Califonia Bountiful

Complementary pursuits

Mar./Apr. 2016 California Bountiful magazine

Friends combine skills, goats and sheep, wine and cheese

Erika McKenzie-Chapter, left, and Sarah Bennett Cahn met in graduate school and later combined their business skills and passions for food science, livestock and land stewardship to open Pennyroyal Farm in Boonville in 2012.

The source of a soft "baaaaa" coming from the barn at Pennyroyal Farm in Mendocino County isn't obvious, except to owners Sarah Bennett Cahn and Erika McKenzie-Chapter. They not only can tell if the call is that of a sheep or goat, but most of the time, they know which specific animal made the sound.

Spring is kidding and lambing season, and these Anderson Valley farmers are getting to know the youngsters as well as they do their other 150 goats and 30-plus sheep, having raised each one of them. But what makes Bennett Cahn and McKenzie-Chapter particularly distinctive—in addition to running a diversified farm with a vineyard and dairy—is that they create farmstead cheeses made with milk from both sheep and goats. Farmstead means that all of the milk for the cheese comes from the farm's animals.

"At Pennyroyal, we actually maintain both flocks and we're milking goats and milking sheep on the same farm. We blend the milk from the two every day. It's incredibly rare on dairies," McKenzie-Chapter said.

The Mendocino County vineyard and dairy is one of very few farms that mix milk from their own goats and sheep to make farmstead cheeses.

Minority rules
Of 300 members statewide, California Artisan Cheese Guild Executive Director Anthea Stolz can name just two places—Pennyroyal Farm and Tomales Farmstead Creamery—that milk both sheep and goats to make farmstead cheeses.

"We have a number of other members who milk either goats or sheep and make mixed-milk cheese, but more often, that additional milk type is cow's milk purchased from a neighboring farm," Stolz said.

The main challenge of having such a dairy, McKenzie-Chapter said, is that each type of animal has different milking requirements. Several pieces of equipment are switched after milking the goats to then accommodate milking the sheep, and vice versa.

It's worth it though, she said, to be able to attain certain attributes: "The benefit of mixing is a balance of flavor. Goat milk cheeses typically have an acidic, tart and citrus flavor profile, while sheep milk cheeses tend to be richer and are often much more savory, even brothy in flavor."

The farm is an inviting, picturesque site, where the farmers conserve and reuse resources as much as possible.

Planning ahead
Producing farmstead cheeses—all of which are award winners—has been ongoing since Pennyroyal opened in Boonville in 2012. Planning began years earlier, however, when Bennett Cahn and McKenzie-Chapter became friends while attending graduate school at the University of California, Davis.

Bennett Cahn, whose family owns nearby Navarro Vineyards in Philo, studied winemaking and vineyard management. McKenzie-Chapter, who had spent time making cheese in France, was furthering her studies in animal biology and food science. The two had a mutual affinity for livestock and farming.

"We realized how much there is in common between cheese and wine and the mentality of producing it, so our business plan came from our shared idea about how we wanted to raise animals and produce food," McKenzie-Chapter said.

After attaining their respective advanced degrees and gaining additional experience, the two combined their complementary skills and conceived a plan for an undeveloped 100 acres owned by Bennett Cahn's family.

The goal: to make farmstead cheese and estate wine through interdependent practices at Pennyroyal Farm, so named for the pennyroyal mint that blankets the valley's fields.

Cheese-club members Derek and Robin Latour, and their 5-year-old son Jacob, sample various flavors of farmstead goat-and-sheep cheeses, as offered by assistant cheesemaker Jesse Rathbun at Pennyroyal Farm's new tasting room.

World of cheese
As grapevines were meticulously planted, tended and awaiting maturity, the handcrafting of five-plus types of cheeses with names representative of area folklore (see story below) took center stage.

Pennyroyal offers cheeses young and aged, and in seasonal varieties of blends of the two types of milk. Boont Corners, for example, is available at three different stages of maturity: two months, vintage and reserve. Laychee, Bollie's Mollies, Velvet Sister and Boonter's Blue are the farm's other mainstay cheeses and are produced in unique ratios of goat and sheep milk, depending on how many and which animals are being milked. McKenzie-Chapter said they also enjoy trying new blends and creating specialty flavors for their Farm to Table cheese club.

Robin Latour, a cheese-club member from the San Francisco Bay Area, said, "When we first tried Pennyroyal cheeses, we were ecstatic and impressed to find cheeses that rivaled anything we have tasted from anywhere in the world. In a word, they are absolutely delicious."

She and her husband, Derek, are annual visitors to the Anderson Valley and last year, scheduled a tour at Pennyroyal Farm.

"Our 5-year-old, Jacob, loves farms, animals and cheese so I knew it had to be on our list," Latour said. "Pennyroyal opening up for tours and tastings is a real boon for the valley."

The farm is picturesque and inviting, with rustic yet state-of-the-art facilities. Tours allow visitors to meet the animals, peek inside the immaculate milking parlor and creamery, watch cheesemakers at work and meander through barns, gardens and the 22-acre vineyard.

Pennyroyal has produced award-winning cheeses, such as this Boontner's Blue, since opening in 2012 and last year released its first wines.

Inaugural wines
Already distinguished for its cheeses, Pennyroyal released its first wines last year, including a sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and rosé of pinot noir.

"The plan has always been to do wine and cheese," McKenzie-Chapter said. "We knew the wine was somewhat the financial backbone of the whole farm, but having farmstead cheese and the dairy would also help the winery stand out and be different from other wineries."

That thoughtful approach is representative of the philosophies of the farmers at Pennyroyal. The farm's manure and grape skins are converted into compost to fertilize the grapevines. Miniature sheep are weed eaters in the vineyard, and chickens provide pest control and fertilization as they move between pastures and the vineyard in a mobile coop. Their eggs are a byproduct, sold onsite in an honor-system farmstand and supplied to the Boonville Hotel's restaurant, Table 128.

"The idea is to put as much back in as we can and support other people in the area. We try to utilize all the resources that we are producing that, in other scenarios, might be waste products," McKenzie-Chapter explained.

At the back of Pennyroyal Farm, 40 acres are devoted to producing hay for the animals. The farmers maintain a certified fish-friendly creek that runs through the property, and they treat water as a valuable resource.

"We capture all the water that comes off the barn roof, and it goes to fill our irrigation ponds," McKenzie-Chapter continued. "We irrigate the vineyard and pasture completely with rainwater capture and reclaimed wastewater."

The barn's roof also hosts solar panels that provide 100 percent of Pennyroyal's current and projected energy requirements. That includes supporting the new tasting room, where visitors can sample wine-and-cheese pairings, take a front-row seat to the cheesemaking process and view wheels of cheese aging to perfection in a climate-controlled environment.

"I love the idea of the tasting room," Latour said. "Seriously, what's better than being able to taste wine and cheese? It's perfect. The building is lovely, and I love being able to watch them make the cheeses too."

But the standout feature at Pennyroyal Farm, in her opinion, is the farmers.

"Every single person has been so friendly, knowledgeable, eager to teach and help, and responsive—and they are passionate about what they do," she said. "It's obvious they have a real passion for the goats and sheep, a real love for them."

Joyce Mansfield

Harping Bootling

The sign that welcomes you to Mendocino County's Anderson Valley beckons a double-take, with what looks like gibberish to those unfamiliar with the region's history and the town of Boonville's own language, called Boontling. 

Boontling is said to have originated as a way to pass the time in what was historically an isolated farming and logging community, or as a way for children to talk to each other without their parents understanding what they were saying.

Boonville itself is referred to as "Boont" in this native tongue, and although it is no longer an isolated area, agriculture remains an important part of the region. Some elders there still speak Boontling, using words like "laychee" (milk), "horn of zeese" (cup of coffee), "harp" (to talk), "bahl horning" (good drinking) and "frattey" (wine), to name a few.

For those not lucky enough to hear it on the streets, there are many references to Boontling throughout town, such as on signs, merchandise and the labels of Pennyroyal Farm cheeses.

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