LONDONDERRY, Vt. - Jon Wright is outside his barn talking to a farmhand on a sunny early spring morning. Chores have long since been completed, and the cows - 40 black-and-white Holsteins and brown Jerseys, with names like Sally and Frosty - graze in a pasture fenced by old maple-lined stone walls. A cat scampers across the muddy drive and into the barn.
Called the Taylor Farm after its original owners, this 180-year-old agricultural operation in Londonderry looks like many others in Vermont, with its red barn and rolls of hay. What distinguishes it is that it is the only working farm left in the area, in part because the Wrights, Jon and his wife, Kate, have found a niche.
They make their own handcrafted Gouda, a cheese so sophisticated in flavor that it isn't even comparable to the washed-out grocery-store variety. The Wrights have won American Cheese Society awards for their farmstead and maple-smoked Goudas, both made with fresh raw milk, not the pasteurized stuff that is the main ingredient in the store-bought product.
They sell the cheese, and other Vermont products and gifts, from a store on the farm. The cheese-making room is visible from the shop, and the Wrights welcome an audience when they make cheese from their herd's milk (usually two to three days each week).
The Taylor Farm is one of 34 on the Vermont Cheese Trail, a creation of the Vermont Cheese Council to promote a product for which the state is famous. The 34 cheese-makers in the group produce more than 150 farmstead and artisanal varieties.
Vermont has become the Napa Valley of cheese, a prediction that Allison Hooper made over a decade ago. Hooper is the owner of the Vermont Butter & Cheese Co., founding president of the Vermont Cheese Council, and current president of the American Cheese Society. She points out that people can drive around the state sampling cheese, much like tourists visiting vineyards around Northern California.
Cheese-makers along the trail tend to be clustered, making it easy to visit a few in one day.
"When you look at cheese-making and farming, it's broken up geographically," says Ellen Ecker Ogden, coordinator of the council and author of "The Vermont Cheese Book," which sketches the landscape of the state's artisanal industry.
"If you're in Burlington, there are five or six cheese-makers up there," she says. "If you're near Londonderry, there are five or six cheese-makers around there as well. You get a sense of what makes different cheeses in different places."
Visiting the farms and their operations also illustrates that cheese - the kind to be savored with bread and wine, or simply by itself - is more than a cellophane-wrapped wedge on the grocer's shelf. Each cheese is a unique blend of milk and cultures that individual cheese-makers craft and let age into a delicacy.
"Tasting cheese on the farm is quite a different experience than tasting it in a store, a restaurant or standing at your kitchen counter," Ogden writes on her book's website, vermontcheesebook.com. "The smell of the animals in the barn, the view of the verdant fields, and sight of farmers moving fences for crop rotation or tenderly ushering their animals into milking stalls - these are the special ingredients that make Vermont cheese so exceptional."
It is these smells, sounds, and sights that are remembered with each nibble of a particular cheese, making cheese a delicious souvenir.
Cheese is made year-round, and traveling segments of the trail can be an interesting diversion during a ski trip. Near Killington and Okemo are several cheese-makers, including the Taylor Farm in Londonderry.
At the Woodcock Farm, north of Londonderry, Mark and Gari Fischer make a variety of cheeses from their flock of East Friesian sheep, which graze on 45 acres on their small working farm. They milk their ewes every morning from spring until October, and craft a variety of cheeses, including feta, a soft camembert-like cheese with the name Summer Snow, and a harder cheese called the Weston Wheel.
They welcome visitors who are curious about the process of making sheep's milk cheese, and who want to sample and purchase it. Lambing season starts in March, says Mark, making this farm fun for kids.
Other visitor-friendly places in southern Vermont include the Crowley and Grafton cheese companies. Crowley is the state's oldest cheese factory. In a brown clapboard building that resembles a large house, they make Colby cheese the same way that Winfield Crowley and his wife, Nellie, did starting in 1882. Visitors can watch workers rake the curd, as well as drain, wash, and press it into molds.
The Grafton Village Cheese Co. was founded in 1890, but fire destroyed the original factory. The Windham Foundation, which is responsible for restoring much of the Village of Grafton, resurrected the company in the 1960s, and today Grafton makes award-winning cheddar sold in its cheese shop in the charming village.
None of these cheese-makers offer Ben-&-Jerry's-type factory tours. They are mostly family operations where information is best gleaned by asking questions. But do sample the cheese at every opportunity. Then take a slice of the Cheese Trail home.
Peggy Shinn, a freelance writer in Rutland, Vt., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.