Karen Bianchi-Moreda wanted to create a cheese like the one she remembered eating as a child at her grandparents' table.

The result, an Italian-style cheese made from her Jersey cows and aged for 16 months, won best of show last year at a cheese competition at the California State Fair.

"I nailed it about in the sixth batch," said Bianchi-Moreda, a Valley Ford resident who has been making her Estero Gold Reserve for four years. When she first started experimenting, some old-timers listened to her methods and said her approach "wasn't going to work — and it did."

Bianchi-Moreda, who owns Valley Ford Cheese Co., was a panel member for a session of cheesemakers and their creations Saturday at the California Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma. The two dozen audience members tried five cheeses paired with beer from Lagunitas Brewing Co.

The three-day cheese festival draws about 2,000 people to taste and talk about cheese. It concludes Sunday at the Sheraton Sonoma County hotel in Petaluma.

Saturday's panels gave the public a peek into the lives of cheesemakers.

Joel Weirauch, another cheesemaker for the morning panel, said shoppers at farmers markets still are taken aback when they learn he makes cheese from sheep's milk.

Their question, he said, is "You can milk sheep?"

Weirauch and his wife, Carleen, have operated Weirauch Farm & Creamery near Petaluma for two years. They milk about 50 sheep and also buy cow's milk for the five months each year when the sheep stop producing.

He got the idea for such a dairy after visiting Europe and coming across cheese made from the wooly critters.

"I was blown away," he recalled. "And I realized there were not a ton of sheep dairies here."

The panelists with him told of the varied ingredients and processes they use: raw or pasteurized milk, fresh or aged cheese varieties and a range of cultures to help milk solidify into curds.

For certain varieties, the curds are pressed to remove moisture. One cheesemaker coated her aged cheese with imported ash made from carbonized vegetable matter.

The work must be done with care and clean conditions because a wrong step can result in a food that makes consumers ill.

"Ninety percent of cheesemaking is cleaning up," said Janet Fletcher, a Napa author and panel moderator.

A general rule is "there is no one way to make cheese," said Gianaclis Caldwell, an author and cheesemaker from Rogue River, Ore., who in the afternoon demonstrated how to make a fresh mozzarella.

Using cow's milk, citric acid and rennet, she turned the milk into curds and drained the whey, then gently worked the white cheese and stretched it into a string about 2 feet long.

In both panel sessions, experts said cheese is affected by "terroir," the characteristics of each dairy's grasslands.

Bob Peak, who presented with Caldwell, said milk is superior when cattle are eating fresh grass rather than merely consuming dry forage.

"The best milk for cheese making is now," said Peak, an owner of the Beverage People in Santa Rosa, which sells home cheesemaking supplies and equipment.

The speakers said cheesemaking produces a value-added product that can help dairies survive on the North Coast.

Bob Laffranchi, owner of the Loleta Cheese Co. south of Eureka, said his region has "some of the finest pasture in the world" but he suggested that some of it has ended up producing marijuana rather than milk. Cheesemaking can help dairy farmers stay in business.

"The legal grass that we grow in Humboldt County is really good for cows," Laffranchi said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.