On the Cheese and Wine Trail in Sonoma and Marin, California

I routinely gush about our beautiful neighbor counties of Marin and Sonoma, so it should come as no surprise that I’d jump at the opportunity to join on a two-day trip to learn about (and sample) some of the delicious cheese and wine coming out of California in such a beautiful setting.

And while I’d wager that most people associate winemaking with regions like Sonoma, there’s a growing number of small specialty cheesemakers producing handmade, artisan cheeses in the pastoral coastlands and mountains of Marin and Sonoma counties. In fact, California has been making cheese as long as it has been making wine.

Aron and I have made a point of heading north and out that way—to points the likes of Point Reyes Farmstead, Straus Ranch, and Cowgirl Creamery—whenever opportunity strikes. And his parents (his dad retired from UC Davis after years of dairy science, and worked with many of the farms when they first started making cheese, and his mother is also a prominent food scientist) even honeymooned along those roads!

So if you ever happen to find yourself in this part of the state, I highly recommend you make a point to drive through those romantic pastures. There’s actually a Cheese Trail map with a list of farms (throughout the state) which you can tour, and list of suggested driving loops!

For my part, I appreciated the behind-the-scenes look I got with Real California Milk on this visit: I was once again impressed with the beauty and the local bounty of this place I’m lucky to call home, and I was moved by the multigenerational stories of the farmers we met.

Here are some of the highlights from my tour… 

I drove west to Sonoma just after lunchtime; it was a short one-hour drive to The Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa. I’m always on the lookout for new places to stay with Aron (and the kids) and I took immediate note of the location—directly across from Sonoma Train Town and a short bike or shuttle-ride to Sonoma Plaza.

I ended up taking advantage of the pool and the restaurant on site that afternoon and evening (plus, there was a cheese plate waiting), but Sonoma’s downtown square is one of my favorites: it’s charming (vintage movie house—check), walkable, and has a nice mix of new tasting rooms and historical points of interest (think Mexican military outpost, fleeting frontier republic, Spanish Mission village).

If I were ambitious, it would be a great place to get up and walk in the morning, but sleeping in was a perk of this midweek escape that I wasn’t going to miss!

Our first destination after we all met—there were about 15 of us joining those from the California Milk Advisory Board—was Repris Wines on Moon Mountain. I was especially excited when I learned we were headed there as the winery isn’t well known (it’s only open by appointment and the wines are only sold directly), but the views from Moon Mountain looking out all the way to San Pablo Bay are legendary.

We followed a one-lane road a few miles up the mountain and then took an ATV up to the ridge overlooking their 300-acre property.

Ivan, our guide for the tour, gave us the backstory of the winery—layers of iron-rich basalt and volcanic ash (from eruptions millions of years ago) form the soil base and the old lava flows are visible from the ridge.

It was a completely unique tasting experience—I really wished Aron had had the chance to join!

Next, after a tour through Repris’ 18,000 square feet of caves—bored and blasted from the hillside with marks from the gigantic drills still visible—we came to a candle-lit table with rows of wines and plates of cheese waiting. It was a gorgeous scene, and the cool cave was welcome on the nearly triple-digit day.

There, Janet Fletcher, a cookbook author and cheese-appreciation expert, met us and took us through a cheese and wine-pairing course. She gave us tips for tasting—and smelling!—as we worked our way from Ricotta to Triple Cream, Cheddar to blue, and answered our questions about pairing as we worked our way down the row of wine glasses.

It was also here that we learned that the Real California Milk Seal certifies that the product is made from 100% California Milk—and that nearly half of all of California milk goes to make California cheese.

Next, we moved up into one of the winery’s tasting spaces (with more incredible views) for a cheeseboard-making demonstration by Marissa Mullen, of That Cheese Plate and Cheese By Numbers. She had come up with a building system for a putting together a beautiful cheese and shared her process.

One of my favorite takeaways? Start with folded salumi to form a little river bed, and then build around it. It also doesn’t hurt to have a few edible flowers to top it all off.

I am definitely making more of these!

We had a short break back in the sunshine, but were fine keeping cool in the caves: Sarah Nep met us next, and showed us how to carve cheese. Her creations were incredible. It’s so much harder than it even looks!

We all played around a bit with carving planes and graters and I tried to replicate our A-Frame cabin. It wasn’t the prettiest but the kids were so excited when I brought it home.

Back down the mountain, and after a brief rest at the hotel, we joined again (at that lovely golden hour), for the short drive into downtown Sonoma.

Café La Haye—a small, Michelin-recommended restaurant just off Sonoma Plaza for 23 years—was our destination for dinner. Its owner, Saul Gropman, came around to welcome us with wine as each dish arrived. I was excited when we started off with a bottle from Hudson Ranch! Each plate featured local food (all sourced within 60 miles)—and, of course, California-made cheese.

Afterward, we bid a quick goodnight knowing that we had more tasting and touring to come.

Early the following day, we checked out and drove into Petaluma to see the new brand new processing plant for Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese.

I’ve written about Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese (known for their classic blue) before, when Aron and I had a Tomales Bay and Point Reyes daytrip, and drove out to their farm—Giacomini Ranch—for dinner at The Fork, their class and event space.  They have many wonderful cheeses that they make (and we got to sample them all), but I’m especially partial to their Gouda and their newer Bay Blue.

We talked about their focus on sustainability and the care of their herd—the farm has sustained their family for nearly four generations even though the cheese company was founded in 2000—before touring their processing facility.

Then, we all suited up in booties and hair nets and lab coats before getting a peek at how the milk is processed and turned into gold. Literally: we found ourselves standing among rows and rows of gold-wax-hued wheels of Toma cheese (each spun and wiped by a new robot they called Tina Turner)!

Next we followed the winding Red Hill Road to Marin French Cheese—the longest continuously operating cheese facility in the United States (dating to 1865). Their tasting room makes a great stop if you’re in the area—there are free tastings, picnic supplies, and a cafe.

I’ll never forget first sampling their breakfast cheese when we chose what to serve at our wedding! They’ve been making the iconic Petite Breakfast since 1865. A fresh Brie, it skips the aging room, and has the flavor of creamy cheese curds. It and their Schloss—a washed-rind cheese on the other end of the flavor spectrum—are my two favorites.

Their land is a scenic expanse of grassy meadows shady ponds. You could feel the cool coastal breezes drifting in from the Pacific Ocean, just ten miles away.

In fact the views just get better and better as you drive along these roads. Since 1980, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), a broad coalition of ranchers, environmentalists, and community leaders, has protected 86 family farms and ranches on more than 54,000 acres in this area, which is of course good for the farmers but also for the lucky tourist who passed through these fields—often with only a cow or two in sight. Depending on the season, they may be lush and green, speckled with wildflowers, or glowing gold.

One of the farms whose family has joined with MALT is the Lafranchi family ranch. Over 100 years ago their family made their home on the 1,150 acre ranch in Nicasio, and what really came across here, as with at each of the other places we stopped, was a strong sense of stewardship, and a labor to preserve the tradition of farming for the next generation.

99% of California dairies are family-owned and this visit was a clear reminder that real food comes from real people. There was a farmer behind each of those cheeses we tasted, someone you could ask directly about his or her practices.

I particularly enjoyed hearing about the sustainable practices the Lafranchi ranch employs and prides themselves on—from internal composting to rotational grazing.

The milk that comes from their herd is sold to Clover-Stornetta or brought over—fresh from the morning milking—into their creamery to begin the transformation into Nicasio Valley Cheeses. So we did of course get to taste those as well, at their store (number 48 on the cheese trail map) in the tiny hamlet of Nicasio.

I had many favorites, but chose to bring home a 8-inch wheel of their Locarno to share with Aron: a delicious, creamy brie that gets creamier as it ages or warms, and we ate it with crusty bread and a spoon.

From there, we all wished each other safe travels and went on our way. I followed the roads back through the hills, pulling over occasionally to snap yet another photo of the views.

And in my head, I was already plotting my next visit.

Have you ever gone on a cheese tasting trail? I think this would be a really unique (and delicious) way to tour the state! 

P.S. Nearby: a daytrip to Petaluma, a family weekend on the Sonoma Coast, oysters and cheese in Tomales Bay, and a romantic weekend in Calistoga. Also, some creative ways to pair cheese, like with beer—or whiskey!

Thank you to Real California Milk for sponsoring this trip and providing all of my accommodations during my stay. This trip was part of a partnership with the California Milk Advisory Board, but all opinions are my own. 

[Photos mine with exception: group photo and langoustine c/o Alexandra Heston Photography]


Related posts:

Travel Guides

Browse By Category