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Steve P | Sep 15, 200308:48 PM

Fourteen intrepid Chowhounds assembled this Saturday morning at the Trader Joe’s parking lot in Petaluma for what we already knew at 9:00am would be a very hot day.. (This was purported to be Windy’s birthday but not knowing her I could not help but wonder who she was or indeed where she was since she was not slated to join the tour until the last leg of it). Participants were consolidated into four cars, each assigned a Navigator whom Melanie had furnished with maps, directions, cellphone #s, even a lunch menu to peruse in our spare (ha!) time.

Our first stop, SPRING HILL CHEESE FACTORY, is located in a rather out-of the way location even for western Sonoma Co, due west of Petaluma. We were greeted by Alex, who announced apologetically that he would be pinch-hitting for the person who generally did the tour. He need not have been apprehensive because as manager he knew everything about the farm, the cows, cheese production and answered our many questions and led a charming and informative tour of the farm, the cheese-making facilities and provided a generous sampling of cheeses. Many of us liked the Fresh Curds (jokes about Little Miss Muffet were not in short supply) and purchased our favorites.

JOE MATOS CHEESE FACTORY (which many of us were eager to see since it has been in many foodie publications for years) was nearby down a Grapes-of-Wrath narrow dirt road. Mother Matos seemed rather surprised to see four vehicles arrive at once and her tour, if indeed there was one, was exemplary in its brevity to say the least. She mumbled a few words, scraped off some chunks from a wheel of cheese and seemed generally perplexed but since Melanie had warned us we would just be literally “running through” we were outta there in what appeared to be no more than three minutes. Perhaps Ms. Matos, given the security of advance notice, could have provided a more chatty and loquacious tour but we shall never know.

I LOVE NY PIZZERIA – in the very heart of downtown Santa Rosa is a casual storefront. Two native NYers in the group (myself and Derek, coincidentally having grown up in at one point in our early childhoods within a block of one another(!), were poised for that critical analysis of pizza that only a NYer can be justified in providing. Several large pies were ordered and both of us came to the same conclusion – thumbs up for the crust and the cheese but something lacking in the tomato sauce (oddly , the proprietor announced that he prided himself on his homemade sauce). Also Derek reminded us that NY pizza has olive oil dribbled on it before it is put into the oven.

By now it was as hot as it could possibly be in Sonoma in the middle of the day and we headed to:

IRON HORSE VINEYARDS in western Sebastopol in the Green Valley, a lovely boutique winery with gorgeous views of vineyards, hills and apple trees. A lively woman and another colleague provided very many samplings of 7 or 8 selections of sparking wines, Chardonnays and a Pinot Noir at the end. Since I was fainting from the heat and there was nowhere to sit (something about someone in a wheelchair creating bogus lawsuits at various wineries under the Disabilities Act) and I was a designated driver, my sampling was minimal so I will leave the wine evaluations to others.

By this time everyone was getting a little giddy, if not from the wine from dehydration and low-blood sugar. Some attempts were made to stop at one or two berry farms nearby but it seemed that one was closed and the other had just sold its very last berry of the season that very minute. Andy’s Produce, a Sebastopol roadside favorite and old-standby, was substituted and from there it was decided we had time (ha! ha!) to stop at SCREAMING MIMI’S in downtown Sebastopol for homemade ice cream. It was just the pause that refreshed – I loved my Ginger ice cream but some felt theirs fell short of expectations.

By now some were joking about this being the Bataan death march of Cheese Tours as we set out for a bit of drive to our final (finally) visit --- BODEGA GOAT CHEESE in Bodega with much cell-phoning to Windy who would be putting in an appearance after all despite having gorged on dim sum at Louie’s (qv) and to/from Patty Salomon, owner of Bodega Goat Cheese which is located just above the little town of Bodgea (you remember Tippi Hedren and the schools kids in “The Birds” running from the schoolhouse while being pecked to death) up several steep hills.

Melanie had a bit of an un-Chowish melt down at this point and announced that she would be perfectly content to just sit in the air-conditioned car and not see yet another wheel of cheese and suggested that “perhaps they could just bring the goats to us” while we sat in the car and looked at them a bit. She regained her zeal after Windy finally arrived (and, oddly, a breeze seemed to accompany Ms. Windy’s arrival and it became somewhat cooler and almost pleasant on this late afternoon Sonoma hillside.

For many of us this turned out to be the most interesting location f the day. Patty is a former UCSF pediatric nurse who is passionately committed to permaculture and sustainable agriculture and “living off the land” and taught us loads about how water can be saved, reused, what plants help the earth maintain water, how trenches can be dug for maximal water retention on a hillside, how solar heating had reduced their annual energy bill from $6000 less than $200. Patty and her partner Javier produce Peruvian style cheese which Javier had learned from his father in Peru. The farm produces 400 lbs of cheese a week from their 75 goats; they sell at the usual farmer markets, Whole Foods and several upscale restaurants in SF and Marin. Patty also makes herbal tinctures as medicinal remedies for the goats instead of pharmaceutical medicines when possible. She gave us a rather graphic overview of goats’ possible maladies, illnesses and treatments, with just a enough of a suggestion of their mating and dating habits to keep us from making any kind of faux pas at any goat cocktail party should we ever find ourselves in attendance.

In the cheesemaking area, we were served a generous spread of cheeses and were urged to sample some with rutabaga, artichoke leaves, apples, etc, instead of the usual high-carb standards. The feta was a favorite as was a goat cheese and caramel concoction that tasted like candy. Goat evening milking time coincided with the end of our tour. Some were off to more celebrations at a Greek taverna in Petaluma.

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