It may be OK to say "cheese!"

But, if the European Union has its way, it may not be OK to say "Parmesan." Or "Gruyere." Or even the lower-case "feta."

One of the least threatening news stories to come out of Europe in the past couple of weeks is the news that the EU wants to put the "problem" of Old World names for New World products on the agenda for its impending trade talks.

Think Champagne vs. sparkling wine.

The EU (which should have enough to do, what with the Ukrainian issue) is suggesting that the names of distinctive food products that originated in specific European regions — such as Parmesan from Parma, in Italy — are like trademarks, private property that doesn't travel well. Furthermore, it has been suggested abroad, anything produced by American cows is simply a poor imitation of the original.

Because these issues have a way of spreading (like Philly cream cheese?), the continental food police have mentioned possible takeaways of Neufchatel, Fontina, Gorgonzola, Muenster, even sandwich fare like provolone and bologna. The latter did, after all, originate in Bologna.

If all this seems like just more international trade baloney to you, remember what happened to Champagne. After a hue and cry two decades or more ago, sparkling wine not made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France were discouraged from using the term Champagne. And sure enough, the American variety became just "sparkling wine," although Sonoma County's own Korbel squeaks by with "California Champagne" on its labels.

Now Europeans are having another food identity crisis. The proposal for discussion at the upcoming trade talks in Brussels has produced outcries. In Wisconsin, one Parmesan producer, interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, asked, acidly, "What am I supposed to call it? 'I Can't Believe It's Not Parmesan?'" And the Guardian already has given the issue its catch-name: Cheesegate.

Some 55 senators have signed a letter of protest to the Secretary of Agriculture, asking that the U.S. delegation not agree to anything of the kind. Kraft Foods, whose familiar green containers of Parmesan and Romano get sprinkled on everything from pasta and pizza to popcorn and frozen French fries, is taking the high road, issuing a neutral sort of statement expressing the worry that its customers "would be confused" by a name change.

Kraft's Velveeta and Cheez Whiz are, I'm sure, in absolutely no danger.

CERTAINLY, IT IS an issue of considerable interest here on California's North Coast, where we make tons and tons of wheels and wedges of very, very good cheese.

We haven't always. (And here comes the history lesson.).

Cheese — artisan cheese, I should say — is a relatively new player in our agricultural marketing game. It's safe to say that three decades ago there were comparatively few cheese producers in the area, although Marin French, home of the Rouge et Noir brand, lays claim to the oldest continuous cheese factory in the nation, dating to 1865. The early 1930s brought us Vella's and Sonoma Jack in the town of Sonoma. But local cheese wasn't such a big deal until the late 1970s, when food writers began to notice what was happening here.

Milk products in general have always been a pivotal part of our agricultural history. From the very beginnings, starting with the good old bossy cow walking behind the pioneer wagon, dairying has been a significant player.

These first farmers recognized that the cool climate and rolling, fertile coastal hills, too steep to plow, were perfect for grazing cows.

By 1900 the early immigrants, including but not limited to substantial numbers of Swiss, Danes, Italians and Portuguese plus some Germans and Swedes, had created a "butter boom" based mainly on what the old-timers called "gilt-edged farming." This was a fancy name for "rent-a-cow" tenant farming. New arrivals rented both land and cows — $20 to $25 per cow.

These were hardworking, determined folks who soon owned land of their own and built a substantial ag industry. Before wine grapes took the lead 20-some years ago, dairying was the leading money crop in Sonoma County and had been since the 1860s.

Even before the roads were built, small boats known as "butter schooners" were loading dairy-made butter and calves (the calf being the other cow product in great demand) off Bodega Head and the Point Reyes peninsula, bound for the Bay Area markets.

Even then, they fought their battles. In the 1890s a substance that the threatened dairymen promptly dubbed "bull butter," came on the scene. But this innovation, — properly known as oleomargarine — couldn't stop the growing "butter boom," perhaps because of the lobbying efforts of the dairy industry that prohibited artificial color in this vegetable product, which looked exactly like lard.

By 1900 this was definitely a "cow county." Each small town of western Sonoma and Marin had its creamery, issuing butter (and some cheeses) under labels that were pure poetry — Bodega's Best, Valley Ford's Golden Maid. Later they would join in a cooperative creamery in Petaluma, the ancestor of today's Clover brand.

This prosperity would hold steady through the first half of the 20th century. By the 1950s, there were more than 1,500 dairies in Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Not all were on the coast. Smaller inland valleys had their share of barnyards and pasture. Bennett Valley, for example, had 35 dairies in 1960.

But, by 2000, ranchers were bailing. Milk prices had remained static — still the same as they had been in 1950 — and environmental regulations were making it tough to run the business in the old, familiar way.

Many dairymen sold their herds in government buyouts. Some joined the prune farmers and apple growers and "went to grapes."

Enter cheese, stage left.

THE THRIVING new market for fancy cheese, arriving almost simultaneously with the conversion to Wine Country, has kept the cows on the land. And not only the cows. Both goat and sheep cheeses are in high demand. And there's more. In Tomales, the Raminis are milking their water buffalo to make gourmet-grade mozzarella.

All of the above are getting plenty of exposure this weekend at the Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, which has become an annual event.

The Sonoma-Marin Cheese Trail map, which is Google-able, shows the locations of 29 cheesemakers. Few of them have anything to fear from those name-game threats from the continent. Our cheese, for the most part, doesn't fool around with the staid old labels. Names like the Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam and Red Hawk and Valley Ford's Highway One and Estero Gold, along with Bleating Heart and Redwood Hill and Pug's Leap and Bellwether's San Andreas have no worries about confusing consumers.

Still, we will watch with interest for the news from Brussels — where the sprouts come from.