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Point Reyes Invents a New Kind of Blue

If life hands you 500 Holsteins, maybe it's time to make cheese.

November 18, 2001|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POINT REYES — When Bob Giacomini and daughters decided to go into cheese-making, they built a cheese plant first and figured out how to actually run it second. If this sounds odd, it was. But the Giacominis not only had pockets deep enough to afford it, they had the milk. They owned a 700-acre dairy farm on Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco, with 500 Holstein cows.

After luring the manager of the Maytag Blue plant in Iowa to oversee the new Californian cheese works, they began production in August 2000. The result is Point Reyes Original Blue, a moist and rich blue cheese that may become an American classic.

The test will be if it can wear its business plan origins proudly while still aiming for the top end of the market. Point Reyes Original Blue is to cheese what boy bands are to pop music: a marketing invention. The Giacominis have put their money where their dreams are. If they succeed in launching a new cheese, they may become a model for dairy farmers to keep their herd sizes down and incomes up in the intensive California milk market.

Since buying his Tomales Bay ranch in 1959, Bob Giacomini was largely content to work in this market and send the milk he produced off to the local co-op for pasteurization and homogenization. But as he entered his 60s in 1998, he had accumulated a massive herd of 500 Holsteins. This is roughly 10 times the scale of the average Wisconsin farm and, while increasingly typical in California, it is not ideal for the farmer, the livestock or the environment. He wanted a change.

"I wanted to downsize the herd to take the pressure off me and off the land as far as pollution control goes," he says. Five hundred cows in one place, he explains, produce a lot of manure, which washes into the bay after heavy rains and poses a threat to local oyster beds.

One way to do this, but retain income, he realized, was to turn to cheese-making. Milk commands a better price in the form of cheese. If he made enough of a type capable of commanding a decent premium, he reckoned that he could reduce the size of the herd. This equation is so basic to the Giacominis that they are still as likely to call Point Reyes Original Blue a "value-added dairy product" as "cheese."

But the "real main" reason that Bob Giacomini says he decided to go into cheese-making was his daughters. "The girls didn't want to be in the dairy business," he says, "but when we mentioned a cheese plant, they jumped up. It's brought the family back on the farm."

Three of his four daughters--Lynn, Jill and Karen (the fourth daughter, Diana, works in banking in San Francisco)--then set about deciding what type of cheese they should make. Hard? Soft? Edam? Camembert? "We had no background, no experience in cheese-making," says daughter Karen. "We all have business degrees."

So they canvassed chefs, shopkeepers and dairy industry wonks. "Time and again the word 'blue' came up," she says. "We also learned there was no premium California blue, especially a farmstead. We thought, 'Hey, there's a hole out there, let's fill it."'

After more than a year of research, in June 1999, the father and daughters began converting an old barn into a state-of-the-art cheese plant with two 1,500-gallon vats capable of producing more than a quarter-million pounds of cheese a year. The family refuses to say how much they've spent on the project. They knew what to do, says Karen, "from visiting other plants around the country." But by the spring of 2000, they still didn't have a cheese-maker and the most they had done to learn cheese-making was to take a several-day mini-course in Minnesota.

Then they met Monte McIntyre. If Point Reyes Original Blue began anywhere, it began in South Dakota, where Monte McIntyre was raised on a dairy farm. "I grew up in a family, what I would term a Velveeta-type family," he says. "We really didn't have a taste for fine cheese. But even as a child the few times we would have a meal in town, on my salad, I would always order blue cheese dressing."

McIntyre drifted through early adulthood until he came back to the lactic magic of dairy. When he went to college for the first time, it wasn't to study dairying, but the history of the West at the University of South Dakota. After serving in the Army in the 1960s, there were more history courses, business courses, jobs in electronics, sales and even stabs at a construction business.

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