Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference Recap

I’m recently back from the 12th Annual Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, an intimate and accessible cheese focused conference, perfectly timed in the post-holiday industry lull and in an attractively temperate climate.

Conference founder Sheana Davis has been on the cheese scene since the earliest days, selling, promoting and now producing a fresh cheese called Delice de la Vallee, sold in her shop, The Epicurean Connection, just off the square in Sonoma.

The conference has one track of programing over two days, followed by a two day intensive ZingTrain, led by the inimitable Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s Family of Businesses in Ann Arbor, MI.

The cheese conference proper explores topics of import to the cheesemakers and mongers in attendance and, of course, includes lots of cheese talk and tastings.

This format, combined with a smaller group of attendees means interaction and connection with most everyone, an attractive quality in this day and age when large conferences can make that sort of one-on-one challenging.

A highlight of the conference – sipping a beer and listening to Dr. Moshe Rosenberg of UC Davis and Ray Bair of Cheese Plus talk about the early days of the cheese renaissance in the US, escapades with the late Ig Vella (American cheese legend, maker of Dry Jack, and Sonoma native and co-founder of the conference) and the early days of cheese retail at Whole Foods working at store #13 in San Francisco.

2015-02-24 15.02.24Ari’s talk on creativity in ourselves and in organizations was a helpful reminder about this important facet for success. The cheese industry draws more than its fair share of creative types – as shown by the informal poll he took after the group relocated to the shaded terrace to soak up the warming rays of the sun.

Most of us are creatives and thinkers from disparate fields in the arts and humanities who somehow landed in cheese and found a home. This wide perspective is a huge boon as we continue to collectively grow this industry that is near and dear to our hearts and infuse it with our own unique creative contributions.

Perhaps my favorite part of the weekend was creating new images for three cheesemakers with the assistance of my friend and colleague Emiliano Lee who provided the styling and pairings for the three cheeses in the Cheese Portrait Mini Marathon.

With his degrees in Sociology and Politics and minors in Ethnic and Women’s Studies, Emi’s multidisciplinary approach was definitely creative. His focus on creating and pairing the cheeses for maximum appeal – particularly two white cheeses which are inherently more challenging to shoot – was super helpful in creating the image series for each producer.

 

Pug’s Leap Tommea rustic cheese made with goat’s milk in Petaluma, CA. This traditional style of cheese boasts a small-ish format with a natural rind and full, complex, savory and earthy notes. An easy pairing partner with wine, beer or hard cider, the richness of the milk and the balanced saltiness keep me going back for more.

Delice de la Valleeproduced by Sheana Davis of the Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, California. The fresh, white cheese is made with a blend of cow and goat milk and has a subtle tangy flavor that melds well with any number of fruity, spicy, sweet or savory toppings. In this series, it is paired with Orange Marmalade, apple slices and almonds with honey. Let your pairing preferences run wild.

 

PhilosopherMade by Ewetopia Dairy, this pressed cow and goat milk blended cheese is based on a feta recipe and boasts the expected salty and savory notes, making it perfect for topping salads and soups or snacking. Here, it is paired with Marcona Almonds and robust sundried tomato tapenade. The drizzle of olive oil imparts a gentle spiciness.

I look forward to future opportunities to work with other friends and mongers on such creative sessions that generate more beautiful images of cheese into the world and help support my participation at these conferences.

As Ari mentioned in his talk, it is much easier to be the 14th person doing a particular thing. This niche I’m invested in – cheese photography – is just beginning to blossom. As I see more and more people interested in elevating the art of cheese photography and understanding the value great photos provide when sharing handcrafted products, I have to smile.

We creatives sometimes can’t always see the reverberation of our passions, but in this case, it does feel like it’s coming more and more into focus. Here’s to more beautiful photos of cheese in the world!

If you want to commission a beautiful series of photos of your cheese or creamery, please contact me. Want to learn how to improve your own cheese photography skills – sign up for Cheese Photography 101 for Makers, Mongers & Bloggers. The Spring 2015 session begins April 6th!