Today is the last day of the California Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma and I’m leaving with a wealth of new friends, a notebook of new ideas, and a suitcase full of brie and bacon. Life is good.

While Northern California is home to two of my favorite foods – Marin French Brie and Black Pig Bacon – I always find it surprisingly similar to Wisconsin, in that the people are friendly, the cows are – well, cows – and the cheesemakers are genuinely innovative and open. And, while the past decade has brought an artisan cheesemaking Renaissance to Wisconsin, the same is true for Sonoma and Marin Counties. With more than 20 artisan and farmstead cheesemakers all located in a relatively small area north of San Francisco, the area is developing a well-deserved reputation as the Normandy of Northern California.

That’s true in a large part due to the hard-working spirit of people like Joel and Carleen Weirauch, who just obtained a dairy processing permit and intend to make farmstead cheese in the coming weeks. The Weirauchs have built a small sheep flock and renovated a mobile classroom into a state-of-the-art creamery (inside pictured above). With no land of their own, everything they’re building has a hitch on the front and can be moved if need be. Even the sheep milk parlor is mobile, and can be moved to a larger land base if the Weirauchs outgrow the 60 acres they’re leasing north of Petaluma.

On a farm tour last Friday, the Weirauchs divided and conquered – Joel told us about building the creamery – “Putting up plaster really tests a marriage,” he said with a smile, and Carleen gave us the farm tour. My favorite part? Standing in the middle of 50 newborn pastured lambs and their mothers, all huddled under a blue tarp to shelter them from the rain. While I stood there taking notes on how the Weirauchs plan to build their flock from 25 to 75 milking ewes, dozens of lambs patiently chewed on my trench coat and butted my leg for attention, while their mothers nosed them into compliance.

With nearly all of their needed permits in place, the Weirauchs should be making an Alpine-style cheese within weeks. They’ll start with cow’s milk cheeses, using milk from a neighboring farm, and then transition to sheep’s milk cheeses once they have enough milk. Joel’s end goal is to also make a semi-soft cheese such as Reblochon. He spent a year in France studying traditional cheeses and feels he has the knowledge to make an authentic artisan, farmstead cheese in Northern California. I’m sure looking forward to seeing the end result!

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