Tucked in the back of a local restaurant in downtown Winters is a nondescript room revealing an enticing view: floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with 10-pound wheels of cheese.
“One of the things we’re playing around with in here is how many different types of cheese we can age in one aging room,” says Danny Turkovich, cheesemaker and founder of Winters Cheese Co., which ages a dozen or so varieties, including Caerphilly, gouda and sage cheddar, at Preserve Public House.
The company is part of a small but growing contingent of cheesemakers in the greater Sacramento region. As consumers’ taste for artisanal cheeses has increased, so too has the supply. Some liken the artisan cheese industry to the state’s wine industry decades ago. Others, like Seana Doughty, see an even more apt comparison to the growth of California’s craft beer industry in the past 20 years.
“Then, people were just sort of waking up to the idea that there’s more to beer than the macrobrews,” says Doughty, president of the California Artisan Cheese Guild and owner of Bleating Heart Cheese in Sonoma County. “We’re finding the same thing with cheese now. There’s been an explosion in the artisan cheese industry, and it’s been not only in people making the cheese, but also the people buying it. Consumers are becoming more aware that, here in California, we are in a prime region for fantastic cheese products.”
Although much of the industry’s growth so far has been in the Bay Area, Doughty anticipates more artisan cheesemakers popping up in the Capital Region.
Turkovich, for his part, never envisioned himself a cheesemaker. Growing up on his family’s farm outside Winters, he left for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo planning for a career outside agriculture. But with a brother studying viticulture there, Turkovich found himself intrigued by the wine field and decided to study it as well.
But it was through a part-time job at the Cal Poly Creamery that Turkovich discovered his passion was for cheese, not wine. “I got into it thinking, it’s a great part-time job, it’s close to campus, it’s related to food production, which is what I was getting into,” Turkovich says. “The cheese and ice cream that I was making at the creamery was just something I was doing while I was in school. Working my first harvest at a winery was a great experience, but I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do for many years. I realized I actually enjoyed the cheesemaking more than the winemaking.”
After graduating in 2008, Turkovich headed back to Winters with no set plans. When his brother decided to open a tasting room in downtown Winters, talk turned to Turkovich’s knowledge and the natural pairing of wine and cheese. He decided to give cheesemaking a shot, and in 2009, Winters Cheese Co. was born.
The company doesn’t have its own production facilities, so Turkovich rents space at the Cal Poly Creamery. He travels to San Luis Obispo every other month for a weeklong cheesemaking session, afterward packing his cheeses in the back of a van and returning home. Turkovich then ages and packages the cheeses in Winters.
It’s constant experimentation, he says, pointing to his lack of formal training. He started by making cheese in his home kitchen every day, taking copious notes and digging through the details when a cheese was a flop. Even now, Turkovich spends time fiddling with new recipes and approaches.
“At the end of the day, I enjoy making a product that people take home to their friends and family to enjoy together,” Turkovich says. “That’s really rewarding.”
It has also been a successful endeavor. “Better than we were expecting,” is how Turkovich describes the company. Production and sales at Winters Cheese Co. have increased by about 50 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Turkovich’s family has the permitting ready to build a winery and creamery just outside town. First up will be the winery; the creamery will come a few years later as the company determines which cheeses to focus on. Until then, Turkovich is happy to introduce people to a wide range of his company’s cheeses, paired with his brother’s wines.
“We’re looking for people to have a great experience coming to Winters and going to the tasting room rather than having the Winters Cheese brand being distributed across the state or something like that,” Turkovich says.
“We get a little bored when we’re not onto a new project. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know, but at least it keeps things interesting around here.”
Ben Gregersen, co-owner, Sierra Nevada Cheese Co.
By contrast, at Sierra Nevada Cheese Co. the focus is on distribution. The Willows-based company sells its products at specialty markets and higher-end retail chains throughout the Sacramento region and the Bay Area, including Raley’s and Nugget Markets, and now is looking to reach stores beyond California. The East Coast, Texas and Colorado, in particular, are the current emphasis.
That’s quite a transition from the company’s beginnings in 1997 when owners Ben Gregersen and John Dundon started making artisan cheeses during the off-hours at the Gregersen family’s creamery, Foothill Home Dairy, and delivering it from the back of their pickup trucks.
Gregersen, who studied specialty cheesemaking in Denmark, had tried several times to start a cheese business on his own, but it wasn’t until Dundon was on board that things took off. At the time, Dundon was working for the creamery as well, and both men realized that the economics of milk would necessitate a product change. Cheese was the answer.
“It was obvious that the fluid milk business was going to be tough to compete with,” Dundon says.
Initially, the two focused on farmers markets, gaining immediate feedback from customers. As their cheeses’ popularity grew, Gregersen and Dundon moved the company to a dedicated facility in Willows and built a small cheese plant.
At the time, the company had four employees, including Gregersen and Dundon. Now, it employs almost 60 people and recently doubled its cooler space and added to the warehouse. All milk comes from local sources, including from a neighbor just down the street.
While operations have grown substantially since Sierra Nevada Cheese’s founding — revenue is up 1,500 percent in the past 10 years — its commitment to making cheeses using simple, traditional processing has not changed. The milk, and the resulting cheese, is free of added hormones, preservatives, stabilizers and anything artificial, and processing is kept to a minimum.
“There’s no real secret to it,” Gregersen says. “We just keep the ingredients simple and clean, pretty much the way they did in the old days. That’s probably part of the reason the flavor and texture are different.”
The company makes about 230 products including butter and yogurt, in addition to a wide range of cheeses, including cream cheese, habanero jack and goat’s milk feta. “We get a little bored when we’re not onto a new project,” Gregersen says. “Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know, but at least it keeps things interesting around here.”
Recently, much of that focus has been on creating products made of goat milk, which now make up 20 percent of the company’s business. “The goat market has really been growing, and I think it’s going to continue,” says Gregersen.
Charley Cornell certainly hopes so. As owner of Jollity Farm in Garden Valley, Cornell focuses solely on goat milk cheeses, personally tending to all parts of the process from raising the goats to making cheese to distribution.
With 24 of his 60 goats producing milk, Cornell processes about 40 gallons a day. That roughly equates to 40 pounds of cheese, he says. When more of the herd produces milk, Cornell hopes to push that number closer to 60 gallons a day.
Despite plans for increasing milk production, Cornell intends to keep the year-old business on the smaller side and as a farmstead operation. He focuses on distributing his cheeses — primarily chevre, feta and a hard cheese dubbed Italian Farmhouse — within a 100-mile radius. Two locations in Placerville sell Jollity Farm cheeses as do some local wineries, including David Girard Vineyards. Cornell also visits farmers markets at Sunrise Mall and Carmichael Park each weekend to sell the cheese directly.
It’s there that he gets instant feedback from customers, some of whom, Cornell says, are skeptical of cheese made from goat milk. “My favorite thing is when someone who is just adamantly against it will finally taste it and then say, ‘Hey, that’s good stuff,’” he says.
Cornell, who started making cheese as a hobby in the early 1990s, first had an inkling his cheeses were good when he entered the El Dorado County Fair’s cheese competition in 1994 and took home the best-of-show and first-place awards for his feta. He continued cheesemaking in his spare time and in 2008 quit his day job in the RV business to pursue full-time farming. By 2011, Cornell received all his necessary licensing and certification, and Jollity Farm became fully operational.
The days are long, but like other local cheesemakers, Cornell gets great satisfaction from creating an artisanal product for people to enjoy.
“There’s a lot of pride that goes into it,” Cornell says. “It’s such a good feeling when someone buys something and then comes back and says, ‘That was great. What else do you have?’”