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May 30, 2017

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Cheesy Tourist Stops
by Melinda Wright
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.4

It’s 2:00 pm. I’m stuck in traffic. Not your normal urban gridlock, thank God. I’m surrounded by vineyards, antique shops and rented Sebring convertibles packed with yuppies dressed like ex-Gap employees. I’m in Sonoma Wine Country. And tourism is the price I pay to live here. Another price I pay is that friends and family know I live here. So every weekend my house turns into a holiday hostel.

Which is why I’m moving seven miles an hour down Highway 12. I have “guests.” Now, I don’t remember signing the agreement, but as soon as you cross the border into “wine country” you’re somehow legally obligated to chauffeur guests to local wineries. Don’t get me wrong. I love wine, especially when it involves free samples. But these obligatory wine tasting tours can get a bit monotonous.

Fortunately, areas that produce fine wines tend to also produce fine cheeses. And Sonoma is no exception. Local artisan cheese makers are gaining notoriety, and the shops that sample their goods are making cheese tasting popular. Okay. It can’t replace wine tasting. But it’ll add a little variety to a day in wine country. And what better match can you find for that bottle for which you just overpaid.

CHEESEY SPOTS TO CHECK OUT IN SONOMA COUNTY:


Santa Rosa Farmer’s Market You’ll have to claw your way through the swarm of devotees devouring Spring Hill Jersey cheese samples. The quarks are heavenly, especially the lemon quark - it’s like eating a crustless cheesecake. Also look for their butter. But for chrissake, don’t waste it on baking. Save it for important stuff like...toast. All Spring Hill Jersey cheese is made from Jersey cows (imagine that), Spring Hill’s not-so-secret ingredient that gives the cheese a creamier, milder flavor. They also sell at Farmer’s Markets in Healdsburg and San Francisco, as well as their own retail shop.

Joe Matos Cheese Factory: It’s an unfactory, unstore really. You feel like you’ve turned up the wrong driveway. It’s just not a tourist stop - no logo sweatshirts, caps or postcards available. In fact, they sell only one cheese: St. George. Matos rewards those who find the place with a great price, about a third of what your friendly upscale cheesemonger charges, so be sure to take home a good-size chunk.

Sonoma Cheese Factory: Some poor slobs actually want the tourist experience - the tacky visors, over-priced deli sandwiches, crying babies... That’s why God created the town of Sonoma. Located on the square, the first thing you’ll notice when you get inside the Sonoma Cheese Factory is commotion. Don’t panic. It’s standard atmosphere. You’re gonna need to push your way through the busload of obese tourists from Kansas to find the 10 small tubs of samples. You may witness a few couples eating from the tubs as if they were troughs. Again, don’t panic. It’s standard fare. Sonoma Cheese knows jack, the traditional version and some with twists - onion, garlic, red pepper...you get the idea. The Mediterranean jack is crumbly, kinda feta-ish. If you don’t mind noshing awkwardly shaped cheese chunks (instead of picnic-perfect wedges), head to the back of the shop for the discounted scraps and ends.

Vella Cheese Shop: The best thing about this place is that it allows you to check out the cheese aging process. Vella knows jack, especially the drier version. They also have flavored jacks (think herby), cheddars and a superb, tangy Italian table cheese. Impress your friends by having a three-pound uber-wheel of jack shipped home. Just don’t do it in mid-summer.

Marin French Cheese Company: On the outskirts of Petaluma, this place offers cheese with a bite. But it’s not as pungent as French stinky cheese, the kind that makes Americans wonder what the hell’s wrong with those people. The Yellow Buck Camembert comes in a rind that looks like brains. Umm, nummy. Cheese wimps can find respite in the dainty and mellow breakfast cheese.

After all your touring and tasting, unwind at the picnic area by the lake, and enjoy some of your over-priced wine and cheese purchases of the day. After all, Sonoma County knows that good wine doesn’t come from a box, and now you know that good cheese doesn’t either.

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