Comfortable Cows, Delectable Cheese

Great cheese starts with great milk. John Fiscalini and family produce both.

By Jamie Cole

John has a respect for the past with an eye on the future. Behind him are vats that store manure for the new methane digester, which heats waste and converts it to energy that powers his modern dairy.

John has a respect for the past with an eye on the future. Behind him are vats that store manure for the new methane digester, which heats waste and converts it to energy that powers his modern dairy.

John Fiscalini knew all along that his family, going back generations, made cheese—only they made it out of necessity. The mountains around his ancestral Swiss homeland—the tiny town of Lionza—often made the transport of fresh milk treacherous or impossible, particularly during the harsh winters. Cheesemaking was more than added value; it was a way to avoid wasting the work of the family dairy.

Hundreds of years later and 6,000 or so miles away in the flat, fertile San Joaquin Valley near Modesto, California, Fiscalini Farms stands as a laudable example of a modern dairy with an eye on premium product and preservation of the environment.

Those are touchstones John’s ancestry would understand. But until about a decade ago, there was a missing slice at Fiscalini Farms: fresh, farmstead cheese.

John calls his cheese business “the dream,” one with roots date back to 1705 Lionza. But the dream had to grow in 2000 California, where the cheese business was dominated by factories, not farmsteads. Still, the California Milk Advisory Board wanted to change the image of cheesemaking in the state, and that fit perfectly with John’s plans. He took some classes with the Board, and late in 2000 he made his first batch of cheese.

It wasn’t as if the fundamental ingredient was a problem. John is a dairyman. “I have milk in my blood,” he says. “Through all that research into my family, going generations back it was dairy, dairy, dairy.” The land John works today is the same land his father and his grandfather worked.

It’s still a family business in every sense. John’s mother and two sisters have ownership in the dairy, and John is the manager. His wife Heather is national sales manager for Fiscalini Cheese Company. His daughters keep books and manage human resources—25 employees in the dairy and 12 in the cheese business. And his son Brian, fresh out of college, is back on the farm after a dairy internship in Wisconsin.

Blank Canvas

Fiscalini Cheese Company uses raw, unpasteurized milk, preserving flavor and health benefits. Mariano Gonzales, Fiscalini’s cheesemaker, says John’s raw milk is remarkably clean. It’s the bacteria that’s key to any great cheese, says Mariano.

“John’s milk is a blank canvas,” he says. “I can push John’s milk in any direction with the right culture.”

Like Fiscalini’s ancestors, Mariano Gonzales’ family in Paraguay made cheese from necessity. He began learning the craft as a teenager. He then left Paraguay and came to the U.S. to hone his skills, hoping to return to the family in South America.

Mariano Gonzales

Mariano Gonzales

But when he went home, Paraguay was a different country. A violent coup in 1998 left the country unstable, and proved catastrophic for Mariano’s family business there. “My milk tanks were emptied on the road every day, because the authorities thought I was smuggling guns into the city,” he says. Mariano sold the family business and moved back to the U.S., where the California Milk Advisory Board helped him find the job with John Fiscalini in 2001.

“When I met Mariano, it was magic,” John says. “It’s a match made in heaven.” Mariano helped perfect the recipe for San Joaquin Gold and helped develop three other basic cheeses: Lionza, cheddar in several flavors and fresh mozzerella—the only product made from pasteurized milk since it’s not aged.

Mariano brought cheesemaking knowledge—along with access to libraries of cheese cultures and years of research and preparation—to the already rich Fiscalini dairy tradition, and the combination proved combustible.

Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment is one of the the most recent: Fiscalini’s 18-month Cheddar won the World Cheese Association’s award for best extra mature cheddar in the world, the first time in the 20-year history of the WCA the award has gone to someone outside of Great Britain.

“Cheese is a noble food, but it’s an honest food,” Mariano says, “because it’s made in such a natural way. I don’t make it, I guide the bacteria—that’s what makes the cheese.”

That philosophy was a great fit for Fiscalini.

“When people ask, ‘How do you make great cheese?’ I say I can’t do it without Mariano and he can’t do it without me,” John says. And there’s your perfect match.

That perfect match is a testament to John’s acumen as a dairyman, and to the heritage gifted him by his family. Only animals born and raised at Fiscalini Farms are milked, a practice that dates back more than 50 years.

John says the comfort of his 1,400-head herd is the family’s livelihood. “Comfortable cows give more milk,” he says. “We may spend more money on cleanliness and sanitation than we get in monetary bonuses, but longevity and comfort in cows is hard to measure.”

You can measure the production, though. Fiscalini cows average 26,000 to 27,000 pounds of milk a year without the milk-boosting hormone BST. That’s about 30% higher than the California average, 40% higher than the national average.

It will pay off for the cheese, too. “As we grow in the cheese industry, we can prove to the consumer that there’s quality at every step,” John says. To customers at high-end cheese shops and specialty grocery stores—where John sells some of his cheeses—that level of proof is demanded.

John says the comfort of his 1,400-head herd is the family’s livelihood.

John says the comfort of his 1,400-head herd is the family’s livelihood.

Gold-Medal Mistake

Since California wasn’t known for the kind of small-batch, gourmet cheeses John had in mind, there was almost no practical groundwork laid for starting that kind of business. Just finding the equipment he needed was proving a challenge.

The small cheese vats John needed were in scrapyards, skeletons of an abandoned craft. John did manage to find what he needed, “but it cost almost as much to fix it up as it would have to design a brand new one.” And that’s what he did for much of his equipment. “Fortunately, I had a guy working for me who had experience with stainless steel welding. So we designed most of what we needed,” he says.

Then there was the matter of the cheese itself. John was a neophyte, and the first cheesemaker he hired wasn’t very experienced, either.

“We found a recipe for Fontina cheese we thought we could make, so we bought the culture and made our first batch,” John says. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Once again, equipment issues kept John and his cheesemaker from following the recipe precisely.

Some dreams are just destined to be, though: John calls that first attempt his “gold medal mistake,” even if it took a new cheesemaker to show up and tell him so. “I hired a new cheesemaker about 4 months after I started the business,” John says. It was the hire that brought the dream to life.

That new hire was Mariano Gonzales, a lifelong cheesemaker who told John the cheese he and his former employee had been making wasn’t Fontina, but it was good.

With Mariano’s refinements, it was good enough to eventually win a gold medal at the World Cheese Awards in 2004 and repeat the year after that. San Joaquin Gold, as it came to be called, was some mistake.

Lionza or Bust

John—with master cheesemaker Mariano in tow—finally made a trip to his homeland in 2005. As with Mariano’s hiring, fate intervened with the dream when some of John’s distant Swiss relatives saw the Web site promoting his cheese and contacted him.

“They were very gracious, and when we made the trip they showed us around,” John says. Cheesemakers in and around Lionza all seemed to be making the same style of cheese, and John deduced this was what his family made as well.

With Mariano’s help, they developed the recipe that John sells as Lionza, the Swiss Alpine cheese that in many ways John was born to make.

Past Meets Hi-Tech Present

It’s not all old-fashioned, all the time at Fiscalini Farms, though. John likes to say his farm is where technology merges with a reverence for the land. That is embodied in a new methane digester, an ultra-modern machine that converts manure to electricity.

The process powers the whole farm, and the Fiscalinis even sell electricity back to the grid. It’s a forward-thinking addition to the farm in energy-strapped California, even if John says it could take 15 or so years to pay for itself.

John hopes the cheese business, the environmental emphasis and the innovative dairy have the family farm on solid footing, preparing for yet another generation.

“It has always been in the back of my mind to come back to the family business—something I looked forward to,” says 24-year-old son Brian.

It’s a scary time to enter the dairy business, but premium-priced cheese helps weather the storm, Brian says. And the awards—which just keep coming—won’t hurt either.