Stalking the Unsuspecting Mentor

Posted on March 10, 2009

When I made the decision to really commit to Alemar Cheese, I knew I was going to need someone in the business to call on for guidance and knowledge. I knew I wanted to make soft ripened cheeses. I had already tried a number of varieties, both domestic and imported, and the maker I kept returning to was Cowgirl Creamery.

Cowgirl was founded in 1997 by Peggy Smith and Sue Conley. They initially made fresh cheese exclusively, and, after getting that down, focused on soft ripened. Their first cheese, Mt. Tam, was an immediate hit, and since that time they’ve developed a number of additional varieties. Their cheeses have won a plethora of awards, and Cowgirl grew as the accolades mounted. You can find them at www.cowgirlcreamery.com. They also stock an impressive array of other artisan cheeses, primarily American. Besides the obvious fact that they were running a profitable operation, I just got a sense from reading up on the company that they were my kind of people, and as I did further research that became more and more apparent.

Early last Summer I sent an email to Peggy and Sue. With the success they’ve achieved, I was certainly one of many seeking an audience. A week or so later, Sue replied. She said I was welcome to come out and visit, and mentioned that she would be in Chicago for the American Cheese Society conference in late July. I was already planning to attend, but now it was set in stone: my main goal for the conference would be to meet Sue and find out if I had a chance to spend some time under her wing.

I found her late one afternoon at a day end cheese tasting. My nerves were jumping as I bided my time, waiting to introduce myself. She seemed to know everyone, so each time she left a conversation, she’d turn and start another. Ultimately, she broke free for a moment and I pounced. I’m sure an observer might describe my move as more of a sidle, but I assure you, it was definitely a pounce.

I said hello and she knew immediately who I was. We small talked a bit, and I mentioned that I had a trip planned to California in a few weeks. Sue said she would be happy to spend a morning with me touring both of Cowgirl’s production facilities.

Sue possesses a great sense of calm. I have no idea if she dabbles in zen, but it wouldn’t surprise me. She exudes joy and natural curiosity, and I felt like I’d known her a long time.

In early August, I made the drive to Cowgirl’s original site in Pt. Reyes Station, a rustic village in rural Marin County. I could smell the sea as I walked from the car to the refurbished barn that houses Cowgirl. Sue arranged for me to take a tour of the facilities with an assistant cheesemaker. He went through their process of cheesemaking, and it felt good, sort of conspiratorial, to be “talking the talk” with a real cheesemaker. As the morning unfolded, Cowgirl opened for business, and several visitors began to turn up. There is a lovely deli on site, and a crowd began to form, picking out provisions and wine for picnicking later. The entire place has a great vibe–I hope you’ll get the chance to visit, it’s more than worth the drive.

Next, I drove to Petaluma where the new, larger production site is located. Sue met me with a kind smile and suggested a tour. The facility is much larger, yet the feel is still very artisan. I had a chance to walk through their aging/holding rooms, and the aroma left me heady. Talking with an icon of the industry certainly contributed to the feeling. We walked past the two giant vats (keep in mind that “giant” in the artisan circles still falls under the toy category of the behemoth cheese producers) as Cowgirl’s cheesemakers went about the business of filling molds full of freshly cut curds.

I had a chance to meet a bunch of folks at Cowgirl, and to a person they seemed genuinely happy at work. What a wonderful thing to have created, a business teeming with fulfillment and purpose. As Sue walked me to my car, I popped the question, straight out: “Will you be my mentor?”, I asked. She smiled, and said yes. I tried my best to calmly accept her reply, but I’m sure she knew how much it pleased me. Just a few minutes prior to that, after I’d told her my story, she looked at me calmly and said “You can do this.” Those words will be forever etched in my memory, and I thank Sue with all my heart for her kindness and generosity.

Sue and I don’t talk all that often–She’s amazingly busy, and I try not to trouble her with things I can figure out on my own. But, whenever I’ve needed her time and counsel, she’s been there.

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