TURLOCK, Calif. -- Fifteen years ago, Anto Baghassarian had a small East Hollywood shop where he processed blocks of mozzarella into the string cheese he learned to make at his family's business in Lebanon.
Now his Karoun Dairies Inc. operates a plant in the state's dairy heartland, turning a couple silos of milk each day into about 16,000 pounds of feta, queso fresco, and other exotic cheeses adapted for American palates.
Aided by an abundant supply of milk, an increasing nationwide appetite for cheese, and some savvy marketing, manufacturers such as Karoun are contributing to a production boom that could soon propel California past Wisconsin to become the nation's top cheese producer.
California is now the home of Hilmar Cheese Co. near Modesto, the world's largest single-site, cheese making operation. Every day, the plant churns out more than a million pounds of cheddar, Monterey Jack, and mozzarella cheeses that are sold under a variety of brand names.
Last year, California turned out 2.14 billion pounds of cheese -- nearly a quarter of the nation's supply. The total marked a huge increase from 1985, when the state had only about 7 percent of the national market.
The growth has put California within striking distance of the 2.4 billion pounds made each year in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin's share of the growing national cheese market has fallen from more than a third in 1985 to just over a quarter last year.
Wisconsin, which lost its title as top milk-producing state to California in 1993, is nowhere near surrendering, said Patrick Geoghegan of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Geoghegan said Wisconsin's 1,300 licensed producers make 600 varieties of cheese, compared to the 250 offered by California's 55 producers.
"Bearing the title 'America's Dairyland' is about more than just producing the greatest amount of commodity cheese," he said. "It's about cheese quality, quality, quality."