Just wending your way through less-traveled, bucolic farmland is enough of a reason to visit the back roads of Sonoma and Marin, Norcal’s cheese country, especially in spring when hillsides come alive in many hues of green. Add in tasting artisan cheese along the way, and you have the makings of a day trip full of delightful surprises.
The Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail offers numerous attractions: farm tours, dairy tours, picnic grounds, historic buildings and more. And then there’s the cheese. In the farmstead cheese movement, you’ll find goat, sheep and cow’s milk cheeses; and even cheeses made from water buffalo and bison milk.
Along the trail, one can meet the makers of handcrafted cheese produced in small batches, and sample the many styles and varieties that capture the flavor of the region. Attention to detail begins with the land, and continues with the animals, the milk and the processessing, all of which impart flavor to the end product. In visiting the tasting rooms and especially taking a tour, one begins to understand the passion behind the product.
The trail winds through100 miles of countryside, with 10 open-to-the-public tasting rooms, 11 open seasonally or by appointment and another 12 that are not open for public visits but are identified on the trail map. Our day trip itinerary included two stops in Petaluma and two in Sonoma. Depending on your itinerary, and whether you are incorporating tours, picnicking or purchasing a meal, three or four tasting rooms is enough for a very pleasant day trip.
The trail winds through Point Reyes, Marshall, Valley Ford, Tomales, Two Rock and other picturesque communities. The Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail map can be downloaded from cheesetrail.org, or picked up at any of the public tasting room locations. The map has information about area cheesemakers, farm tours, cheese making classes, and suggests itineraries, purchasing options and more.
Photo courtesy Petaluma Creamery
Fresh ice cream at Petaluma creamery
We started at Petaluma Creamery, where self-tasting is conducted right out of the deli case using sampling toothpicks. Our favourites included the Organic White Cheddar and Organic Pesto Jack. But for us, the hands-down highlight of the visit was the wonderful house-made Meyer Lemon Ice Cream.
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Picnic grounds, Marin French Cheese
Next we drove west to Marin French Cheese Company, which has the distinction of being the oldest continuous operating cheese factory in the U.S. We spent some time walking around the lush grounds, and then enjoyed tasting classic and flavoured Brie and Camembert varieties. Visitors can also assemble the makings of a great California-style lunch. Tasting much better than it sounds, the Peppercorn Brie was a surprise favourite, and not surprisingly, we walked away with a couple rounds of the award-winning Triple Crème Brie.
Freestone Artisan Cheese Store
Heading to Sonoma, we stopped in at Vella Cheese, which we discovered 20 years ago, a couple blocks east of the plaza. We’ve been enjoying the Dry Jack ever since. In a historic stone building, the tasting room feels cozy and intimate; a real pleasure to visit. We ended the day at Epicurean Connection, a small café and store just off the square where visitors can peruse the many gourmet condiments for sale, enjoy a sandwich, salad or cheese plate, and sample cheese tastings of the day. We enjoyed two fresh, delicately flavoured goat cheeses, the best we’ve ever had.
Spring Hill Cheese / Petaluma Creamery
Cow and goat’s milk cheese
Dairy tours, tasting room, café
711 Western Ave. Petaluma
Mon-Fri 6am-7pm, Sat-Sun 8am-6pm
Located near downtown Petaluma, Spring Hill Jersey Cheese makes organic, handcrafted artisan estate cheeses. 45-minute guided tours (check the website for times). Sample the cheese at Petaluma Creamery across the street, and 19 flavors of fresh house-made ice cream, including Meyer Lemon, Lavender and Blackberry Swirl. Sandwiches and freshly made pizza are available.
Marin French Cheese
Cow’s milk cheese
7510 Pt. Reyes Petaluma Road, Petaluma
Dairy tours, tasting room, store, picnic area
Marin French Cheese has continuously produced Brie and Camembert on the 700-acre Hicks Valley Ranch for almost 150 years. The cheese is handmade from local dairy farms from Jersey, Guernsey and Holstein cows. As you near it, the iconic “Rouge et Noir” sign entices the visitor to one of the most picturesque picnic areas around. The tasting room includes many varieties to sample, picnic fare, a retail store and deli.
Cow, goat and sheep’s milk cheese
Cheese shop, café, beer & wine bar
122 West Napa Street, Sonoma
Mon-Wed 10–8, Thurs-Sat 10-10, Sun 10-4
Epicurean Connection is located just off Sonoma’s Plaza, so it’s easy to incorporate shopping into the itinerary. Owned by food educator and cheese maker Sheana Davis, this small café offers cheese tastings, American artisan cheese plates and gourmet products along with soups, sandwiches and crepes, all with a cheese focus. Cheese samples of the day are brought to the table; live music Thurs–Sun 1-3pm.
Vella Cheese Company
Cow’s milk cheese
Tasting room, store
315 2nd St E, Sonoma
Famous for its Dry Jack, Vella has been making award-winning cheese in Sonoma since 1931. No animal rennet and a minimal amount of salt are hallmarks of the cheese. The tasting room is tucked inside a historic stone building that was built in 1904, originally meant for a brewery, a couple blocks off the plaza. High Moisture and Dry Jack cheeses, specialty Cheddars and Italian-style cheeses are available for tasting.