El Dorado of Wine: Exploring Calaveras Tasting Rooms

I visited a number of tasting rooms in and around the gold rush town of Murphy’s CA this weekend. My brother raised his children in Murphy’s but I hadn’t been back in nearly 10 years. When they were little, there were 3 or 4 wineries in town. Now there are well over 20, with new and expanding grape cultivation evident on the drive up Highway 4. Down in the valley, the road is lined with apple and peach orchards as it always was. As it reaches the higher elevations of the Sierra Foothills, Highway 4 gives way to glimpses of vineyards and new plantings between rolling hills.

Many wineries have opened tasting rooms on or near Main Street in Murphy’s. If the July 4th weekend was a bellweather, this once declining community is now a thriving village of cafes, bistros, boutiques and wine establishments, all grown up around the tasting rooms. Great care has gone into establishing the atmosphere of each room.

Day One:
I loved the intimate and funky Zucca Mountain Vineyards tasting room with it’s cool, dark stone cellar, wall of awards, and an afterhours patio with music and misters on a 100-degree plus day. Their 2008 Barbera was smooth, forceful and balanced with soft wood tones. It stands alone but calls out for a food pairing. Zucca smartly distributes recipe cards keyed to their wines. I picked up the Steak with Horseradish-Chive Sauce to be paired with the 2009 Sangiovese, complete with photo of the mouth-watering steak. Other Italian varietals produced by Zucca include Sangiovese, Dolcetto, and Sorprendere.
@ZuccaWines

Newsome-Harlow tasting room, just a couple doors up the street, was the polar opposite of Zucca, with equal appeal. Enter through an enclosed patio lounge complete with fire pit, which opens onto their food franchise, The Kitchen to the north and the Tasting Room to the east.  Lots of natural light through ample glass, zoned lighting and wood floors complete the euro high-tech look and feel. I wanted to taste with small plates but The Kitchen was only open until 3pm (in a week or two they will open for dinners).

I really liked the wines at Newsome-Harlow. The tasting room personnel were top-notch. They explained that this is the label of local Scott Klann, winemaker at Twisted Oak and Tanner. I didn’t have a chance to taste Tanner but between Twisted Oak and Newsome-Harlow I sensed a vast repertoire of styles emanating from Klanns’ wine-making influence.

Newsome-Harlow 2010 Sauvignon Blanc is classic grapefruit SB of which I am a huge fan. The wine was pure, simple and refreshing, a perfect synonym to the scorching weather outside.  The 2010 Rose of Grenache (10% Zin) was also a winner

at 13.2% alcohol. I took home a bottle of each.  NH featured a trio of Zinfandels, one from each of the Sierra Foothill regions – Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras — which makes for interesting tasting room discussion. I particularly liked the 2009 Donner Party Zinfandel from the local Dalton vineyard, described as “not for the faint of heart.” I really wished The Kitchen had been open when I got to tasting these Zins!
@NHVino

A galactic opposite Tasting Room experience was Ironstone, where the entry is through theme-park-like gates. In fact, the winery’s Amphitheatre hosts a complete season of fireworks, concerts and performing arts (Sammy Hagar plays in Sept).  The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, a snack and sandwich bar is housed right in the large tasting room, and the beautiful shaded gardens are an oasis of coolness on a hot day. To top it off, the wines are nicely made and range from value-priced to fine wines.

Day Two:
I visited the new Twisted Oak Winery in-town tasting room. It’s across the street from the former location, in a lovely Victorian cottage where most of the inter

ior walls have been removed to make one big bright light room. I was very well taken care-of despite the holiday crowds. Having followed Twisted Oaks’ Jeff Stai “El Jefe” on Twitter since my earliest wine tweets, I felt an obligation to be thorough. I tasted the entire list, which is amazingly long (12 wines were pouring) and diverse (3 whites, 7 blends, over 14 varietals) for a small-production (5000-8000 case) winery.

Another 100-degree day, and I was finding a dearth of whites. So I really enjoyed the Twisted Oak 2010 Calaveras County Verdelho and appreciated the light touch (13.6% alcohol). Of their many reds, I was partial to the 2008 Calaveras County Parcel 17 – a finely tuned and approachable blend with cranberry notes – of Mourvedre, Carignane, and Graciano all sourced from a single parcel of a Calaveras vineyard.  This wine has won best of California and Double Gold at the California State Fair and a Gold Medal at the Orange County Fair. Even thought it’s not the biggest, slamming-est Twisted blend, t’s good to know I’m not alone in my tastes …

Twisted Oak has branded a kick-ass wine-making style which was evident in the dramatic acids of the 2010 Calaveras County Viognier. And in the 2008 Calaveras County Torcido that ROARS into the mouth like a forest fire in the pines.  Torcido means “Twisted” and it’s made up of “estate-grown Garnacha blended with a little Petitie Sirah.” Wines like these beg for food; I’m thinking to pair the Viognier with hotly spiced Thai.  I’m open to suggestion on the Torcido … perhaps a fire extinguisher?

@Twisted_Oak – @eljefetwisted

Another novel approach to tasting was the Allegorie Tasting and Art Gallery. Here an artistic couple have designed a line of wines that pair with their art.  Their wines are made by Jonathon Phillips of Val du Vino Winery (Murphy’s), in very low case production and available only in the gallery.  The 2009 Allegorie Calaveras County Grenache is one of the best I’ve tasted.  Ever.

In an homage to Spain, Metate Hill Vineyards tasting room boasts soft archways and cool tile counters to highlight their focus on artisan produced Spanish varietals. Two treatments of the same Albarino wine were tasting: The 2008 Albarino Acero – aromatic and clean-finishing, and the 2008 Albarino Barrica — from the same pressing using different fermentation and aging techniques.  Followed by 2008 Carinena Rosado, a boldly dry rose’ with tones of bramble bushes and pepper that produced a lingering refresca against the blistering heat of the afternoon. I took home a bottle, hoping to recreate the sensation.

I was fortunate to taste a couple of not-on-the-list wines: a 2008 Metate Hill Carinena (aka Carigniane) I would describe as a pure expression of the varietal character of the grape.  Then, a very special 2008 Graciano, a joyous wine with a soft mouth feel and full fruit ripeness and yet a serious intensity, moderated nicely.  The grape is from the Rioja region of Spain.  I noticed it in the Twisted Oak Parcel 17 and again at Metate Hill. I think I’ve just discovered another varietal preference!
Metate Hill on Facebook

Two words sum up my visit to Calaveras: Atmosphere and diversity. Atmosphere for the effort taken by the wineries to create unique tasting room experiences. Diversity for the range of varietals and winemaking styles – including Italian, Rhone, and Spanish — represented in the tasting rooms of one small town. I think the food pairing and access to food for tasting here in Calaveras, where there’s such a proliferation of food wines being poured, is a very important strategy not yet addressed by most of the tasting rooms.  These are a just a few of the rooms I had time to visit on a 36 hour trip. Others called out to me and I promise to see them on my next trip. Which may be soon!

If you’re going:

The Calaveras Winegrape Alliance (CWA) has an excellent and informative website with a great map of area wineries.

Events upcoming: Any of these would be a good reason to take a drive Calaveras and visit some of the tasting rooms.

July 22 CWA hosts a tour of six Calaveras vineyards with world-renowned viticulture specialist and Professor Emeritus at UC Davis, Dr. James Wolpert

July 31, Steve Miller Band at Ironstone Amphitheater

August 13, Cave-Looting Extravaganza at Twisted Oak Winery

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3 Responses to “El Dorado of Wine: Exploring Calaveras Tasting Rooms”

  • Hi Katherine – Enjoyed your article. Thanks for the positive words.
    Hope you can return in November for the Calaveras Winegrape & Gourmet. This year’s event will be held the afternoon of Nov 5 at Ironstone Vineyards and includes our Calaveras wines paired expertly with cuisine from local returants and caterers. Fortunate to have our own cheese monger, we also include some magnificent cheeses.
    Thanks again.
    Carrie Nelson, Administrator Calaveras Winegrape Alliance

  • Katherine Parker:

    Hi Carrie, Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for reading and sharing this information. This would be a great event to plan a trip around … I hope some of the Simple Hedonisms readers will check it out. Nov 5th is on my calendar!

  • [...] This article was first published July 8, 2011 in Simple Hedonisms Wine Blog. [...]

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