Cheese and wine—I would be hard-pressed to find a more pleasant pair, and when Pennyroyal Farm goat cheeses and wines are concerned, the duo forms a practically perfect symbiosis.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Co-Owner and operator Sarah Cahn Bennett to learn about Pennyroyal Farm, its products, terroir, regenerative farming practices, and storied history.
As the daughter of Northern California wine pioneers, Sarah initially decided to pursue a career in business administration, but after graduating from Saint Mary’s College, the siren’s song of outdoor living brought Sarah back to ag.
“I grew up in the Anderson Valley. My parents Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn started Navarro vineyards in 1973. I was born in 1980 and was a child of two back-to-the-landers from UC Berkeley, so of course I fell in love with farming and country life!” Sarah tells me. “I got into UC Davis’ Viticulture and Enology MS degree program. In grad school, I was working in the Doug Adam’s lab studying tannins and anthocyanins in pinot noir from the Anderson Valley. I needed a break from peeling grape berries, and I was at UC Davis, so of course I had to take goat husbandry.”
This felicitous turn of events would prove to be pivotal for what would become Pennyroyal Farms. In her goat husbandry class, Sarah would meet Erika McKenzie Chapter, a teacher’s assistant who would go on to become Pennyroyal’s Head Manager and Cheesemaker.
“Erika was living in a room off the side of the goat barn and milking the UC Davis flock, so I volunteered to come help and learn,” Sarah explains. “I grew up with estate bottled wines, but I didn’t really realize all the similarities between estate wines and farmstead cheese operations.”
After graduating and traveling abroad for a time, Sarah returned to the Anderson Valley and began to apply the skills she had learned throughout her childhood and honed during her studies. She began to work on a 100-acre property her parents had owned since the 1980s in downtown Boonville.
“Between 2005 and 2008, I started growing a sheep herd of Babydoll Southdown sheep, and in 2008, when we put in the designing the Pennyroyal vineyards, we built the vineyard to accommodate the sheep,” Sarah says. “In 2009 we built the goat barn, and Erika moved up from Sonoma county where she was working at Redwood Hills. We completed the milking parlor just in front of the barn in 2011, and in 2012, we finished our creamery up along the highway.”
In a felicitous turn of events, she told me, Sarah’s sheep were also perfectly suited to desuckering a vineyard—a laborious task since Sarah’s family had stopped using synthetic herbicides and pesticides in 1980—the year Sarah was born. And, though these particular sheep aren’t milked to make cheese, the relationship between the vineyard and the sheep raising operations speaks to the cooperative nature—the “symbiosis” that Sarah and the Pennyroyal team pride themselves on.
“The mission behind Pennyroyal was to use the symbiotic relationship between diversified products to create wine and fare that has a sense of place,” Sarah explains. “We don’t use glyphosate in our vineyards and practice regenerative farming. We make cheeses that tastes of a time and place. For five months of the year our cheeses are mixed milk 75-95 percent goat and 5-25 percent sheep, for five months of the year they are goat only cheese, and then we take off two months for maternity leave for the goats in Jan and Feb. Every goat and sheep in our dairy herd have a name, and they are given family names to better help us remember their heritage.”
Sarah explains that the terroir, the technique, and the ethics of sustainability are important.
“Our cheeses are made daily and vary greatly by the season. We don’t use any pumps, all gravity fed, and don’t store our milk for longer than a day. Most of the year our morning milk goes directly from the dairy to the creamery where it is made directly into raw milk cheese, and all of our cheeses and reserve bottlings of Pinot have names in Boontling—the historical language of the Anderson Valley.”
Pennyroyal Farms offers a variety of raw milk and pasteurized cheeses that pair the distinct patois of the Anderson Valley with traditional French cheesemaking traditions.
“For raw milk cheese we make a tome (Boont Corners) and release it at three ages—two months, vintage, and reserve (over eight months). For raw milk we also make a blue cheese, Boonters Blue. Both these cheeses are natural-rinded cheeses,” Sarah added. “Most of our evening milk, because it’s higher fat content, goes to our pasteurized cheeses. For these cheeses, we make laychee, or milk in Boontling, which is basically a chèvre recipe, a couple flavored laychees, blueberry, chive flower, and fennel pink peppercorn. We make two surfaced ripened cheeses. One is called Bollies Mollies and the other Velvet Sisters—a camembert style cheese. Bollies is a cheese modeled after a cheese Erika learned to make in France. It is hand laded in full curds so it has a really dense texture. It also has a blue grey rind because of the molds that we use.“
In addition to its cheese and wine making operations, Pennyroyal Farms operates a commercial kitchen out of its tasting room—producing cheese plates, bar snacks, and food pairings for the tasting room and hosting special events, monthly dinners and brunches, and tastings and pairings by appointment.
Pennyroyal Farms cheese is currently available direct to consumer and to restaurants and select retailers in Northern California. Interested parties can contact the company for wholesale and direct purchasing.
For more on specialty cheese, keep reading Deli Market News.