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Planet Cheese: Risk-Taking Rancher Reaps Rewards


Planet Cheese Logo - DCF Planet Cheese is a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese: products, people, places, news, and views. James Beard Award–winning journalist Janet Fletcher writes Planet Cheese from her home in Napa Valley. Janet is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, and The Cheese Course and an occasional contributor to culture. Visit janetfletcher.com to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes.

The question I wanted to ask Jack Rudolph and didn’t, was what his father thought about his career change. None of my business, but still. I know what MY father would have said if I had had a fancy private-college education and opportunities in high-tech and then chosen to milk goats and make cheese.
I’m thinking that Rudolph’s dad, formerly chief of operations for Stanford Business School, would have advised his son to get an MBA, draw up a business plan and then shred it because, really, goat cheese?
A cheesemaker might have encouraged him to take some dairy-science classes, intern at a few creameries and maybe muck out some goat barns.

Rudolph did none of this. He learned to make cheese in his home kitchen, with ingredients purchased online. Yet his two-year-old Stepladder Creamery, near Hearst Castle on California’s Central Coast, has gotten traction fast. There must be some lessons here.

Rudolph studied economics at Williams College in Massachusetts, then went to work for a tech start-up. But he soon wanted out. Making goat cheese at home was more fun, and his cheeses were improving.
Rudolph told his dad he wanted to resuscitate his grandfather’s 750-acre avocado orchard and cattle ranch in San Simeon. “The farm was failing,” says Rudolph, “and I wanted to get away from the tech job.”
Since moving onto the remote ranch in 2012, he has returned the avocado trees to health, planted 60 varieties of citrus, and built a creamery by hand. He milks about 35 LaMancha goats (heading for 60 next year) and purchases cow’s milk to keep cheese production going when the goats are dry. Hand-me-down equipment helped him stretch his budget. “I have everyone’s old everything,” jokes Rudolph.

Margaret Morris, a renowned Canadian consultant, assisted with recipes and trouble-shooting, entirely by phone and e-mail. They have never met. “I am five to ten years ahead because of her,” admits Rudolph.

Although he now has distributors, he sells a lot of his output at farmers’ markets: the cheese, avocados and citrus, plus beef and heirloom pork finished on avocados and whey. Farm tours are a huge part of Stepladder’s business now, says Rudolph. His soon-to-be-wife, Michelle Angell, oversees that experience, which consumers can book online. A feature about the tours on BuzzFeed generated so many calls that Angell had to turn her phone off.

Some advice from Rudolph for would-be farmstead cheesemakers:

  • Hire help the second you can afford to. You’ll burn out if you try to do everything yourself.
  • Be flexible with your product line and seek feedback from distributors and consumers.
  • Find someone to help you with the regulatory maze. Don’t go into this process blind.
  • Be sure you understand the daily routines and actually enjoy them.

The cheeses I sampled at the creamery were balanced, tasty and professional:
Marinated Chèvre: in olive oil with herbs and garlic; creamy and clean-tasting,
Ragged Point: buttery cow’s-milk triple-cream disk with a lactic flavor
Big Sur: a 50/50 blend of cow’s and goat’s milk; silky and smooth inside, with a coat of ash
Colby: a cow’s-milk wheel matured two to three months, with a natural rind, a warm-butter aroma and pleasing tang

Five years in, the operation is in the black. Jack and Michelle are planning their ranch wedding, complete with a pig roast. They met early in his transition to farm life, and she wasn’t scared off. “I made her some really good goat cheese on our first date,” says Rudolph.

Look for Stepladder Creamery cheeses at these California farmers’ markets and retail shops.

New! Cheese Classes at CIA Copia

Four Napa Valley wines, four artisan cheeses. Learn how to create the kind of wine-and-cheese marriages that make sparks fly. In this guided one-hour tasting, I’ll share strategies for creating satisfying matches so you can confidently repeat the pleasure at home. Participants receive a same-day discount on signed copies of Cheese & Wine.

Friday, September 15, 2017
Friday, October 6, 2017
Friday, October 20, 2017

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Janet Fletcher

James Beard Award–winning journalist Janet Fletcher is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, The Cheese Course, and Planet Cheese, a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese. Visit janetfletcher.com to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes around California's Bay Area.

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