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Preferred Curds

Sonoma's Epicurean Connection a cheesemaker's paradise

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SAY CHEESE! Sheana Davis, right, and daughter Karina at their downtown Sonoma shop. - JAMES FANUCCHI
  • James Fanucchi
  • SAY CHEESE! Sheana Davis, right, and daughter Karina at their downtown Sonoma shop.

When Sheana Davis struck upon the name "the Epicurean Connection," she decided to trademark it in the hopes of one day opening a culinary business. Because she was just 16 years old at the time—a self-described "cooking nerd" who read cookbooks for fun—a teacher helped her file the paperwork at the Sonoma County courthouse.

Almost three decades later, the chef/cheesemaker/caterer/educator is the proud owner of the Epicurean Connection, a specialty cheese shop and cafe in Sonoma. "As a kid, I used to beg to stay home from school," Davis tells me on a recent afternoon, "so that I could help my grandfather forage and cook."

This hands-on approach to learning has underpinned Davis' entire career. Determined to cook and not sit in a classroom, Davis graduated from high school a year early and enrolled in the SRJC culinary program after finding that her first choice, the dairy program, had been canceled due to low enrollment.

A couple of years later, inspired by the cookbook of legendary New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace, the 19-year-old SRJC graduate rang up the chef to ask for an internship. "He thought I was a nut!" she says, laughing. "I called every week for weeks and weeks and weeks."

Her determination eventually paid off, and the fourth-generation Sonoman headed to the Big Easy, where she forged a lifelong relationship that pulls her back to Louisiana a few times a year.

And yet a review of her life makes one thing clear: Davis was destined for dairy. For almost two decades, she's run a culinary marketing business that has launched 17 cheese companies. She created (with the late Ig Vella of Vella Cheese) the annual Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, which will bring together cheesemakers, retailers and aficionados for the 10th straight year later this month, running Feb. 23–27.

Once she was ready to get her own hands curd-y, she apprenticed with cheesemakers in Vermont, Wisconsin and Texas. In 2010, her Delice de la Vallee cheese (a blend of triple-cream cow milk and fresh goat milk) won the American Cheese Society's blue ribbon for Fresh Unripened Mixed Milk Cheese. Just last year, her popular monthly cheesemaking class was featured on the Food Channel.

Housed in a high-ceilinged building with pale-green tin walls, tabletops made of reclaimed doors and flourishes of Mardi Gras beads, the "chef's pantry" of the Epicurean Connection sells everything from Davis' own homemade cheese to pickled cauliflower to maple candy and Louisiana hot sauce.

For spreadable delights, there's the flavored Butter Bar ($9.95 for a trio) and Jam Bar ($6.95 for a trio), which includes Davis' acclaimed honey orange blossom and raspberry rose petal jam, recently featured in Sunset magazine. The cafe also serves a variety of tartines, grilled cheese sandwiches, crêpes and salads ($7.95–$9.95).

"Building community is a huge part of our shop," Davis tells me, ticking off the events—open mic nights, guest chef appearances, art shows—that crowd the cafe's calendar.

Teenage cooking nerds, take heart: if you dare to name your dreams, they just might come true.

Epicurean Connection, 122 W. Napa St., Sonoma. 707.935.7960. The Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference runs Feb. 23–27; for a chance to win tickets, enter our cheese contest at www.bohemian.com.

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