In the Nicasio Valley, cheese is the new wine


It's a rare down moment in the process of making cheese: The pasteurizer churns, the bubbles rotate, the creamy milk cools and the thermometer drops. Cheese creator Scott Lafranchie seems almost embarrassed by the inactivity.

Along with a quiet revolution in northern Marin and Sonoma Counties, the roads and the stop are now on the map as part of California's newest cheese country trail.

The Lafranchie Family's Nicaso Valley cheese company is one of the newest entries, even though they have worked the land since 1919.

Rick runs the business end; Scott makes the cheese and Randy runs the dairy. They've worked together most of their lives. In February, it'll be two years since the family made their first cheese.

For the Lafrancies, and a lot of other small dairy owners, the change as more a matter of necessity: They weren't going to get by with just producing milk anymore.

Blame the volatility of milk prices due to oversupply. In 2009, small dairies were losing close to $100 per cow per month, and the Lafranchies had more than 400 head.

Rick Lafranchie majored in business at Santa Clara and recognized they had to somehow add value.

"Our goal was to use all that extra milk that would go for a lower price in a cheese factory," Lafranchie said. "We would develop a line that people want to buy, and through the cheese factory, charge more for the milk."

It's becoming a trend: 27 small dairies now make Artisan cheese in Sonoma and Marin Counties, employing some 400 people.

Ellie Rulla, a researcher at UC Davis, sees this as a viable strategy for saving family farms.

"It's diversifying," said Rulla. "It's adding more, tacking more so they can remain here."

The added value comes from labor and uniqueness. The Lafranchies went to their ancestral home in Switzerland and brought the recipes back to the United States. To them, cheese is not "just cheese."

"You get to create something that is very challenging to make," said Scott Lafranchie.

It comes with a quality that only a small operation can manage: Two hours from udder to pasteurizer, the cheese is hand-mixed, hand-turned, hand-everything.

For visitors, a matter of seeing the lands and then practically tastng it is just like looking at grapes in a winery.

If you like success stories that have a cheesy but a happy ending, this one is for you. The story also qualifies as a new chapter generations down a family road.

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