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Sonoma and the New Face of California Wine Country

House-made salumi and pickled grapes at Zazu Restaurant & Farm, in Santa Rosa, California.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

We stood on a steep, forested hill looking down across a field at a herd of goats gathered in the shade of a large oak tree. They were happy-looking goats. It was a warm afternoon in Dry Creek Valley; the sky was pale blue overhead, the landscape both wildly fertile and haphazardly domesticated, and most of all beautiful. We were in the heart of wine country, just outside Healdsburg, California—grapevines visible all around—but this was Pugs Leap, a two-man goat-cheese operation. Behind us were a couple of ramshackle buildings—one of them containing the cheese-making equipment and a temperature-controlled room full of ripening cheese, the other the milking parlor. My daughter, age five, had wrinkled her nose theatrically at the pungent smells as I admired the tender white cubes and ovoids lined up in neat rows, but now we were outside, and a goat ambled over and began chewing on my pants.

“We feed them organic hay,” Pascal Destandau said. “Only organic.” He was very clear on this point. Organic hay is not easy to find, apparently, and the stuff is expensive, too, but it improves the flavor of the milk, he maintained. Destandau is French, and he makes the cheese—he learned how at a farm in the Roya Valley a few years back, near where he grew up. Eric Smith, his partner, milks the goats. He milks them by hand: 27 of them, twice a day. He said he’d tried using a milking machine but it seemed stressful for the animals, so he stopped. Each goat’s name is written on a whiteboard hanging on the wall, with round magnets to keep track of who’s been milked: Trixie, Zazie, Zi Zhen, Vulpina....

As I listened to the two of them talk, Destandau in thickly accented English, about how they’d left San Francisco and their corporate jobs, about the trial and error of learning a new business, about the chefs who buy Pugs Leap at local farmers’ markets, I couldn’t help thinking that they were living my ultimate escapist fantasy: to quit the city and shack up on a hill in Sonoma County and make cheese. It’s not just the physical beauty of the place, the air, the light, the land and the ocean, nor is it simply nostalgia for my childhood visits here. It’s a sense that here in Sonoma, life is being lived the way it was meant to be lived. In tune with nature. Outside in the sunlight. Eating fresh tomatoes and handmade cheeses.

There’s an easygoing bohemianism about this place, and careless, unpolished glamour too. Smith and Destandau wore the farmer’s de rigueur denim and boots, but they also both wore horn-rimmed glasses that seemed far too fashionable for the rustic surroundings. It was a good look, I thought.... And yet, as idyllic as the life of impeccably stylish gentleman farmers in Sonoma County may be, the economics of cheese are not easy. In fact, they make no sense at all. That organic hay, for example, costs $23 a bale, Destandau explained, and goats, well, they eat remarkable quantities of hay. Running the numbers, he said: “We sell the cheese for about $30 a pound. And I calculate it costs about $22 a pound to make—without any salary for us.

Needless to say, Pugs Leap is a labor of love. Smith and Destandau are committed to making the best goat cheese imaginable—the most uncompromisingly humane, organic, and delicious goat cheese ever conceived. They are cheese idealists. And Sonoma is full of idealists—winemakers and restaurateurs, farmers and bakers, all living off the land, helping to create a kind of DIY gourmet paradise. I planned to meet some of them, to seek out the roots of classic Sonoma, and also recapture a bit of my own family history.

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