Growing Together: Winemaking Begets Cheesemaking on Pennyroyal Farm
Inviting a cheesemaker to a party of student winemakers might seem like an easy catering solution, but you may get more than you bargain for.
Sarah Bennett was working on her master’s degree in viticulture and enology at the University of California–Davis when she met and befriended Erika Scharfen, who was studying animal science and had previously worked as a cheesemaker in France. When Scharfen came along to a wine department get-together, “she wasn’t really saying much while these wine geeks picked apart the wines,” according to Bennett, “but then the cheese came out, and she described them using the exact same terms! We were speaking the same language.” After that, she adds, “we tasted a lot of cheeses and began talking about a farmstead creamery.”
The cheesemaking initiative at Pennyroyal Farm is the result. The 60-acre farm is in Boonville, a small town in northern California, and is owned by Bennett’s family as part of Navarro Vineyards, ten miles north in Philo, where they’ve been making wine since the 1970s. “Pennyroyal was my crazy idea to take Navarro to the next level and make a complete farmstead operation; our goal is to stay as in-house as possible,” Bennett says. Scharfen is the cheesemaker—and as an alumnus of UC–Davis’s Dairy Goat Re- search Facility, she is also well prepared to care for the herd.
Keeping things in-house meant fitting 220 solar panels on the roof of the goat barn, effectively keeping operations for the farm off the grid. The creamery uses milk from 108 animals on the farm, including five breeds of goats and 36 dairy sheep, allowing the composition of the cheese to vary seasonally. The animals are off for two months, and the sheep lactate for about five months starting in the spring, so the cheeses will be a mix of goat’s and sheep’s milk for that period, then all goat’s milk the rest of the year. (Another breed of sheep, Babydoll Southdown, is charged with fertilizing and weed control in the vineyards; the animals are conveniently too short to reach the vines.)
Having received their state creamery license on May 10, 2012, Pennyroyal officially opened this past summer. Four cheeses debuted in their initial lineup, each one named after words from Boontling, a nearly archaic Anderson Valley dialect that developed in the 19th century. Boont Corners is their raw-milk cheese aged between two and ten months. Sweeter when young, the cheese becomes more savory and firm as it ages.
Laychee—meaning milk—is essentially a chèvre, though for some part of the year it will include sheep’s milk. Bollies Mollies, named for the creek running through the farm and the word for a milk-related bit of anatomy, is surface ripened, with some of Laychee’s citrus notes but added richness. A blue cheese named Boonters’ Blue is also in the works.
Once visitors have picked out some Pennyroyal Farm cheese, Bennett would be glad to recommend a wine to go with it. In fact, the creamery has inspired new choices at the winery. While 15 acres of the farm is planted with pinot noir, “one thing we’re able to do in Boonville which we’re not able to do in Philo is ripen sauvignon blanc,” she remarks. “So we planted seven acres of sauvignon blanc, which I think is one of the best white wines to pair with goat cheese.”
Written by Jim Clarke. Jim Clarke is the wine director for the Armani Ristorante NYC, and is also a beer and wine writer whose work appears in numerous national publications.