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
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
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
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 cheeses
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 bigger area.”
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
Likewise, Capricious Cheese can’t be sold in most stores.
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 market…”
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
“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?”