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Best of Show cheese 2nd place PicmonkeyPt Reyes Bay Blue, judged 2nd Place in Best of Show competition

by Dan Clarke

Sacramento, CA August 2, 2014 - Never have I seen so much cheese. By the time I left Exhibit Hall C in the Sacramento Convention Center it was filled with tasters. Most seemed to be involved with cheese in some professional way, but there were media types and folks who just liked cheese.

Last night's tasting was the culmination of the 31st annual meeting of the American Cheese Society (ACS). Any organization which brackets several days of academic sessions with a Tuesday evening California Cheesemaker Pubcrawl and Friday's concluding Festival of Cheese is ok in my book. As with winemaking and brewing, substantial science is involved in cheesemaking, but the products of all these endeavors are designed to give pleasure to the end users. Cheesemakers, I discovered, are every bit as fun-loving as their brewer and winemaker cousins. Maybe even more so.

A Keynote Chat

California is home to a substantial dairy industry, but until recent years it has lagged behind other states like Vermont and Wisconsin in its attention to cheese. Two fellows who know as much as anyone about the evolution of food in this state open Wednesday's sessions with what is billed as a “Keynote Chat.” Narsai David is a former restaurateur, PBS television personality and current KCBS radio commentator. Darrell Corti is owner of Corti Brothers, a retailer of wine and specialty foods. They trace the evolution of California's cuisine over the last half-century in a low-key and anecdotal style. “I don't know what we can tell you,” Darrell begins, “You're the experts.” Indeed, the banquet room is filled with cheesemakers with great knowledge of technical processes. However, few, if any, have the perspective on America's changing food scene that Darrell and Narsai can provide.

Darrell and Narsai PicmonkeyDarrell and Narsai--a wealth of experience

It may be a given that California can produce food and wine of world standard. But that's now. It wasn't always the case. Narsai references a blind tasting at his Pot Luck restaurant in the early 70's. Eight wines from Chardonnay grapes were poured—four great Montrachets and four Sonoma Chardonnay from Hanzell. “None of us could say which wine was which,” he reminisces. “We had a great Chardonnay that was every bit as good as great white Burgundy.” In that era Gourmet magazine observed that Pot Luck and Chez Panisse were doing “California Cuisine,” he says. “We were doing what we felt like doing. We simply were not (constrained by) the rules and limitations that burdened French chefs.” Such freedom may have led to some fads and excesses, but it also provided a sharp learning curve.

Darrell Corti is celebrating 50-years as a professional in food and wine retailing, but his experience predates that, as he grew up in the family business. “Cheese, much like winemaking, has changed. Sometimes for the better, “ he observes. “And sometimes not.” As the breadth and diversity of American cheesemaking has expanded, so have the problems and opportunities for marketing these cheeses. Noting that California wine names have evolved from European place names such as Burgundy and Chianti to wines labeled by the grapes used (Pinot Noir, Sangiovese) or by proprietary names, Corti suggests that American cheesemakers might want to develop nomenclature that wouldn't imply their products are copies or derivatives of time-honored European cheeses. If quality is good we should want our own identity, he suggests.

“We are doing things now that are the envy of the world,” Narsai David concludes. “And you are to be applauded for the direction that the American Cheese Society and all of you are a part of.”

Tbl Setting CA wine and cheese PicmonkeyThe why of wine with cheese

Wine and Cheese

The pairing of wine and cheese is accepted as tradition. But maybe not all combinations are equal. A seminar entitled “California Wine & Cheese: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why” brings experiential learning, as well as academic. Anita Oberholster of the Viticulture and Enology Department at UC Davis and Kirstin Jackson, a wine and cheese consultant, author and educator, take a sold out room through a tasting of four cheeses and four wines—two whites and two reds. Opportunity to taste a wine with the cheese likely to be the most complementary, as well as one less likely to work, is a palate-opening experience, especially when accompanied by explanation of the chemistry involved.

Winners, but Maybe no LosersBleating Heart cheesemakers PicmonkeySeana Doughty and Dave Dalton took blue ribbon for Bleating Heart's "Fat Bottom Girl"

A big part of these annual meetings is the awards. This year there are 1685 entries from 248 companies. Submissions come from 39 states of the US, four Canadian provinces and even the nation of Colombia. Ribbons are awarded to 325 of these entries. The awards ceremony is held Thursday afternoon in the ballroom of the adjacent Hyatt Regency Hotel. Waiting for the doors to open, cheese people gathered in the lobby and seem in remarkably good humor. An award can make a big difference. A cheesemaker from the Midwest tells me his fairly new company was out of money a few years ago when a blue ribbon was such a spur to sales that they turned the corner and are now stable in their eighth year of business. Once inside the room the audience whoops, hollers and waves pennants. They're having a great time and are partial to entrants from their own states, but they seem genuinely happy for every winner.

Festival of Cheese

Steve Graham pours at cheese tasting PicmonkeySteve Graham pours J Lohr Pinot NoirOrganizers have arranged for the media to have a half-hour head start to check out the displays at this finale. We may enter at 5:30. In this staged admission, ACS members are welcome at 6:00 and the general public from 7:00 forward. Vendors of complementary products, such as charcuterie, crackers and beer line the perimeter of this room and provide samples, but the centerpiece of this event is the cheese. Displays are attractively presented, all products are identified as to the category entered, the name of the cheese and the company that produced it. Those who've received honors in Thursday's judging proudly display their ribbons. Thirsty, I scan the tables beyond the cheeses and notice a friend of mine. Steve Graham, a wine steward for Nugget Markets, is pouring medal winners from the recent California State Fair wine judging. Nugget also has cheeses displayed and can make suggestions of which to sample with each wine. At the other end of the Nugget table are beer experts pouring tastes similarly paired with different cheeses.

All the cheeses taste good to me. Their quality is excellent and the variety is endless. I have a good time, but almost envy the cheese professionals who're here. They're so much more cheese-savvy than I am and I hope that they're enjoying the moment, more than analyzing too closely. Cheesemaking—it sounds like a pretty good gig. Sort of like a writer whose work requires he sample foods and wines.

Sunday, 06 January 2013 02:52

March 24-26, 2017 Artisan Cheese Festival

Region: North Coast     City: Petaluma     Contact: www.artisancheesefestival.com

San Luis Obispo County has all the ingredients for a delicious culinary adventure. Area farms and orchards SLO Snacks and Wine SMALLproduce fresh, seasonal fruits, nuts and vegetables. Ranches raise natural beef, lamb, pork, and chicken, while coastal Pacific waters offers more fresh choices for discerning palates. A gourmand's playground, the dining scene has exploded with new restaurants showcasing innovative dishes prepared by chefs choosing local, organic and sustainable food available in San Luis Obispo County. Complementing the culinary experience are award-winning vintages produced by the many wineries dotting the Paso Robles wine country and San Luis Obispo County landscape.

Fastest Growing Wine Region

San Luis Obispo County is the third largest and fastest growing fine wine region in California.  There are two distinct wine grape growing areas - Paso Robles and Edna Valley/Arroyo Grande - with over 200 wineries and 125 tasting rooms featuring award-winning vintages and innovative varietal blends.  It is the ideal destination for wine lovers.

The long, hot summers and cool nights, and chalk/limestone hillsides of Paso Robles wine country yield award-winning reds, especially superb Zinfandels and Rhône varietals.  The cool climate and marine sediment of San Luis Obispo's Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande wine regions combine to produce some of the most highly regarded rich, buttery Chardonnay grapes in California wine country.

Annual wine celebrations include: Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival (March); Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles (April), the world's largest celebration of Rhône variety wines; Paso Robles Wine Festival (May), the largest outdoor wine tasting in California; Roll Out the Barrels Weekend in San Luis Obispo (June); Pinot and Paella Festival in Templeton (June); and Harvest Wine Weekend in Paso Robles (November), featuring winery open houses. (Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance www.pasowine.com; San Luis Obispo Vintners www.slowine.com)

If time is limited and one prefers wine touring on foot rather than by car, the Paso Robles Inn offers a one-night Taste Around package pointing visitors to six of the town's City Park wine tasting rooms with complimentary taste certificates, as well as tastes and a gift from a local olive company and artesian cheese maker. Including breakfast for two, the package starts at $205 based on date of stay. (www.pasoroblesinn.com)

Sunset SAVOR the Central Coast - a Foodie's Disneyland! SLO savor logo cmyk  SMALL

Sunset magazine and the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau will partner for the third annual Sunset SAVOR the Central Coast celebration of food, wine and good living September 27-30, 2012. The event showcases area winemakers, chefs and artisanal food producers and Sunset magazine's expert editors guide attendees through outdoor adventures and farm excursions. Over 7,000 visitors are expected to attend this year's event and enjoy the beauty, bounty and flavor of this largely unspoiled region. Special evening events, like Paso Robles' Paso Glow will be complemented by culinary seminars by celebrity chefs on cooking with local, seasonal ingredients during the Main Event at the Santa Margarita Ranch on September 29 and 30. The four-day foodie delight kicks off with a special food and wine extravaganza at the Central Coast's crown jewel, Hearst Castle, and also includes the Sunset 2012 International Wine Competition in Pismo Beach. (www.savorcentralcoast.com)

Wine Country Cuisine

With so many wineries, farms, ranches, and two fishing ports in San Luis Obispo County, it's only natural that country dining. With local bounty to point to, the farm-to-table movement is alive and well, as local chefs support local farmers to make sustainable culinary masterpieces available. Leaders of the movement in Paso Robles include Thomas Hill Organics, Artisan, Il Cortile, Villa Creek and Farmstand 46.

During the month of January, more than 30 restaurants prepare special menus at appetizing prices during Restaurant Month.  For 30 days, participating restaurants feature three-course prix fixe menus for only $30, plus tax, per person.  Meals can be paired with award-winning wines from Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo wine country for an additional charge. (www.sanluisobispocounty.com)

Straight from the Farm

Farmer's markets can be found throughout San Luis Obispo Country almost every day of the week. The one that set the standard for all others in California, however, is the Farmer's Market in downtown San Luis Obispo on Thursday night from 6-9 p.m. Six blocks on Higuera Street (between Osos and Nipomo Streets) are closed SLO vegetables Stock 3501073 SMALL to traffic and feature booths lining both sides of the street selling produce, fresh flowers, barbecue ribs, chicken and sausages, sandwiches, pizza, arts and crafts. Music and dancers often add to the ambiance, and shops and restaurants along Higuera Street stay open late. Another notable farmer's market to check out is on Saturdays in the quaint city park in Templeton.

For the foodie wanting to discover the source of the fresh ingredients that make up their San Luis Obispo County dining experience, take an Ag Adventures tour. From chickens and eggs, fresh seasonally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs (pick your own in many cases), wine, olive oil, and lavender (yes, lavender is edible), San Luis Obispo County farms, ranches, orchards, nurseries, wineries and farm stays offer something for everyone. (www.agadventures.org) Also check out Mt. Olive Organic Farm (Paso Robles), Jack Creek Farms (Templeton), Stoltey's Bee Farm (Atascadero) and Central Coast Lavender Farms (Paso Robles).

What is an Olallieberry?

Resembling a blackberry, the Olallieberry is about two-thirds blackberry and one-third European Red Raspberry. It is the primary fruit grown by the Linns and is featured in Olallieberry products that are popular items at their Fruit Bin Restaurant and Original Farm Store in Cambria, including Olallieberry pies, preserves, dessert wine, oat bar, curd and syrup. (www.linnsfruitbin.com)

Olive Oil

San Luis Obispo County has become a major producer of award-winning premium olive oils featuring a wide variety of olives, styles and oils infused with lemon, orange, tangerine and lime. A large festival dedicated to all things olive (plus a rich selection of gourmet vinegars to complement the oils) is held annually in the downtown City Park in Paso Robles in August. (www.olivefestival.com)

For an instructive olive oil tasting experience, visit We Olive gourmet shops in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, (www.weolive.com) or scenic Pasolivo (Willow Creek Olive Ranch), long-time producer of local award-winning extra virgin olive oils in Paso Robles that has a tasting room and boasts the largest and newest olive press of its kind on the Central Coast. (www.pasolivo.com) Other local olive oil producers to check out include Tiber Canyon Ranch (SLO), Mt. Olive Organics and Olea Farms (Paso Robles).

For another nutty twist, taste walnut oil produced by Limerock Orchards at their stunning walnut orchard in Paso Robles. (www.limerockorchards.com)

Catch of the Day

Commercial fishing boats moored in San Luis and Morro Bays provide local restaurants with fresh seasonal local seafood, including halibut, sanddabs, sole, crabs and albacore.

Located in Cayucos, The Abalone Farm is the largest and oldest producer of California Red Abalone in the United States. The aquaculture facility, a proud participant in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, offers a legal and sustainable source for this prized seafood.  The Abalone Farm's Ocean Rose Abalone is freshly harvested, cleaned, tenderized and vacuum packed for weekly shipments to customers. (www.abalonefarm.com)

Authentic Flavor of the American West SLO Hearst Pool IMG 0472 SMALLWilliam Randolph Hearst's pool.

San Luis Obispo County has a history tied to the American West, including vast rolling hills populated by cattle and cowboys. For natural beef with an extraordinary flavor, foodies should try Hearst Ranch Beef. Raised on the Hearst Ranch surrounding Hearst Castle and the Jack Ranch in Cholame, the cattle are grass-fed, grass finished, humanely raised and never given growth hormones or antibiotics. Hearst Ranch products include aged steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs, beef jerky, plus sauces and olive oils. (www.hearstranch.com)

Speaking of Hearst, Friends of Hearst Castle offer two very special evening food and wine events on the Enchanted Hill: Twilight on the Terrace on June 2, 2012 and Enchanted Evening on September 22, 2012. (http://www.friendsofhearstcastle.org/special_events.asp)

Feel Good Chocolate

Sweet Earth Chocolates, based in San Luis Obispo, is one of a handful of Organic and Fair Trade chocolate makers in the United States. The company was founded by Tom Neuhaus, a California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo Food Sciences professor, trained French chef, chocolatier and humanitarian, who also teaches the only university level class on chocolate in the United States. What makes Sweet Earth Chocolates different from other chocolate makers is their advocacy for Fair Trade and the West African cocoa farmer; Neuhaus visits West Africa every year to help out the farmers who live in poverty despite supplying America with 75 percent of its cocoa. The benefits of Organic and Fair Trade are the all-natural ingredients used to produce the chocolate - no slave labor, no chemicals, no pesticides. (www.sweetearthchocolates.com)

Say Cheese

Visitors to Paso Robles can taste a unique selection of exceptional handcrafted cow, sheep and goat milk cheeses from around the world at the Vivant Fine Cheese tasting room. They offer nearly 200 kinds of cheese that can be paired with Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County wines and beers. An added incentive to visit, Vivant's building basement houses aging caves, the first of their kind on the West Coast. (www.vivantfinecheese.com)

Happy Acres Family Farm is a California state licensed working goat dairy that is new and unique to the Central Coast. Happy Acres started with one special goat named Stella, whom owner Stephanie Simonin got to help feed orphan calves her husband brought home. Stella still leads the ever expanding herd of goats, today made up of four unique breeds totaling over 200 head. Happy Acres' goat milk is all natural and hormone-free. Stop by the farm in Templeton to taste the cheese or pick up some goat milk products from the Happy Acres farm stand. (www.happyacresfamilyfarm.net)


San Luis Obispo County is known as wine country, but beer enthusiasts can please their palates here too with distinctive beers and ales produced and poured locally. Breweries to explore include Firestone Walker (Paso Robles),Tap It Brewing (San Luis Obispo), Pismo Brewing (Pismo Beach) and Dunbar Brewing (Santa Margarita Ranch). A brew pub not to miss is The Pour House in Paso Robles. (www.pasopourhouse.com)

The county hosts two beer festivals. The California Festival of Beers on Memorial Day weekend in San Luis Obispo benefits the volunteer Hospice of San Luis Obispo (www.californiafestivalofbeers.com) and is now in its 27th year, while the new Firestone Walker International Beer Festival takes place during Pioneer Day Festival in Paso Robles in June (www.firestonebeerfest.com).

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

The 11-acre Cal Poly Organic Farm on the campus of California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) San Luis Obispo has as its primary mission to provide undergraduate students a place to experience hands-on learning in organic and sustainable farming and gardening practices. Vegetable production includes dozens of varieties of produce that are marketed in several direct sales events like farmer's markets, a campus farm market and to local vendors and restaurants. Produce that is not sold is donated to the Food Bank. In addition to produce, various organic products (honey, chocolate bars) plus cheeses and meats are marketed under the Cal Poly brand. Members of the Cal Poly Organic Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) receive a weekly "harvest box" of fresh seasonal produce. (www.aeps.calpoly.edu/organics)


(TravMedia.com contributed to this article)


Editor's note: Links to the websites of San Luis Obispo County, as well as links to hundreds of lodging and dining options there, can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

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