LAFAYETTE -- The tale of Daryl and Mary McCosker's ownership of Skyhill Napa Valley Farms begins with a sneeze, becomes an adventure, includes tragic loss and arrives at the present day with award-winning goat cheese.
That chevre goat cheese was voted fourth place in the world by an international panel of experts at the 2012 World Championship Cheese Contest, by the way.
The Lafayette couple originally invested in goats as pets for their three children, who suffered from animal allergies. Various associations, through Daryl's work in the construction and computer software industries, led to a visit to Amy Wend's Napa Valley farm and, in turn, the purchase of 160 acres of Solano County land west of Rio Vista.
"Amy got me up there when there were lots of babies, lots of kids, and that was it," Daryl admits.
Plus, he preferred goat cheese to cow's milk cheese and saw the potential for a third career in a lifetime of adventurous investing.
Forming a partnership with Wend and master cheese maker Dave Grace, the McCoskers moved beyond Oscar and Rosco, the family goats, to the second chapter in their story.
Daryl was describing the construction of new, modern dairy facilities and their plans to eventually have the company's 500 goats and cheese-making operations in one location when Mary jumped in.
"We were just finishing the facility in Rio Vista when it happened," Mary began, allowing the suspense to build.
Over a six-month period, every single goat died, and experts at University of California at Davis advised them not to bring goats back for a year.
"That was irrelevant," Daryl adds, his tone revealing the bitter residual of the loss, "because it took us five years to go through litigation."
All the while, Skyhill continued to produce its sought-after cheese and the equally popular nonfat goat milk yogurt that accounts for 20 percent of its sales, using milk supplied by Jackson-Mitchell Inc.
"We finished the cheese plant in the meantime and are aiming for 600 goats. The earliest we will be milking our own goats is next spring," Mary says, bringing the story into the present.
Like most artisans, the McCoskers take pride in having complete control of their craft and their products.
"The yogurt is all natural, kosher, with agave for the sweetener and fresh, Grade A goat milk. The cheese is made with no frozen curd," Daryl insists.
To emphasize his point, he gets specific.
"You collect the milk, pasteurize it, add cultures to create the cheese, then sack it up -- all by hand. You drain the whey, press it, put in your various mixtures (Skyhill makes a jalapeño, pepper corn, and plain chevre), and package it. The package -- have you seen Emily? The Nubian with the long, floppy ears on the label?" he asks.
Mary, picking up the narrative, speaks of their cheese maker, Grace.
"He'll stay up all night to wait for the pH (acidity reading) to drop. He doesn't compromise on quality. It has to be just right, chemically ... " she begins, before Daryl jumps in to finish her thought, saying, "Grace understands milk and how to tweak it to make it taste perfect."
For the world competition, Daryl says that Grace decided to enter on a whim, grabbed a random sample it out of stock, and sent it off.
"Most cheese makers slave over their selection, but we just wanted to have our cheese graded," Daryl recalls. "When he called me, he said, 'You're not going to believe this.' Honestly? My concern was who around here had beat us."
Instead, Grace's cheese fell only two tenths of a point behind the first place Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery winner.
"Instantly, we're on the map because or that," Daryl says happily.
"Right now, we can take that cheese and go to a chef and even if we don't know it's good, they do," Mary adds. "It's an affirmation."
With their yogurt distributed nationwide, and their cheeses carried by local and regional establishments like The Culinary Institute in Yountville, V. Sattui Winery in Saint Helena, the Napa Valley Wine Train and Diablo Foods in Lafayette, the company is riding the wave of sustainable farming and the locavore movement.
Eventually, the McCoskers hope to open the dairy plant for tours and show off front gardens filled with vegetables and herbs used in their cheeses. Three operational windmills and a nearby railroad museum may make it a daycation destination. And if that isn't enough, they will recreate the "goat fests" their children once enjoyed.
"We'll have (goat) kids that (human) kids can bottle feed," Daryl speculates, "and maybe a solar roof, and a community garden ..."
Mary, laughing and celebrating their new challenges, says, "the dream is that we live long enough to make some money, but really, Daryl is just an outside guy who has a way with animals."