Califonia Bountiful

Sacre Bleu! California cheesemaker takes world honors

The first time an American company has won in this category.

When news came out that a California entry won best Brie in the world honors, it raised plenty of eyebrows in France and further validated the impressive rise to prominence of high-end cheesemakers in the state. It also left the winning recipient more than a little stunned.

"It didn't hit me right away," said Marin French owner Jim Boyce. "I had to have someone else kind of take a garbage can cover, hit me on the head and say, 'Did you realize what just happened?' It was the first time an American company had won that category."

The award bestowed to Rouge et Noir Triple Cream Brie from the World Cheese Awards in London is part of a loaded trophy case on display at Marin French, which also offers a pond, picnic grounds, fully stocked gift store and nearby art gallery that attract about 200,000 visitors a year.

Tourists learn there is much to see and appreciate at America's oldest operating cheese company.

Marin French began operation in 1865, when enterprising Petaluma farmer Jefferson A. Thompson made and sold cheese to European immigrants who failed to strike it rich in the Gold Rush and settled in as dockworkers.

The breakfast cheese enjoyed in the 19th century is still being produced today, and is among about 30 soft cheeses made by Marin French.

Milk from Bay Area cow and goat dairies is shipped daily to the plant, which makes some 1 million pounds of cheese a year. A mixture of modern technology and science blends with Old World craftsmanship and intuition, all performed in historic facilities, which include a hand-dug cave where the cheese is aged.

Marin French has had ties with many colorful people. Customers through the years have included the DuPont family, Eleanor Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst, who was among the biggest customers through the Great Depression.

Boyce bought the company in 1998, after operating a 3 million-acre organic cattle ranch in Eastern California and Nevada.

"It's a terrific honor to be associated with this business," Boyce said. "It makes all of us feel a sense of history as we work with this living product. Our cheese may have a shelf life of about two months, but what has brought us here is a long life and a magnificent history."

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