Exceptional cheese starts with exceptional milk. No one knows this better than the five dairy farmers who make up Red Barn Family Farms, founded by veterinarian Dr. Terry Homan and his spunky wife, Paula, back in the mid 2000s. Every dairy farmer adheres to the Red Barn Rules, resulting in exceptionally happy cows that give give exceptionally good milk. Cupola is the company's signature cheese (their Heritage Weis 3-Year Cheddar is also one of my all-time favorites). Cupola is a white, hard, alpine style cheese crafted by U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich Furhmann for Red Barn Family Farms. This is a limited-availability cheese so if you see it at your favorite specialty cheese counter, buy it immediately.
2. Marieke Bacon Gouda, Holland's Family Cheese
U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman is known for making a variety of flavored goudas - mustard melange, cumin, foenegreek, insert another 10 flavors here, but she outdid herself this year with her new Bacon Gouda. Made on the Penterman family farm in Thorp, Wisconsin, this farmstead bacon gouda is chock full - and I mean freakin' chock full - of bacon. As most of you know, I come from a long family line of folks who don't eat a lot of cheese, and when I presented this cheese to my father on Christmas Eve (keep in mind he was recovering from the stomach flu), he took one bite and then kept eating. The whole thing. Because yeah, it's that good.
3. Petit Nuage, Landmark Creamery
Newcomer Cheesemaker Anna Landmark and her business partner Anna Thomas Bates put Wisconsin on the map with this French-style button sheep's milk cheese last year, and followed up this year with a shiny gold medal at the 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest for their Petit Nuage. Available seasonally from February through October, each cheese is just one ounce in weight and less than two inches in diameter - a perfect single portion. I've seen the cheese paired with honey, ginger, a variety of preserves, and even black pepper, but seriously, it's amazing alone and makes a lovely addition to a cheese board.
4. Queso Oaxaca, Cesar's Cheese
America's best string cheese. Period. I could just stop here, but I have to gush a bit more because I find it amazing that cheesemaking duo Cesar and Heydi Luis still hand-stretch every single batch of this delightfully stringy, salty, addictive cheese. I compare this bright white cow's milk cheese to a bag of potato chips. You can't eat just one, and before you realize what's happened, the entire package is gone. Popular with kids and adults alike, this is the one cheese that teenagers always, always expect me to have in my fridge, and when I don't, inform me I have failed their cheese needs.
5. Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Uplands Cheese
Just when you think there's nothing more that can be said about America's most awarded artisan cheese, Cheesemaker Andy Hatch hits it out of the park with another stellar season of alpine-style greatness. Pleasant Ridge Reserve has been so good for so long, many of us take it for granted. But the current wheels for sale - aged about 15 months - are some of the best cheese I've ever tasted. If you haven't had Pleasant Ridge in a while because you think it's old news, it deserves another look. Simply put, this cheese never goes out of style.
6. Three-Year Cheddar, Hook's Cheese
In a year when Tony and Julie Hook made national headlines with their 20-Year Cheddar (and then donated half of the proceeds - $40,000 to the Center for Dairy Research in Madison), their 3-Year Cheddar is still my favorite. When folks ask what cheese best describes Wisconsin, this is the cheese I put in their cart. Solid, sharp cheddar with a construction-orange hue that put Wisconsin cheddar on the map years ago. A true Wisconsin classic.
7. Dunbarton Blue, Roelli Cheese
Dunbarton is one of the few Wisconsin cheeses that can serve dual purposes on a cheese board: both Cheddar and Blue. That's because this cellar-aged, natural-rinded cheddar sports a few deep veins of blue. It literally tastes like a cloth-bound cheddar until you hit a blue vein, and then the heavenly combination of rustic cheddar and blue mold meet for a new flavor all its own. Remember the commercials from the '80s for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups - where chocolate and peanut butter accidentally meet to make the perfect candy bar? The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board should reenact that commercial for this cheese, because newly minted Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli continues to strike gold with cheddar + blue = Dunbarton Blue.
8. Extra Aged Goat, Sartori
Master Cheesemaker Pam Hodgson releases this limited-edition cheese twice a year, usually in summer and then in time for the year-end holidays. Hand-crafted in small batches, the 22-pound wheels are aged a minimum of 10-months. If you like Sartori's BellaVitano Gold, you'll like this cheese, as it reminds me of the Gold, but without the Gold's sweet fruity finish, and instead a deeper, tangier bite. Bright white, crumbly yet still sliceable, Sartori's Extra Aged Goat is a perennial award winner on the world stage and is the perfect goat's milk cheese to serve your friends who are under the impression they don't like goat's milk.
9. Roth's Private Reserve, Roth Cheese
I swear to God this cheese keeps getting better every year. Made in traditional copper vats and aged in the Roth Cellars in Monroe, Private Reserve is released on flavor, not age. It's always aged a minimum of six months, but the wheels this year have to be closer to one year. This is literally the best Gruyere cheese you will ever eat that does not have Gruyere in its name.
10. Jeffs' Select, Maple Leaf Cheese & Caves of Faribault
There's no easier way to class up a cheese board than with this aged cow’s milk gouda made by Master Cheesemaker Jeff Wideman at Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, and then aged by Cheesemaker Jeff Jirik at the Caves of Faribault in Minnesota. With its annatto-rubbed pumpkin-colored rind, this striking cheese sports a dark golden hue with deep caramel notes and tyrosene crystals the size of walnuts. Okay, well perhaps I'm exaggerating about that last part, but this cheese is so good that I can't exaggerate its taste enough. Buy. It. Now.