When Jennifer Bice’s family moved to the hills of Sonoma
in 1968, nobody knew what chèvre was. Goats got a little
credence from the Back to the Land movement, and health food
customers embraced goats' milk and yogurt for their medicinal
properties, but that was the extent of the market.
Then, in the 1980s, goats' milk had what Jennifer Bice calls
the “gourmet crossover.”
Camellia cheese ripening at Redwood Hill.
Suddenly, when Jennifer did product demos at grocery stores,
people who wouldn’t have stopped two years before would
now lean across the samples of milk and yogurt to ask, “Don’t
you make cheese?” Before too long, Redwood Hill stopped
selling goats milk altogether—it was far more valuable
as potential curd.
Originally, Jennifer and her husband thought they would make
cheeses common in America, such as ricotta, mozzarella, and
cheddar. But as their line grew to include ten distinct products,
only sharp cheddar stuck. The farm’s success has come
by abiding the cardinal rule of small cheesemakers: You can’t
compete with Kraft, so you have to be original. Today, they
make four kinds of chèvre (including a seasonal, chocolate-flavored
version), three unique French-style cheeses, as well as niche-fillers
like feta and sharp cheddar made from raw milk.
Cheesemakers who have arrived more recently have a new cardinal
rule: You can’t compete with Redwood
Hill. That’s the sort of advice Ginger Olsen heard
at a Milk Advisory Board cheesemaking seminar in 1998. The
class aimed to encourage failing cow dairies in northern California’s
Humboldt County to diversify out from their milk contracts.
Though failing goat dairies like hers weren’t officially
invited, she posed as a cow person and heard the advice that
shapes her business to this day: “Make something that’s
special. Make something that’s yours.”
From there, she and her partner patched together an education.
They visited cheesemaking farms, including Redwood Hill. They
learned how to roll cheese from a team of brawny factory workers
who made fun of the tiny women even as they insisted on perfection.
Their friend Maggie talked them through making their first
cheese, which they named Oscar and for weeks nurtured on whatever
kitchen counter was available. And gradually, bouncing between
the aid of friends and a local cheese company, they figured
out how to transfer home cheesemaking to a commercial scale.
The only thing that remained to be done was finding their
cheese. Aware that the market was awash in chèvre and
other fresh varieties, they knew they wanted to make an aged
cheese—but that was it. So they experimented, following
the second rule of artisan cheesemaking: take notes on everything
you do, even mistakes.
They made a raw milk jack cheese that eventually exploded
on them—literally—wasting a year’s worth
of work. But alongside it they had made a similar cheese with
pasteurized milk, and through a gradual series of adjustments
that were minute, sometimes accidental, and always recorded,
they came up with Capricious Cheese. In 2002, it won Best
of Show at the American Cheese Society’s annual contest.
One basic strategy, a wealth of distinct
Capricious Cheese and Redwood Hill are vastly different operations
with products that could well come from different countries.
Capricious Cheese’s eponymous product is aged five to
ten months and tastes like an Old World variety—bold,
deep, intense. Redwood Hill’s French-style, mold-ripened
cheeses are as white and delicate as snowflakes. And yet both
businesses rely on the same thing: products that sell not
just because they are good, but because they are distinctive.
At Redwood Hill, people are drawn in by the one-of-a-kind
Bucheret and Camellia cheeses, but then loyally buy the farm’s
versions of chèvre and cheddar, too. Likewise, Ginger
now sells feta in addition to her famous Capricious, and is
perfecting a fresh cheese she calls Borracho. It’s unique
(for starters, it’s marinated in Chardonnay) and soon-to-be
excellent, but she can do it only because she already has
a reputation built on something even more unique. “If
we had tried making a fresh cheese from the start,”
she said, “we would have died.”
Marketing these special cheeses requires a careful balance
of volume and intimacy. Jennifer explained that because only
a small percentage of the population eats goat cheese (and
likewise artisanal cheese), sales must cover a geographical
area much wider than you might expect. It helps that Redwood
Hill offers variety. “If we have one goat milk consumer,”
she said, “that person might buy our yogurt, chévre,
French cheese, and then cheddar for their sandwich. If we
had only one of those products, we would have to have an even
To attain that critical mass of customers, Redwood Hill and
Capricious both use distributors—but carefully. Jennifer’s
aged cheeses can sit on the shelf for a long time if necessary,
meaning they can travel to health food stores in Denver without
being ruined. Her French cheeses, however, have small windows
during which they’re perfect. “Once stores get
it, they don’t want to lose money when it ripens and
they should throw it away,” she said. “Then some
poor soul who has heard of it but doesn’t know what
it’s like eats it overripe and never wants to have it
Likewise, Capricious Cheese can’t be sold in most stores.
Bice with racks of California Crottin, winner
of the American Cheese Society's Best Farmstead
Goat Cheese award in 2000 and 2002
When the cheese is cut and wrapped in plastic, customers
can’t smell the complex flavor or feel the dense, crumbly
texture—they can only see the price tag that says $25/pound.
The solution is to have customers try the cheeses under the
tutelage of the makers.
For this, both Jennifer and Ginger swear by farmers markets
and free samples. At the market, not only can sellers get
a piece of cheese into the customer’s mouth, they can
explain that more than the taste is special. They describe
their farms and talk about the cheesemaking process. Ginger
might tell how her partner’s great grandfather was a
goldminer, and that Capricious Cheese is similar to the hard
cheese he and other fortune-seekers ate during the gold rush.
Jennifer might talk about her award-winning goats or the new
crop of kids born days before.
As they talk, and people chew, the levels of taste multiply;
suddenly the cheese has a person behind it, a story—a
significance. Not only will the customer probably buy it then,
but the next time he or she visits a store, the label will
stand out. Jennifer and Ginger say that when people outside
the distribution range call to order by FedEx, the conversation
invariably starts, “I tasted your cheese at the farmers
The markets also serve as invaluable testing grounds. When
Redwood Hill was developing their Bucheret cheese, they found
that customers preferred it younger and softer than they were
serving it. When they sampled out new chèvre flavors,
customers made it clear that garlic chive and peppercorn should
stay and that smoked trout and jalapeño should not.
Once, when Ginger over-salted a batch of cheese she decided
to call it a beer cheese and see what the people at the market
thought. To this day, they beg her to make it again.
“You never know when or how you’ll come up with
something unique,” she told me. “That’s
why I’m always keeping notes. The other day, my new
cheesemaker didn’t pasteurize correctly. When I told
her to start the process over [and re-pasteurize the milk],
she asked if she should start a new chart”—as
she would for a whole new batch of cheese.
“I said no,” Ginger continued. “First of
all it’s not legal, but also we want to know what happens.
I mean, who knows what this might become?”