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WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM Celebrating Citrus Fascination with Fermentation A Wine Family’s Sister Act Along the Blossom Trails

A Sonoma West Magazine | Spring 2012


Water Buffaloes

One of the latest efforts of farmstead cheese-making in our region takes an unusual yet traditional tack. Story by Robin Hug

36 Spring 2012


... in Tomales?

On a grassy hilltop in Tomales, California, Craig Ramini has taken his vision of handcrafting mozzarella cheese and made it a reality. But this is no ordinary cheese, nor ordinary man for that matter—Ramini Mozzarella is being produced in the traditional method using domesticated water buffalo milk from the herd that Ramini has raised.

Discoveries 37


If you peek through the fence holes around the bend on Gericke Road, you can see the herd of the docile animals and their calves soaking up the sunshine and grazing on the green grass that Ramini says is an important component to making good cheese. Before the days of building a microcreamery and raising buffalo, however, Ramini got his start far from Northern California, working on Wall Street as a stockbroker. He later moved into the software industry in Silicon Valley. It was there that he realized he was tired of corporate life and needed a change.

The idea of making cheese came to Ramini one evening over dinner. Ramini’s sister-in-law, originally from Italy, wanted to know why all of the mozzarella di bufala was flown in to the United States. Ramini said she was asking, “What is wrong with us? Can we not make mozzarella; is somebody afraid to milk a water buffalo?” That’s when it hit him that this was the venture, or rather adventure, he was looking for. Thirty days later Craig Ramini sat down and wrote a business plan for Ramini Mozzarella. He then traveled to Toronto to interact with water buffalo, deciding that he did in fact want to pursue his idea. His research took him to Shaw River Buffalo Cheese Company in 38 Spring 2012

Australia’s Yambuk, Victoria, where he completed an apprenticeship handling water buffalo and which was followed by several trips to Italy to learn about the art of making mozzarella. I met Craig back in June of 2011, when he was tending to his nascent herd of water buffalo on the 25-acre dairy that he leases from a retired dairy family. At the time, he was working countless hours building a creamery and transforming the property into a place that visitors can enjoy. He invited me into the pasture and began to tell me the stories of switching from a life of finance to a life of farming. Ramini had to do his homework from the very beginning, and lots of it. Although he had a successful career that began straight out of college at Proctor and Gamble, learning how to purchase and care for a herd of large animals was unlike anything he had done before. The original nine female water buffalo Ramini purchased arrived at the dairy pregnant and began giving birth shortly after. By the time I came for my visit, Ramini was introducing me to Linda, Audrey and Helen, the first female calves born into his herd. The babies are named after friends and relatives, but his original adult females are named in favor of “rocker chicks” from the seventies including Janis, Annie and Pat. “This is Jimmy, after Jimmy Hendrix,” Ramini introduces me to one of his young steers. “He wants to play, but he is getting too big now and he could hurt somebody.” “I love you but you are too big to play like that anymore; you are not a baby,” Ramini tells Jimmy as I try to take his picture. Jimmy moves closer and although his sweet face tells me that he is just curious about a new visitor, his 600-pound stature makes it a bit unnerving to snap his photo. When doing research to purchase his herd, one of the first obstacles that Ramini discovered is that the Italians had been raising water buffalo on dairies for so long that the animals genetically evolved to be good dairy animals, whereas water buffalo in the United States are not bred that way. In order to prevent this problem in his own herd, Ramini had Italian water

When doing research to purchase his herd, one of the first obstacles that Ramini discovered is that the Italians had been raising water buffalo on dairies for so long that the animals genetically evolved to be good dairy animals, whereas water buffalo in the United States are not bred that way.


A big part of the water buffalo milk production depends on the food that the animals eat. “I had to learn a lot about grass; it is the beginning of the value chain. Good grass, good milk, good cheese. And it is amazing—there is a lot to learn about grass, it is not so simple, it can be pretty complicated.”

buffalo semen imported, hiring a vet to artificially inseminate the newest females in his herd. “My little starter herd, domestic U.S. water buffalo, is really raising the next generation of Italian water buffalo,” Ramini said. “As an entrepreneur you have to be willing to gut it out your first few years, wait for the genetic improvement to happen and be content with getting whatever milk they will give you, which won’t be

tremendous, but it will be enough to get the business started.” A big part of the water buffalo milk production depends on the food that the animals eat. In Tomales where the climate is fairly warm and the grass grows thick and green more months than not, it makes for ideal grazing ground. “I had to learn a lot about grass; it is the beginning of the value chain. Good grass, good milk, good cheese. And it is amazDiscoveries 39


West County

SEBASTOPOL GALLERY

150 N. Main St. Sebastopol, CA 95472 sebastopol-gallery.com 707-829-7200

come to the gallery for the finest local art

[ This page ] Craig and 14-day-old calf, photo by Will Atkinson; [ Page 36 ] Pregnant “girls” recently arrived from Arkansas, photo by Will Atkinson; [ Page 37 ] The final product—Buffalo Mozzarella, photo by Andrew Royal; [ Page 38 ] Ramini Mozzarella logo embedded on dairy’s wall, photo by Sarah Bradbury; [ Page 39 ] A view of part of the pasture, photo by Sarah Bradbury.

ing—there is a lot to learn about grass, it is not so simple, it can be pretty complicated,” he notes. Ramini refers to the game of grass as “the new art of livestock and dairies,” noting that the old days of just putting the animal out in the pasture are gone, replaced with attention to rotational grazing. Ramini moves his herd from pasture to pasture before the buffalo can eat the grass down, allowing the grass to replenish itself quickly and with as much nutrition as before. This is the basis for producing rich milk. Females are milked twice a day, providing Ramini with about two gallons of milk. Buffalo milk transforms to cheese 40 Spring 2012

at about a 25-percent rate, which is higher than making cheese from other animals’ milk because of its high butterfat content. Milk can be collected for up to three days before it needs to be transformed into cheese. At that point, Ramini pours the milk into the vat and begins to perfect his recipe. Fast forwarding to present day, Ramini is barely shaping his first balls of cheese and is getting ready to introduce himself to the cheese world. If you pay a visit to this latest addition of the California’s Artisan Cheese Trail, you may find Ramini walking through the pastures with his ‘girls’ or behind the viewing window shaping his buffalo mozzarella.


Buffalo cheese