For three generations, the Giacomini family has been raising cows in Marin County, California—and 17 years ago, a decision to start turning the cows’ organic milk into unique cheeses changed the trajectory of the family business forever. Along with their parents, Bob and Dean Giacomini, today three Giacomini sisters—Diana Giacomini Hagan, Lynn Giacomini Stray and Jill Giacomini Basch—own and operate Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, which produces some of the most beloved and recognized cheeses in the country.
We spoke with co-owner and chief marketing officer Jill Giacomini Basch, who shared the story behind Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, what makes the cheese and its dairy so special and one very unexpected way to enjoy the company’s Original Blue.
What’s the story behind Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company?
My dad was raised on his parents’ dairy farm three miles south of here, and that’s where he grew his love of the region and agriculture, and learned he wanted to pursue being a dairyman himself. He went to college, got married, and then together, he and his wife bought this property in 1959—720 acres situated 3 miles north of the town of Point Reyes.
The farm was a working dairy when they bought it, and they made it their life’s work. It grew into a successful dairy—at its height in the mid-1990s, it had 500 Holsteins—and all of the milk was sent to our local creamery processor in Petaluma, in Sonoma County. Over time, that was frustrating for my dad to see the fruit of his labor to be trucked away, branded and distributed to Bay Area consumers. He wanted to have a product that would represent his hard work. He always thought if he produced a product it would be cheese, but he didn’t have the resources to do it.
They had four daughters. We all grew up on the property and really appreciated and loved the farm, but we were free to explore whatever it was that we wanted for ourselves. They really encouraged us to explore all sorts of different interests away from the farm, so we weren’t your typical farm kids. Rather than burden us with the responsibility that working on the farm was going to be our obligation, my mother pushed us away. That allowed us to not only gain life experience and specific business skills, but the freedom to choose if and when we wanted to come back to the family business—which we all did.
Three of the daughters, in the late Nineties, launched Pt Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, which we launched in 2000. When we launched the company and wrote the business plan, we saw there was a need for high-quality handcrafted blue cheese in the country, and more research showed there was no blue cheese being made in the state of California. It also fit our needs because it was a cheese everyone could identify with—we didn’t have that hurdle of having to explain the style of cheese, and it was something people could enjoy as a table cheese but also incorporate into a lot of cooking applications.
Karen [Giacomini Howard], my oldest sister, had a part-time role throughout the years, and left the company in 2015. Diana joined in 2009 as our CFO, and together Diana, Lynn (who acts as COO) and I are equal co-owners of the business. We act as the executive team in lieu of the designated CEO.
Tell us a little bit about where you are located. How do the characteristics of where you farm influence your cheese?
We’re on 720 acres of farmland situated 3 miles north of the town of Point Reyes, right beside Tomales Bay. It’s a really scenic area of West Marin County, about an hour north of San Francisco. Historically, this region is known for producing some of the very best milk in the country. A lot of it has to to with the terroir, which includes the climate: the Pacific Ocean breezes, being so close to the ocean, and the temperate climates. We’re always at a pretty moderate 50- to 70-degree range; that’s really good for the health and well-being of our animals.
We take a lot of pride in our cow comfort, a dairy industry term for the overall care and habitat that we provide for our animals, for when they’re inside our barns and when they’re on pasture. We pasture them year-round, whether or not they are grazing in our pastures in the green season (December through June/July, depending on the rains that year). The other half of the year, the primary component of their diet is from our property, because every May we harvest our grasses for silage.
What’s unique about the products you sell?
The quality of the milk we produce is so high because of how we care for our animals and because of this great climate in which we farm. It’s very fresh and clean tasting. It’s got a sweetness and a bit of a bright citrus finish to it. We take great pride preserving and showcasing that great flavor in our milk in each one of our cheeses. I always like to start cheese tastings with a glass of milk or our fresh mozzarella (if we’re making it, which is in the summer), because it gives people a baseline for the flavors from our milk.
Which of your cheeses is most popular? What’s your personal favorite of your cheeses?
From Toma and Bay Blue to our seasonal fresh mozzarella in the summertime (and now we’re starting to release a bit of gouda!), I love all of our cheeses! That’s like asking me which child I like the most. Of course, Original Blue has always been a favorite around here, because it’s the one that’s responsible for the growth of the company. I love that it still has a loyal following and a fan base—we owe a lot to it.
What are some of the challenges of operating a small food business?
Oh gosh—there are so many! One of them is keeping our attention, first and foremost, on food safety—working with local, state and FDA agencies to always be really ahead of changing requirements and regulations.
We’re also in the process of finishing construction on a new production facility in Petaluma, east of us in Sonoma County. For the first time, we will be making cheese off the property, although our Original Blue will still be made on our Point Reyes property.
What’s one way to serve your cheese that people don’t necessarily think to try?
We love to serve Original Blue as an ice cream. There are two ways to do it: One is to make it from scratch, which we do at The Fork, our culinary center on the farm. Our chef, Jennifer Luttrell, serves it in an ice cream sandwich in between two house-made ginger cookies. The combination of the cold, creamy ice cream, the hint of blue cheese and the sweet spiciness of the cookie is amazing.
Another way to make it is to purée blue cheese with some cream in a mixer, and then fold it into a really good quality store bought vanilla ice cream, like Häagen-Dazs. You can make it as strong or mild as you like. Then, pair it with ginger cookies, or you can crush some cookies and add a drizzle of honey to make it more like a sundae.
What kind of legacy do you and your family hope to leave behind?
We sold our development rights through an easement program with the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. What that means is that this property, the 720 acres, will forever in perpetuity remain as open space in agriculture. I hope that my grandchildren are making cheese here in the farm at some point in the future. But even if they’re not, I’m very pleased that they will at least be able to come and see this farm in the beautiful state that it’s in today.
What’s one thing consumers don’t know about cheese that they should know?
How healthy it is for you! It’s a great source of healthy fat and protein, and it fills you up and satiates you. People ask me all the time: “Do you eat cheese every day?” Absolutely.