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Sonoma Cheese Conference: Cheese Bonding

Last February I headed to my first cheese conference, learned the official handshake and secret word that let me through the door (I can't tell you what it was but can disclose that the secret word started with an L and ended with tose), and learned more about cheese and met more in the community than I ever thought I could in two days. Put on by Delice de la Vallée cheesmaker Sheana Davis, the Sonoma Cheese Conference holds a special place in my heart. It is small, intimate, and filled with folks who are as eager to share and soak up knowledge. And of course there is beer and wine to aid in soaking up all the knowledge. Remembering the amazing experience last year, I was happy to head up again. It would only be a day this time rather than two, but darn it, it would be worth it to get lost on Sonoma backgrounds in beautiful weather. Despite the five semi-trucks going 20 mph in front of me in a 45 mph zone that made me a tad late, the drive was gorgeous and thoughts of sugar plums and newly released cheese ran happily ran through my head.

I had a couple favorite sessions. The first was titled "Four Routes to Economic & Environmental Sustainability," and was just as much about dads bragging about their daughters as it was about cheese. Yes, I got a little ferklempt when Point Reyes dad said his daughters coming back to the farm made all the trying years worth it. The panel was Bob Giacomini of Point Reyes Blue, George Mc Clelland of Mc Clelland Dairy and Chris Roelli of Dunbarton Blue. It focused on how they built successful dairies that worked within their own environments- by making artisan dairy products and considering how to make agritourism work for them in the future.

All three dairy owners turned to cheesemaking after years in the milk business- either selling it or hauling it- because they wanted control over their own product in a wildly fluctuating market that rarely benefits the farmer. Artisan cheese, or in Mc Clelland's case, butter (cheese will come later for this family) gave them that control because it allowed them to set the final price of their milk- in cheese or butter form. Roelli said that at one point, his family was only making a one cent margin per pound of milk. Unlike commodity brick cheese or milk, artisan cheese prices are set by the farmer or cheesemaker, not dictated by the government or stock market. Now, both Roelli and Giacomini say that even in the recession they can sell as much cheese as they make at the price that they set. It's a great feeling. Yes, artisan cheese rocks on another account.

My favorite quote of the session was when Bob Giacomini shared his family's dairy slogan since 1938: "from She to Me." They still have it printed on old glass bottles displayed in the creamery.

Another favorite session was lead by Seana Doughty- "No Money, No Farm, No Problem." Remember her? She's the Bleating Heart cheesemaker that I interviewed on "It's Not You, it's Brie." in September. Once again, she was hilarious, witty, and inspiring. How many people would actually drive to Wisconsin in the middle of winter to pick up 10 sheep in a flatbed truck without stopping to sleep? I can count one on my index finger. She talked about her trip and how she started her own cheesemaking profession and her determination, story and humor made her slide slow featuring her trip to Wisconsin the best I had ever seen (not that my slide show experience was hard to top, but, now there will never even be competition).

The truth was, those were my two favorite sessions, but all sessions were great and the next day's looked amazing too. The American Cheese Society conference is fantabulous and grand and I'm very much looking forward to this year's, but the Sonoma Cheese Conference gives you a warm feeling and access to cheesemakers and writers that only a smaller conference can. It helps to round out the cheese experience by being cozy AND informative. Like a blanket with pages of non-fiction article stapled to it. Plus, it was mellow enough that Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's Creamery had time to sign one of his books for my boss, titled "A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Building a Great Business."

Thanks Sheana for putting it together!