drizzles it with honey." Nicasio uses fresh cow's milk from nearby Lafranchi Ranch, delivered daily to make the 100% organic cheese products that fans and chefs like Mann rely on in their kitchens. Customers around the country can order these products online and guests who pop into the shop in Nicasio in Marin County can peek through the window and witness cheesemaking as it happens.

Lafranchi Ranch has been in the family since the early 1900s and is now a pasture-based ranch where cows spend 120 days in rotational grazing to enjoy a diet of fresh grass. The ranch is also home to 3,000 pasture-fed, free-range, egg-producing chickens which gobble insects. Waste from all of these animals is used for fertilization, contributing to a rich and sustainable cycle. The creamery is housed in a converted barn on the property, which is outfitted with best-in-class equipment and innovative concepts, such as repurposed shipping containers-turned-ripening rooms. 

Visit the country's oldest cheese company, Marin French Cheese Co

California meets France at Marin French Cheese Co., around since 1865. According to the company's website, this earns this creamery the right to claim the country's oldest cheese company spot. This is an excellent resource for people that want to learn more about cheese and how to serve it. Offering a range of recipes, cheese board tips, and advice on "cheese life" customers can access creative information and feel empowered when entertaining or enjoying cheese at home.

The cheese shop is located in Petaluma, where Marin and Sonoma counties meet, so it attracts plenty of wine trail visitors looking to stock up for a day out visiting tasting rooms and perfect picnicking. The shop also offers wine, beer and ciders, sandwiches, and salads from local purveyors. Guests can also enjoy open space and picnic tables outside of the shop — an excellent place to meet other culinary and wine enthusiasts.

Experience certified organic cheese at Cowgirl Creamery

Since 1997, Cowgirl Creamery has been a fan favorite California cheese maker, with a retail space at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and a wide net of retail partnerships with markets and grocery stores around the country. The business is owned by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, two college friends who established Cowgirl Creamery to elevate organic, local culinary craftsmanship in Marin and Sonoma County. Note that the Barn Shop & Cantina in Pointe Reyes has now closed permanently, but is remembered fondly by many people who discovered a taste for these products right at the source.

Mann recommends Mt. Tam — an organic, triple cream, bloomy rind, named after Mt. Tamalpais — and Heart's Desire — a triple cream, bloomy rind, heart-shaped gem that is perfect for Valentine's Day or anniversaries. Conley and Smith credit the landscape of the North Bay, where their dairy partners farm, as a unique terroir that they hope to highlight with their products. Rolling hills, cypress and redwood, and sea air off of the Pacific Ocean are all elements of the environment this creamery calls home.

Support students at California Polytechnic University Creamery

Students at Cal Poly learn by doing at the university creamery — established in 1903 — and caring for the 200-cow herd of Jersey and Holsteins. The cheese and ice cream they produce are sold within the university as well as in local markets in San Luis Obispo and other neighboring towns. These products are handmade by students who are employed part-time in the state-of-the-art facility. They also gain access to professionals in the dairy foods industry and enjoy learning from faculty of the highest reputation. According to the CDFA, California dairy farming produced $7.57 billion in cash receipts from milk production in 2021, making this a viable career for students entering the workforce.

The best part: The creamery has a drive-thru located in the dairy science complex where customers can purchase products such as Maple Sea Salt ice cream and Grand Gouda cheese. It is open most Fridays from noon to 4:00 p.m. Cheese pairing subscription boxes, gift boxes, and corporate gifting are also available. 

Check out the only dairy in El Dorado County, Jollity Farm

The goats at Jollity Farm go by names, not numbers, and guests will sometimes see them poking around the forest on a daily exploration. In fact, the animals here are treated more like family than business partners, and many "retirees" are kept around not for production's sake, but because they are valued creatures. Most of the herd at Jollity Farm consists of Alpine goats, with Alpine/Saanen mixed goats and a few standard Nubians as part of the picture. 

Jollity Farm is actually the merger of two separate businesses that came together when the owners of each got married! Slate Creek Farm and Jollity Farm still operate in their own ways, but under the umbrella of Jollity Farms to ease confusion. Jollity Farm Goat Dairy in Garden Valley is open for visitors and offers a farm stand for shopping, but Slate Creek Farm isn't open to the public but is the source for soaps and lotions made from goat milk. This is the only licensed dairy in El Dorado County, situated in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains, east of the city of Sacramento, so it's a unique gem from this part of the state.

Meet happy animals at Mojave Gold Inc.

It's not a marketing statement. Mojave Gold's stated mission is truly happy goats. What does that look like? They get to share organic pastures, free of pesticides and herbicides, with local bees who also benefit from the pristine environment of the Mojave Desert of Southern California. These happy creatures include Toggenburg, Oberhasli, Alpine, Saanen, and La Mancha goat types. 

The farm also produces pasture-raised lamb and whey-fed pigs — is one of the only certified farmers in the region offering USDA Custom Meats. For those who care about what goes into their food, Mojave Gold sets a high standard for transparency with plenty of information on breeds, as well as their diet and care, available on the farm's website. As for cheese, Mojave Gold produces several styles of chèvre as well as crescenza (also known as stracchino in Italy) and a unique cajeta goat milk caramel sauce.