If Napa is considered the sophisticated mother of AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) then Sonoma is your favorite eccentric pot-smoking hippie aunt.
It’s this bohemian valley; a community that’s artistic, irreverent, sprawling, and unapologetic about its diversity and yet welcomes you with open arms, that I’ve come to know and love. A melting pot of pot growers, farmers, winemakers, artists, restaurateurs and professionals looking to live out their days in this haven nestled between the coast and the Sonoma mountain ridge to the east. Controversial at times and yet respected always. These same characteristics are embodied by one of its longtime residents—cheesemaker Lisa Gottreich.
Lisa is the mastermind behind Bohemian Creamery, a goat farm and creamery where Sebastopol begins to fade into the Russian River Valley. It’s here she’s been making small production artisanal goat’s milk cheese for sale to some of the best chefs and restaurants in the country. Some have even made it to the White House on occasion.
She recently completed some renovations and opened Bohemian Creamery up to the public where lacto-lovers can sample and purchase her cheesy creations directly from the maker herself. She also offers tours of the creamery (have to make an appointment in advance) where she walks you through the process, explains the difference between washed, natural and bloomed rind cheeses, and lets you sample some at various stages of the aging process, giving you a deep understanding of the many nuances that go into making delicious cheese.
We recently visited Bohemian Creamery for a tour and interview with Lisa. She opened up to us about her process and history in Sonoma. And her answers, like her goats’ milk, are raw, pure and from the source.
Interview with Cheesemaker Lisa Gottreich of Bohemian Creamery
EPJ: Some of your cheese names make sense to me, like the surf and turf, because it has a thin layer of Sonoma coast harvested toasted dulce seaweed running through the center. But then there’s The Bomb and PocoLoco and Boho Belle that are a little less explanatory. How important is the name of your cheeses and how do you come up with them?
LG:I actually spend a lot of time thinking up the names of my cheeses. I am like a mother though who has to stare into the face of each of her offspring and ask “who are you? What calls out? And really all my cheeses are named for exactly who and what they are. Boho Belle is a throwback to bel paese, a cheese I lived off of when I was a student in Padova [aka Padua, Italy] but which is not made artisanally anymore. I tell my Italian friends I am making Bel Paese and they tell me not to tell anyone that: it’s like bragging that you’re making Velveeta. But once upon a time that cheese was made by hand and that is the cheese I knew, know and love and Boho Belle is cobbled from that name.
PocoLoco: well it is a little crazy to put coffee grounds in cheese, isn’t it? Though someone who grew up in the 1950’s here in Sonoma County told me that PocoLoco was the word for weed back then. Promise, it’s just coffee in there though….
The Bomb: came into being during the discussion of Bush’s fantasy: WMD—Weapons of Mass Destruction. Have you smelled The Bomb? You can’t be within 100 yards of it without knowing it.
EPJ: Can you recall the single definitive moment when you decided to roll up your sleeves and get elbow deep in dairy for a living, or was it more of a gnawing obsession that grew—or should we say “fermented”—over time that was eventually impossible to ignore after a while?
LG: Sometimes in life you don’t decide to do what you do but convergences converge and there you are. In my case, I was newly divorced, in a dreadful job, and longed only to go home and milk my goats and chop wood. When the ex-hubby took off, I had kids who I needed to partly support and I took a chance. I am a risk taker anyway, but I gave myself one year to see if I could make this work. I had a business partner at the time and it was very helpful to have someone to forge forward with, but in another strange way it was like being married again and that partnership dissolved about 3-4 years ago when I bought her out. Guess I’m just meant to be with goats…(
EPJ: Experimentation or formal training? How did you learn how to make cheese?
LG: I didn’t realize this at the time—in the way that if you read an amazing book you don’t think you’ll ever be able to write one, just remain an admirer—anyway, I was 14 or 15 and I went to visit a friend of mine who loved the summers in Comptche [Mendocino County] and we walked up the wooded winding hill to her family cabin. Just beyond her cabin, another mile up the hill and at the very end of the road on the ridge top lived the gay opera singer with his goats. He made cheese and played opera all day long and I could hear the music floating down the hillside. I was so excited when my friend’s mother asked us to go to his house to buy some cheese for dinner and stuffed a few fives into our pockets. I remember the goats and his kindness and mostly his amazingly delicious cheese. Before I left, I bought a small wheel for myself that I took home with me and slowly ate off it, as slowly as I possibly could to make the sun and the grass and the goats and the opera music and the hills and the wind in the redwoods last as long as I possibly could. His life seemed too blessed for me to ever even imagine for myself, but just to have known it, seen it, for the short time I did—I felt lucky.
EPJ: What advice would you give some ingénue looking to start his or her path to becoming a cheesemaker?
LG: To make it in Ag here in California, especially as a newbie where you haven’t inherited the family farm, and assuming you aren’t a trust-fund baby; you have to make something you yourself could never afford to buy and sell it to places you yourself could never afford to shop or eat. And only then do you maybe stand a chance.
I think farmer’s markets are a wonderful idea but at least here in Sonoma county, are not the way to make it either. There are 23 farmer’s markets spread out over a vast and mostly sparsely populated county verses San Francisco that has fewer markets (20) and a million people.
All this is to say, you have to create a niche for yourself somewhere somehow. And make sure that niche will have a built-in cash flow somewhere in it to keep you above water. When you buy milk, you tear off a check, or a kidney, right there at the milk pump—I am usually picking up over $1,200 at a time. Then that cheese sits. And after it sits, you “sell” it and if you’re selling wholesale you often don’t see your money for another month. @#%^$&!
So that’s the financials of starting up…then there is the need to wipe the dreamy fantasy out of one’s eyes. Making cheese is 10% production and 90% cleaning and prepping.
EPJ: Our favorite movie is Pretty Woman, because we secretly believe we’re hookers with a heart of gold, and besides, who doesn’t want to get swept off their feet by young Richard Gere? What’s your favorite movie and why?
LG: I never know what my favorite movie is, but one I saw recently and that really stuck with me is Clouds of Sils Maria. I love these two things about it: 1) ageing isn’t always a curse (especially if you are a cheese, but there’s no cheese in this movie) and 2) when you start to feel like you have to trade in your principles and your aesthetics in order to be understood, you don’t. There will be some people who are like-minded, and sometimes where you least expect to find them.
EPJ: Who are some of your peers or customers that you really respect and why?
LG: I really respect the dairy families I work with. Sometimes, after a 12-13 hour day, I think how hard I work. And then I remember there’s the dairyman who is working even more and longer, non-stop. But really, who I respect and drop to my knees most readily for are the animals. They are in a constant, never-ending state of service. Always giving giving giving, producing and giving, their bodies, their offspring, every day for as long as they live. I love the feast of St Anthony in Italy when the animals are blessed and thanked, as well of course of St Francis. And I’m Jewish. In my religion, you never pull the egg out from under the hen when she is sitting on it. You have to wait for her to get off her eggs to collect them. You don’t boil the calf in her mother’s milk. These are gestures of compassion and respect. And so…
EPJ: I read that prior to making cheese you worked for a very large oncology practice. There’s got to be something learned in your previous career that’s helped you in the current one; what is it?
LG: Well that oncology job is what made me reach for what brings me comfort. My husband of 18 years was running out on the marriage and every day I was surrounded by more death and dying and all I could think of was the end of the day when I could chop fire wood and press my forehead against my does (female goats) while I milked them and smell the hot milk hit the bowl and feel their life force run through my fingers. That is what I reached for in my darkest hour. But what has sustained me I guess in all my jobs, and very much in this one, is a level of arrogance that I can do it.
After graduate school in Washington DC I went to work for the Office of The United States Trade Representative on the Montreal Protocol to Protect the Ozone Layer. I was 25 years old and convinced I could change the world—for the better. I had no idea what I was up against—so I was arrogant and naïve—a dangerous combination, and one that I took straight with me into cheese making. Arrogant in that I will create what I will create and it will be fantastic even if it takes me a dozen tries. And naïve to all the invisible forces that conspire to challenge me on the sidelines. “Tenks God,” as my grandmother would have said, for the naiveté or I would never have even ventured forward.
EPJ: If money and time weren’t an issue—basically if there were no obstacles in your way—where would you and Bohemian Creamery be in five years?
LG: If money were no object what I would like to do with BC is make incredibly delicious artisanal cheeses for the masses. I grew up in The People’s Republic of Bolinas in the 60’s. I studied philosophy at the University of California, I lived for a few years in Sweden (mother is from Sweden) all of which is to say that I am socialist, definitely. I wince at my own hypocrisy needing to make a product I myself could not afford to purchase and sell it to places I could not afford to eat in order to make it in agriculture. But such is the state of affairs. In the 1970’s Americans pretty much shopped at the same stores, ate the same food. Maybe just better cuts of meat for the rich. But now we have a plethora of specialty food stores. We have organic foods. We have non-GMO foods. We have grass fed beef. All that is good—but we should have GOOD food for all, and not only those who can afford it. Good, nutritious food should be available and affordable to everyone. SO that is what I hope for BC: to be able to generate enough volume to lower my small producer-costs and put out a BC cheese version of two-buck chuck.
Cheese lovers and foodies alike can make appointments to tour the creamery with Lisa and taste a variety of Bohemian Creamery’s natural, washed, and bloom-rind cheeses from goats, sheep, cow and buffalo. Or you can just stop by and sample some cheeses for purchase, or try whatever delicious goat milk soft serve they’ve got on tap—cardamom agave anyone?
My suggestion is you plan for a stop at Bohemian Creamery between two wineries. The first to get nice and loose, then some cheese to soak up the wine, and you can take a few of your favorites to the second winery where you can enjoy your cheese with some wine while enjoying the beautiful scenery of Sonoma’s wine country. Enjoy!