This Northern California Farm is all in the family
It wasn’t sisters lynn giacomini stray, Diana Giacomini Hagan and Jill Giacomini Basch’s intention to return to the family farm where they grew up in Northern California’s West Marin. But it makes plenty of sense that they did end up here — Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. is a sort of magical place. The farm is about 40 miles north of San Francisco, perched on Tomales Bay, which opens dramatically onto the Pacific Ocean. In the morning, the pristine air becomes dense with the Pacific coastal fog that settles over and lightly salts the pastures of the Giacomini dairy. The ocean views are stunning, and rye grasses grow tall.
Dairying is in the Giacomini blood. This breathtaking stretch of land has sustained their family for going on four generations. Lynn, Jill and Diana’s father Bob grew up in the region, about three miles south on his own family farm. He loved agriculture and dairy and always knew he wanted to make farming his life’s work. In 1959, a year after they were married, Bob and his wife Dean purchased the Robert Giacomini Dairy, a 720-acre farm along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. A descendant of Italian mountain dairy producers, Bob began milking cows. “Mom and dad ran the farm and raised four girls,” says Jill, “But we were not very interested in working on the farm. We definitely weren’t the typical 4H kids.” Instead, the sisters developed and nurtured separate interests away from their homestead. They each went to college and pursued careers in various aspects of business.
In the late 1990’s, the sisters went back to their childhood home for a serious conversation with their parents, who weren’t getting any younger. If the children were not interested in taking over the family business, the parents would begin to make plans to downsize or sell. Instead, a light bulb went off. The burgeoning artisanal cheese movement was just taking off in the Unites States, and the Giacomini sisters were serious foodies and cheese lovers. Making cheese would add value and breathe new life into the farm. “We had developed skill sets in business,” Jill remembers thinking. “We could write a business plan and start an entrepreneurial endeavor.” And that’s precisely what they did.
Three of the sisters quit their day jobs and, in 2000, they sold their first batch of cheese (the fourth sister, Karen, worked at Point Reyes at the time and retired two years ago). Their skills in the business world helped them excel in building and growing a thriving new operation. Lynn manages operations and sales. In her own words, she “makes sure the cheese is of the highest quality from the time it leaves the dock.” As the chief financial officer of Point Reyes, Diana oversees the finance and accounting. And Jill is the one who takes charge of brand management, marketing and communication.
“Moving home is a strange feeling,” says Lynn, “as if you’re frozen in time at 16.” It didn’t take her and her sisters long to come to love it. “We’re part of a tight knit community that is so welcoming. We have a whole cheering section — it’s great to know that we’re able to contribute to the community and the economy. It’s an honor to carry on the legacy of our grandfather, father and mom.”
A Dairy, Creamery And Community
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. operates in three parts, or pillars. The dairy is the foundation of everything they do. It’s Bob’s first love, and he still is seriously involved. The family lost Dean in 2012. “We got to spend so much quality time together before she passed,” says Jill. Herd manager Brannon Areias makes sure the Point Reyes practices are a model for sustainable agriculture that promotes healthy food and a sustainable environment.
Second is the creamery, where the team turns milk from their 400 Holsteins into the highest-quality cheese. Like any savvy businesswomen, the sisters saw a gap and an opportunity in the market — in the 90’s, there was not much artisanal blue cheese produced in the United States, and none at all made in California. They changed that forever with their Original Blue, which has become their flagship cheese. The rindless, peppery, ultra-creamy blue is made from raw, rBST-free cow’s milk and microbial (vegetarian) rennet, then aged for 3 1/2 months in their own cellars. It’s punchy and addictive, with the fresh, sweet flavors of the milk coming through. Original Blue is a staple on cheese counters and menus, and has taken home a lineup of awards, including Best Cheese at the 2017 Good Food Awards.
Original Blue was their one and only cheese until they hired cheesemaker Kuba Hemmerling and set out to increase their offerings. They wanted to make a cheese for the blue cheese shy, and so developed Toma. If Original Blue is bold; Toma is totally friendly, a cheese nearly everyone can love. In Italian, Toma means “wheel of cheese made by the farmer himself,” which is an apt name for this any time, any table cheese. It’s a semi-hard cheese with a buttery flavor and a tangy, grassy finish. Toma melts beautifully, and is great for grilled cheese sandwiches, and grating and slivering atop pasta and soup. It was awarded Best Cheese at the 2014 Good Food Awards and is a total treat with a glass of Pinot Noir or scotch.
Point Reyes was still famous for blue cheese, and in 2012 they introduced Bay Blue to their collection. Bay Blue takes its inspiration from Stilton, with a natural rind and fudgy texture. It’s a little milder than Original Blue, but just as wonderful, with layers of complexity and notes of salted caramel. In 2016, it won the California State Fair Best Cheese of the Year. Bay Blue is the perfect after dinner cheese, especially when savored with Vintage Port and dried fruit. It’s also brilliant melted atop a burger.
Point Reyes teamed up with Murray’s Cheese in New York City to create another new cheese called Cornelia. It’s the farmstead’s first washed rind cheese. Cornelia starts its life as a pint-sized wheel of Toma, then travels to Murray’s Caves in Long Island for careful washing and affinage. Cornelia develops a reddish rind, a musty aroma and a silky, lush texture. Named after the charming West Village Street, Cornelia is fantastically snackable with a medium-bodied red, charcuterie and some crusty bread.
Point Reyes didn’t stop there. They make a seasonal, super fresh Mozzarella in the Italian style of fior di latte, which tastes like a glass of fresh morning milk and is pillow soft. The Mozzarella won first and second place prizes at the American Cheese Society for the last three years. They have been perfecting a 12- and 24-month aged Gouda, made in “really, really small batches,” says Jill. The first is caramelly and creamy; the 24-month variety develops crunchy crystals and rich flavors of butterscotch and hazelnuts. Both are perfect for nibbling with bourbon and toasted almonds. The Gouda and Mozzarella are part of the Library Collection — only available at local shops and farmers markets, and at The Fork.
Which brings us to the third pillar of Point Reyes: The Fork. At this culinary and education center, cooking classes are held with visiting local chefs as well as its own executive chef, Jennifer Luttrell. It’s an idyllic event space where visitors are educated about agriculture, sustainability, farmstead cheesemaking and the culinary arts. Guests can also take tours of the farm, or attend private parties and corporate events. It’s an opportunity to “educate the community about artisan cheese,” says Jill.