Dairy Delight: 5th Annual Artisan Cheese Festival

Any way you slice it, America loves its cheese. And nowhere more, perhaps, than in Sonoma, which boasts California’s largest number of artisan cheesemakers.

Proof positive is the 5th Annual Artisan Cheese Festival, which, just as it sounds, is a celebration of all things fromage. Over four full days March 25-28, cheesemakers and cheese fans will converge at the Sheraton Sonoma County–Petaluma to taste cheeses, learn about cheeses, and attend cheese-themed parties.

To say that the gathering is popular is an understatement. Since the first cheese fest in 2007, more than 6,000 attendees have come to sample and discuss delicacies like Taupinière, Lamb Chopper, and Délice de la Vallée. The event, which started in a tent in the Sheraton’s parking lot, now spans to farms and venues all around Sonoma, capping off with an enormous all-day Artisan Cheese Marketplace that features than 65 artisan producers of local cheese, wine, and beer, plus extra treats like wood-fired pizza topped with, yep, cheese.

New this year is a Friday night dine-around, for cheese-centric meals at top Petaluma restaurants. Guests can enjoy a comfortable ride in a Pure Luxury coach, as continuous shuttles run from the Sheraton to a collection of eateries offering extravagant cheese and wine-filled experiences.

Throughout the weekend, the list of cheese purveyors reads like a who’s who. There’s Achadinha Cheese Co., Bellwether Farms, Central Coast Creamery, Cowgirl Creamery, and Cypress Grove Chèvre. Also showcased are Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese, Marin French Cheese, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., Sierra Nevada Cheese Co., and Laura Chenel’s Chèvre (Chenel produces that decadent Taupinière, an aged goat cheese with a bloomy rind and outer layer of ash, plus the new Blossom, studded with local figs and olives).

You can meet the cheesemakers, and talk to them about their secrets – at last year’s fest, for example, a curator at the Cowgirl Creamery plant in Petaluma shared his favorite natural molds of tasty penicillium candidum and geotrichum, while the director of Marin French Cheese Company, Petaluma’s historic 1865 creamery on the country road to Pt. Reyes, admitted that one of its most popular cheeses – its Mélange brie – came from a mistake of mixing goat and cow milk in the same fermenting tank, to unexpectedly delicious results. Hey, if you love cheese, that’s exciting stuff.

The festival begins with farm tours on Friday, though, as testament to the event’s success, the visits are already sold out, so it’s wait list only.

Saturday is a series of seminars, for everything from how to make cheese, to perfect wine pairings. Then, Saturday night, it’s the Curds, Cooks, & Cuvées moveable feast. In this walk-around dinner at the Sheraton, seven cheese-inspired courses are prepared by seven of Northern California’s preeminent chefs, all paired with wine.

On Sunday, plan for an all-day immersion into even more cheese, at the Marketplace.

All in all, it’s big, big cheese, and the event sells out fast, so buy your tickets now.

Details: artisancheesefestival.com.

Tip: In addition to the Friday night dine-around, Pure Luxury Transportation can chauffer all your cheese festivities. Plan to spend the entire weekend in Petaluma, and leave your car at home.

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