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CHEESE FEST

What: California’s 12th annual Artisan Cheese Festival, including tours, seminars, tastings, pairings, a culinary competition, and a marketplace.

When: Friday through Sunday, March 23 to 25

Where: Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Santa Rosa

Tickets: $25 to $160, includes parking.

Reservations: artisancheesefestival.com

Keith Adams started making soft-ripened cheese a decade ago when he launched the Alemar Cheese Company in Minnesota.

But after he moved back to his native California in 2015, the cheesemaker decided to leverage his experience and pay tribute to the venerable cheeses of England, where he had spent a couple of years as a child and a teenager.

“I fell in love with British cheese then, and for the last 15 years, English cheese has enjoyed a renaissance,” he said at the Wm. Cofield cheese-making facility in Sebastopol’s Barlow Center. “There wasn’t anybody doing it out here on the West Coast.”

So Adams flew back to England to learn how to make two British cheeses. For a Stilton-style cheese, he worked at the renowned Stichelton Dairy 150 miles north of London. For the aged vheddar, he studied at the Westcombe Dairy in Somerset County in southwestern England.

“I learned the techniques, but there’s also terroir with cheese,” Adams said. “Here we’re doing the same thing (as the British cheesemakers), only with beautiful Sonoma County milk.”

The timing was right when Adams drew up a business plan six years ago and showed it to his old college buddy, winemaker Rob Hunter of Bennett Lane Wines in Calistoga.

“We are like yin and yang with our partnership,” Adams said. “We complement each other.”

In December of 2016, Adams and Hunter opened their storefront and launched the cheeses of Wm. Cofield, sourcing milk from a Two Rock Valley herd of Jersey cows owned by the Camozzi family.

Together, they helped build the 3,000-square-foot cheese production and retail facility at The Barlow, complete with cheesemaking room, a lab. an aging room and a retail counter.

For the first time, the Wm. Cofield cheese will be showcased at California’s 12th annual Artisan Cheese Festival this Friday through Sunday, March 23 to 25, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.

“Last year we only had curds, so we did not participate,” Adams said. “This year we’re coming out with all our guns blazing.”

Although it is the new kid on the block, the cheese company will take part in all facets of the festival, from an Artisan Tour on Friday and the Best Bite Competition on Friday night to a Cheese and Cocktail event on Saturday night and the Artisan Marketplace on Sunday.

Adams, who lives in Santa Rosa, dedicates himself to cheesemaking while Hunter, who lives in St. Helena, handles finances, compliance and any kind of building or repair project.

About 40 percent of the Wm. Cofield production is devoted to the McKinley Cheddar, which has salty and tart highlights, a hint of fruitiness and a nutty finish. The McKinley is aged for 6 months, and the Big McKinley is aged for 12 months.

“When I was making cheddar at Westcombe in England, they said ‘We’re working on a five-mile cheddar,’” Adams said. “It’s a cheddar that you can still taste after you walk five miles.

The McKinley Cheddar is wrapped in muslin cloth before being aged. “It’s like the Saran Wrap of the 1800s, only better,” Adams said. “It protects the cheese but lets it breathe.”

About 35 percent of the production is devoted to Bodega Blue, a Stilton-style cheese that is crumbly and earthy, with a touch of sweetness. It is aged between 4 to 6 months.

CHEESE FEST

What: California’s 12th annual Artisan Cheese Festival, including tours, seminars, tastings, pairings, a culinary competition, and a marketplace.

When: Friday through Sunday, March 23 to 25

Where: Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Santa Rosa

Tickets: $25 to $160, includes parking.

Reservations: artisancheesefestival.com

Rounding out the Wm. Cofield line is Willie’s cheese curds, which are sold mostly to restaurants who turn them into Canadian poutine (cheese curds, french fries and gravy) or the Midwest’s famous fried cheese curds.

“Cheese curds are a fresh cheese,” Adams said. “It’s like making Cheddar, but you stop in the middle. It’s not as complex as a cheddar, but it’s still delicious.”

Adams, who was an English major at UC Davis and later owned a small chain of bagel shops in Minnesota, said he was inspired to go into cheese after learning about Hunter’s lifestyle as a winemaker.

“I love the idea of taking something and making it beautiful,” he said. “Cheese attracted me, and the farther down this rabbit hole I went, the more fascinated I became.”

In 2008, Adams read a book on cheesemaking and then found some friends to back his first cheese company, Alemar. He also met West Marin cheese pioneer Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery that same year at a cheese conference, and she became a source of inspiration as well.

Hunter said he wanted to help Adams in his West Coast cheese venture because he had already fallen in love with the Alemar Bent River Camembert-style cheese, which had put Adams on the cheesemaking map.

“It’s by far the best Camembert in the U.S.,” Hunter said. “When I was working at Sterling (Vineyards) in the 1990s, we’d go to Bordeaux and eat cheese, and this one was up there with those.”

The cheeses of Wm. Cofield — the name is a blend of Adams’ dad’s first name with his middle name (and mom’s maiden name) — can be found at Oliver’s Markets, the Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg, Molsberry’s in Santa Rosa and other cheese shops around the Bay Area.

The cheeses are also available at cheesemaker’s shop alongside a dozen or so of the partners’ favorite cheeses from Sonoma County and beyond.

“We wanted to focus on local and domestic cheeses that we like to eat,” Adams said. “We like the cross section of different milks and kinds of cheeses, but we only have 5 feet of case.”

Customer John Kuta of Sebastopol said he likes to blend the Wm. Cofield Cheddar with Gruyere to make a comforting mac and cheese, but he prefers to savor the Bodega Blue on its own, with a glass of port.

“I’m a traditional cheese eater in that cheese is for after the meal,” Kuta said. “I believe in having small portions of very good things.”

With picnic season approaching, the partners hope to make their cheese shop a destination for folks looking for tasty cheese, and they often send customers to the Village Bakery for a fresh baguette.

The Wm. Cofield McKinley Cheddar costs $25 to $27 a pound, depending on its age; the Wm. Cofield Bodega Blue is $29 a pound.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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