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Cheese Please Me

Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference helps shape the industry



As the story goes, some years ago guerrilla artist Banksy was visiting Sonoma with some artist friends who took him to the Epicurean Connection in Sonoma. Sheana Davis, who knew Banksy's friends, didn't think much of the hooded young man spray-painting a stencil on the wall in her back room—after all, there are crows and other images painted by local artist Jonny Hirschmugl in the front of the store, so why not give the back a little love? Only later did she find out who Banksy was, but instead of fawning over his celebrity she was just excited that an artist had been inspired enough to leave a mark in her shop.

"I didn't know who he was at the time," says Davis, taking a moment from finalizing plans for her 11th annual Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference taking place next week in Sonoma. "He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and didn't say much."

SAY CHEESE Nicole Stanowski and Sheana Davis ham it up in Davis’ Sonoma cheese shop. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • SAY CHEESE Nicole Stanowski and Sheana Davis ham it up in Davis’ Sonoma cheese shop.

Davis' connection to the famous British street artist is not as unlikely as it may seem to those who know her. She's a champion of local artists, and each month shows a different artist's work in her shop. She buys one new piece a month, but mostly reserves space on the Epicurean Connection's walls for the rotating gallery. Davis runs a cheese shop, makes 500 gallons of the stuff each week and founded a conference dedicated to the craft of making the curdled-dairy delight—what the hell does her art collection have to do with cheese?

It's about celebrating a craft and appreciating art. Davis, a chef who trained in New Orleans before moving back to Sonoma, fell in love with cheese and made her own in 2009. Delice de la Vallee was awarded first place honors by the American Cheese Society the next year. Davis now spends time nurturing new cheese makers, awarding two scholarships to the conference to a new producer each year. Sometimes the eye-opening experience helps influence a decision not to move forward. "Last year, both ended up deciding against starting a cheese company," she says.

Davis' straightforward, realistic approach makes the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference a trendsetter in the industry. Bringing together producers, retailers, inspectors and the cheese-loving public helps create new partnerships and find out what works at each phase of the business. (One year after a session on licensing, many producers filed for trademarks.) And it brings many producers from out of state, too. "We bring a lot of Wisconsin cheeses in, because they're ahead of us and we can only learn from them," says Davis.

There have been many memorable moments in the 11 years of the conference. The first year started with a bang—and a pow and a wham and other comic-book adjectives—when fisticuffs broke out between a professor and a raw-milk producer. "We had a brawl," says Davis. "It was like a punk-rock show."

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