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(Philary/iStockPhoto)

Welcome to wine—and cheese!—country.

Sonoma County has long been paired with its easterly neighbor Napa as the heart of the American winemaking world. Vintners have fostered a powerful tourism business built around winery visits, tastings, and accompanying upscale leisure activities.

Until recently, despite a ubiquitous bovine presence along Northern California's meandering country roads, cheese—perhaps the ideal accompaniment to wine—has not been given its proper spotlight.

Putting Cheese on the Map

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Cows at the Petaluma Creamery (California Cheese Trail)

Vivien Straus is aiming to change that. Straus is a locally-grown writer and actress—her autobiographical solo show E-i-E-i-Oy! In Bed with the Farmer's Daughter, speaks volumes to her life experience in the region and her connection to sustainable agriculture. Along with her siblings, Straus oversees a vacation rental property on the family dairy farm and over the past three years has developed the California Cheese Trail, along with a map, mobile app, and directory of her home turf's artisanal cheese-making community.

A non-profit labor of love, the Cheese Trail focuses on Sonoma and neighboring Marin County (Straus's efforts are partially underwritten by the Marin Economic Forum). Over half of the area's 28 cheese-makers welcome visitors.

"Having grown up on a farm, I'm always thinking about how to help the small farmers," says Straus. "Making cheese is a great way to bring additional revenue to a dairy farm, because the pricing isn't fixed. In the conventional milk market, the price is set through the commodities market in Chicago and it goes up and down, even though the cost of producing the milk is the same."

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(Robert_Ford/iStockPhoto)

Farmstead cheese, unlike milk, can be priced at a premium. Carefully tended to, aged, and cultured to bring out distinctive flavor profiles, it can be a worthwhile endeavor for dairy farms to embark upon.

"[Northern California's cheese makers] are eager to talk to guests and answer questions," says Straus. "As younger people become interested in cheese and take up cheese making, they can bring new life to small farms. Did you know that the average farmer in this country is about 60 years old?"

Because of their small size and limited resources, some farms offer full-fledged tours only weekly or monthly, so it's best to check out the Cheese Trail app or website and reserve in advance. It's easy to map out a leisurely drive to three or so cheese-makers, ideally followed by a picnic to feast on your findings. (Throw in a bottle of wine to give a little coin to that other local business!)

Three to See

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(Cowgirl Creamery/via Yelp)

Bohemian Creamery: Italian-style cow and goats' milk cheeses are crafted by Lisa Gottreich on her small farm, open to the public from Fridays through Sundays for tours, tastings, and conversation about cheese making as a remedy to midlife malaise.

Tomales Farmstead Creamery: Come on the first Sunday of the month for an in-depth introduction to the goat and sheep cheese-maker's craft. Enjoy a visit with the animals in the pasture, take a peek at the milking parlor, and participate in a Q&A in the creamery and aging rooms.

Cowgirl Creamery: Sue Conley and Peggy Smith opened their pungent cheesetique more than 20 years ago and it has become known worldwide for its wide selection, as well as their retail staff's depth of knowledge. Located in the charming town of Point Reyes Station, it's the ideal first or last stop on a day of cheese chasing.

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based writer and content consultant.