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What’s in a Cheese’s Name? Money.

gordan edgar

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer as well as a cheesemonger. Maybe it’s because I listened to a lot of punk rock in my youth. Or maybe it’s just because I take my self-appointed job as guardian of small farmers and real food makers seriously. Whatever the reason, the misuse or misrepresentation of words and phrases to market cheese is my biggest foodie pet peeve.

For the last few decades, a new generation of cheesemakers has attempted to change the perception of American-made cheese. Any trip to a farmers market or specialty food store will show that in large part, their work has paid off. Most foodies these days simply wouldn’t think of serving an all-European cheese plate at a party: Quality and Michael Pollan-esque localism have changed the way we look at domestic cheese.

Can mass-produced be ‘artisan?’

These new expectations have created new problems. With the advent of quality small-production, handmade cheese being made right here in the United States, you can count on any useful description being usurped to market mass-produced foods. I never really liked “artisan” as a description, but certainly almost everyone in the small-production food world had to give it up for good when Jack in the Box started advertising — and trademarking — “artisan Ciabatta bread” for its sandwiches.

I’ve been ranting about the misuse of specific cheese terms for years: “terroir” used by a company that buys a large percentage of their curds from out of state; “No Hormones” (as opposed to saying no rBST) when milk without hormones would be a scientific impossibility; “Farmhouse,” which means nothing, to imply “Farmstead,” which means cheese made at a farm using only the milk of one’s own herd. Recently “grass-fed” has been appearing on labels even though — unlike in the meat industry — there is no legally defined meaning for “grass-fed” dairy. Most companies so far are trying to present their farming practices honestly when they use this term, but it can mean anything — that the goats/sheep/cows forage freely most of the time or “we let ’em out every once in awhile when we clean the barn.”

I try to take a long view and remind myself that all these things are really signs of success. While cheese sellers and cheesemakers have to stay on top of who claims what and the terms the public is growing cynical about, larger companies would not be co-opting and misusing these terms if the public perception of small-production, local cheese weren’t so positive. However, I recently became aware of one case where I can’t really get philosophical. It strikes at the very core of those of us who want to support our local farmers.

Sonoma cheese conundrum

Seana Doughty at Bleating Heart Cheese moved to Sebastopol, Calif., a few years ago and makes her cheese at a nearby Sonoma County farm. While Doughty is mostly known for her sheep cheeses, she started making batches of cow’s milk cheese when her sheep were dry. Because it’s a cheese made in Sonoma County from the milk of Sonoma County cows and using an Italian recipe, she decided to call it “Sonoma Toma.”

Unfortunately, she soon received a cease and desist letter from the makers of Sonoma Jack saying that she can no longer use the word “Sonoma” for her cheese. Yes, even though she lives in Sonoma County and makes cheese in Sonoma County from the milk of Sonoma County cows, Sonoma Foods Inc. thinks they should own the rights to any cheese made with that name.

Sonoma by any other name

I can respect curmudgeonliness. I’m a Northern Californian and if this were the story of an old-time Sonoman resentful of a carpetbagging cheese newbie, I would probably have some sympathy for them. After all, Sonoma Jack had been made for about 80 years before Doughty came along. However, in our new landscape of cheese marketing, things have taken an ironic turn. The once-local Sonoma Jack is now made by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pulmuone Holdings Co., Ltd. of South Korea. If that weren’t enough, the cheese is not being produced in Sonoma County anymore, but in a factory about 100 miles away. They will fight for the name “Sonoma,” but, as a representative of the company told me, “We do not market ourselves as ‘local’ or ‘made in Sonoma.'”

Yes, the company arguing that it has the rights to the name of a town/county makes a cheese that doesn’t have any farming or cheesemaking connection to that place anymore. When I started selling cheese nearly two decades ago, I never dreamed we’d have to worry about a multinational corporation trying to prevent a small cheesemaker from using the name of her county for her cheese.

Legally speaking, Sonoma Foods Inc. might have a winning case. Place names are not usually allowed to be trademarked, but other factors come in to play. Still, a small company, which probably can’t afford to take a fight like this to court, being denied the use of a geographic description of their immediate area turns the concept of local cheese on its head. “Local” is probably the most valuable cheese marketing commodity these days. It would be a shame to see it join the list of once-useful words and phrases that are being manipulated to promote the opposite of what they once meant.

This week’s Zester Daily guest contributor Gordon Edgar loves cheese and worker-owned co-ops, and has been combining both of these infatuations as the main cheese buyer for Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco since 1994. Edgar has been a judge at numerous national cheese competitions, a board member for the California Artisan Cheese Guild and has had a blog since 2002. His cheese memoir, “Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge” was published in 2010 by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Photo: Gordon Edgar. Credit: Myleen Hollero