California Cheese Crawl: Where to Go in California for Cheese Lovers

california for cheese lovers
As you know, several months back, I was invited by the California Milk Advisory Board to visit the Golden State and learn more about California’s cheese and dairy industry. I feel lucky not only because I got to visit California once more but also because I got to see first-hand how businesses are extremely committed to product excellence and sustainable practices. In 3 days, we got to explore dairy farms, cheese factories, wineries, and markets from the picturesque northern coast, to the warm central valley, and to the bustling South. I took home not only a huge haul of cheeses but also a renewed sense of mindfulness and a whole lot of insights and knowledge.

If you’re a cheese lover—or food lover, for that matter—who is visiting California soon, you need to take note of these places we visited as part of the California Cheese Crawl with Real California Milk. This is where you will find the best cheese and dairy products in California. These are the farms and factories you need to personally see in order to understand the value they believe in while creating the finest products. These are the restaurants boasting love for local products and sustainable sourcing. This is more than just a list of places where you can buy food to take home—it’s a lot more than that.


1 | San Francisco Ferry Building

california for cheese lovers

Perhaps the most famous San Francisco landmark after the Golden Gate Bridge, the Ferry Building has been around since 1898. Originally built as a transport hub, it now houses some of the finest artisanal food products and fresh local produce from farmers, independent businesses, a number of established chains, and regional purveyors. One of the earliest tenants is actually a cheese producer: Cowgirl Creamery, which makes organic artisan cheeses. Their huge shop at the Ferry Building showcases their cheeses as well as other California producers—if you’re a cheese lover, it would be impossible to walk out of here without buying anything. You can sample selected products before you purchase, or, if you’re extra hungry, grab a grilled cheese sandwich using their featured cheese for the day.

real california milk
real california milk
real california milk
real california milk
Or why not make one yourself? Aside from Cowgirl, other shops will complete your haul for a great cheese party at home. McEvoy Ranch sells amazing Savory Fig and Smoky Tomato jams, while Stonehouse offers an interesting selection of olive oils. Get some bread from Acme Bakery, some mushrooms from Far West Fungi, chocolates from Recchiuti, coffee from Peets or Blue Bottle, and wine from Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant and you’re good to go. Hungry after shopping? Gott’s Roadside has the Western Bacon Blue Ring burger, which has bacon, onions, BBQ sauce, a beer-battered onion ring, and the most delicious Point Reyes blue cheese.

real california milk
real california milk
real california milk
real california milk
real california milk


2 | Modesto

real california milk
Photo by: The Tummy Train

If you love cheese and farm-to-table dining, the Central Valley is worth a detour. In Modesto, you can visit the farm and factory of one of the finest artisanal cheese brands: Fiscalini. They are known for their award-winning cheddars and European-style cheeses like the Lionza (Swiss) and San Joaquin (Italian). If you love cheddar, they have a diverse selection such as Smoked Cheddar; CA Craft Beer Cheddar which is infused with Dust Bowl's Black Blizzard Russian Imperial Stout; Habanero Cheddar; the wine-soaked Purple; and the multi-awarded Bandage-Wrapped Cheddar, which is also my favorite. Inside their farm, you will learn that the company still employs traditional techniques up to this day using their customized equipment.


real california milk

california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
Downtown, you can enjoy delicious meats and seafood and fresh produce utilized in restaurants. Dewz Restaurant, serving New American cuisine, has a number of dishes featuring California cheeses. We sampled a 3-course menu when we visited and each dish was just amazing. The starter was a Spinach Salad which has the Fiscalini Bandage Wrapped Cheddar, along with greens, bacon, strawberries, plums, corn, almonds, beet, tomatoes, quinoa, and mustard vinaigrette—one of the best salads ever. Dine here when you hit up Modesto.

california for cheese lovers


3 | North California

california for cheese lovers
The Northern coast of California is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to—not to mention that the drive going there was one of the most scenic and breathtaking. In Sonoma County, there’s Valley Cheese Ford Company—a producer specializing in Italian-style cheeses. Cheeses like the parmesan-style Estero Gold Reserve and the rustic, creamy Grazin’ Girl Gorgonzola bring you straight to Italy without leaving the Golden State. You can simply pop in their shop to buy some goods, but I highly recommended dining in and trying their breads, salads, and their special Grilled Cheese Sandwich, which has Farmer’s ham and homemade kimchi. Yummy!

california for cheese lovers

california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
Further north, there’s Point Reyes, and a dairy farm with the same name makes one of the best blue cheeses in America: the Point Reyes Original Blue. It’s actually my top pick among everything I’ve tried during this trip. If you love blue cheese, you simply cannot go home without buying this. Aside from Original Blue, Point Reyes also has Toma, a buttery, creamy semi-hard cheese, and Bay Blue, a milder, malty blue cheese. Too bad we weren’t able to visit the actual farm, but we were able to sample their products at Valley Ford.

california for cheese lovers

If you want to visit the farms in the North coast, I found this website called California Cheese Trail that will instruct you on how to drive to the scenic sites and farms like Petaluma, Sonoma, Nicasio, Point Reyes, and many more. Actually, places from Central Valley and Southern California are also part of the cheese trail—there are over 30 cheesemakers spread out in a 100-mile long trail. Think of this as some sort of “cheese pilgrimage” when you’re visiting the state—how wonderful would it be to have enough time to go to all of them? Check out also a sample 7-day cheese crawl itinerary that I included at the bottom of this blog post!

california for cheese lovers
If you would prefer a guided tour instead, I found this Cheese Lover’s Tour, which includes visits to 4 farms with tastings and a gourmet picnic.

california for cheese lovers


4 | Napa Valley

california for cheese lovers
OK, so Napa Valley isn’t necessarily known for cheeses, but it is a popular stop for those who love the cheese’s best friend: wine. A visit to the Louis Martini Winery is a must when in Napa. The striking, manor-like site is a store, winery, and tasting room all at once. The 86-year-old winery sources grapes from different vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, and is known for their exquisite lineup of cabernets. They offer different tasting experiences, and when we visited, we were acquainted with four distinct variants, after which we enjoyed more wine with cheeses.


california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
While in Napa, you can also stop by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and witness first-hand how the students work in one of the world’s top culinary schools. The campus in Greystone in St. Helena is beautiful and reminiscent of Hogwarts! Like Louis Martini, CIA also hosts a variety of tours, some of which even include meals in their bars and restaurants. Wine tasting and short-term cooking classes are also offered in specific parts of the year.

california for cheese lovers
If you wish to indulge a little while in Napa, dine at the Michelin-recommended Harvest Table which showcase a refined, cozy atmosphere and seasonal menus sourced from local producers and the restaurant's own gardens. I loved the Diver Scallops served with shell beans, pancetta, and grapes, and the Shishito Peppers topped with sesame and orange oil. They have an extensive wine list, of course, as well as craft beers.

california for cheese lovers
Looking for a centrally-located hotel with a serene vibe? Stay at the River Terrace Inn (check rates here), which has cozy rooms overlooking gorgeous foliage and the Napa River. The alfresco area of their restaurant is simply dreamy—a perfect venue for drinking in the fresh air while enjoying fresh, delicious food.

california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers

california for cheese lovers



5 | Hilmar Cheese Factory

california for cheese lovers

You're a cheese lover, you say? Then you need to include Hilmar Cheese Factory in your itinerary: it is the biggest cheese manufacturer in the world. If you want to see how a modern cheese plant works, you need to see this factory. Making over two million pounds of cheese per day, Hilmar produces own-brand cheeses and supplies other brands as well. With such a huge demand, the factory naturally has an efficient production system, but what’s good is that they make sure they adhere to sustainability standards. For example, they utilize water waste in various forms. The water filtered from cheese is used to clean the cheese plant itself. Reclaimed water is used as crop irrigation and even circulates in the fountain built at the entrance of the visitor center.

california for cheese lovers
california for cheese lovers
The main visitor center has a shop-slash-cafĂ© on the lower level and a full exhibit on the upper level. The exhibit also doubles as a “lab”, where school kids doing tours learn how to make a simple cheese. We also got to experience this and made our own queso blanco using simple ingredients. Before heading out, make sure you check out the shop and buy some items to take home. I found some interesting cheeses here like the Oakdale Cumin-flavored Gouda (which I bought and made into quesadillas), and Cheese Squeakers—fresh curds which actually squeak when you eat them!

california for cheese lovers



Sample 7-Day Cheese Crawl Itinerary:

Day 1: San Francisco

San Francisco Ferry Building (morning to lunch)
Sightseeing around San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge/Palace of Fine Arts/Fisherman's Wharf/your destination of choice)
overnight in San Francisco



Day 2: Central Valley


from San Francisco, drive to Oakdale Cheese (Oakdale, California)
Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese
Hilmar Cheese Factory
overnight in Modesto

Day 3: Napa Valley

Culinary Institute of America
Louis Martini Winery
Dinner at the Harvest Table
overnight in Napa Valley

Day 4: Napa Valley

extra day for more dining and wine tasting in Napa Valley
overnight in Napa Valley

Day 5: Sonoma Loop

Vella Cheese
Valley Ford Cheese Company
Tomales Farmstead Creamery
overnight in Tomales

Day 6: Sonoma Loop

Point Reyes Cheese
Cowgirl Creamery
Nicasio Valley Cheese
Marin French Cheese
overnight in Petaluma

Day 7: 
drive back to San Francisco

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Read also:

THOUGHTS FROM THE COUNTRYSIDE
What I learned from visiting California's best dairy farms.

12 CALIFORNIA CHEESE CRAWL FOOD FINDS
The best things I ate in the Golden State. 
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Do you love cheese? How many of these places have you visited or would like to visit?

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