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The California Artisan Cheese Guild: A Brief Retrospective

Posted by Cowgirl Creamery on
The California Artisan Cheese Guild: A Brief Retrospective

Our American Cheese Society was formed by a casual group of graduate students at Cornell University who were teaching each other to make better cheese than what was made in the 1980’s.  A national movement (dedicated to improving the quality, sources and knowledge about cheese), was launched in United States.


For two decades, the American Cheese Society grew in size, its members slowly becoming recognized as national experts on small production cheesemaking and dairying. The number of artisan cheeses being made in the US grew from a handful in 1980 to over 2,000 in 2018, too many to keep track of in the expansive US geography, divided into 50 states.  As the industry grew, the cheese kept getting better and better.  The efforts were working.


Regional Cheese Guilds began to form and California’s was well-organized and well-funded with help from the Russian River winemakers, the California Milk Marketing board and UC Extension.  The first meeting was organized by Clark Wolf who hosted The Russian River Wine and Food Festival in 2004.  He wanted to showcase the bounty of West Sonoma County, home to some of the best farm products and artisan cheese in the state. 


Clark needed to find a non-profit organization who would act as an umbrella to the budding cheese guild, so he called Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farm.  She offered the “goat insemination account” at the National Dairy Goat Association as a way to bank the money under a 5013C non-profit status. At Clark’s event, Ig Vella [Vella Cheese Company] and Laura Chenel [Laura Chenel's Chèvre] took center stage.  They were the pioneers.  The first to stake a claim as artisan cheesemakers in the Golden State.


Our guild evolved from this first event and grew from 5 cheesemakers to 25, most on dairies that had been passed down through the generations.  Cowgirl Creamery has always taken a leadership role in the organization, but everybody who made cheese was in on it.  The Giacominis [Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company] were involved, the Callahans [Bellwether Farms], the Fiscalinis [Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese] and the Lafranchis [Nicasio Valley Cheese].  All were teachers and students of cheese.  It was a collaboration.


Lynn Devereaux, Maureen Cunnie, Juliana Uruburu and Daphne Zepos launched the education effort at College of Marin in 2006 which became popular with all segments of the industry as well as with cheese enthusiasts.


Next came the California Artisan Cheese Festival, hosted by Tom Birsall at his Petaluma Sheraton.  This event put our cheesemakers on the map with fans from all over the state making the pilgrimage to learn about the art and science of cheesemaking, how to cook with cheese and even how to milk a cow.  The Fest was called off this year because of COVID, and it will come back with renewed energy as the California Artisan Cheese Guild hunkers down to re-imagine this next phase of cheese creativity.

- Sue Conley, Cowgirl Creamery Co-Founder 


Interested in joining the Cheese Guild as an enthusiast or donor? California's artisan cheese industry needs your support. Consider donating here, or purchasing our Good Neighbors: Victory Cheese Box which includes a $10 contribution to promote marketing and education efforts for area cheesemakers.

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