Tour the Wineries of Calaveras County

By Finnegan, Lora J. | Sunset, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Tour the Wineries of Calaveras County


Finnegan, Lora J., Sunset


In this part of California's Mother Lode, a flash of gold is likely to be a glass of Chardonnay

THE HISTORIES OF mines and vines intertwine in California's Calaveras County. The argonauts who poured in during the Gold Rush were soon followed by winemakers eager to slake the miners' thirst. By the 1870s, Calaveras County ranked as one of the most productive wine grape-growing counties in the country.

Bust followed boom for both the mines and the wineries, though, and by the turn of the century, commercial winemaking had essentially died out in this part of the Sierra foothills. It wasn't until the 1970s that viticulture started to make a comeback. Since then, Calaveras has grown into a small but well-respected wine region. Still, it's no Napa Valley. On the one hand, that means somewhat limited variety; on the other, it means that visitors don't have to contend with throngs of fellow tasters on highways or in tasting rooms.

Six wineries now cluster within a couple of miles of Murphys, a charming town noted for its Gold Rush-era buildings and atmosphere. Each winery takes a handmade hand-made approach to winemaking (most produce fewer than 5,000 cases annually). On a visit to any of these wineries, you can see an entire winemaking process on a brief tour, and very likely chat directly with the owner-winemaker.

You'll quickly notice that this region is different from most other California wine areas. No vast seas of vineyards stretch endlessly over a valley here; instead, you'll find pocket-size patches of vines tucked in canyons and below hillsides dotted with oak and pine.

You can see the region in a leisurely day's ramble through the foothills, still cool and brightened by spring wildflowers. Murphys sits on State Highway 4, just a few miles east of State 49, so it's easy to add a wine tour to a Gold Country visit.

TOUR TUNNELS, PICNIC UNDER AN ARBOR

Most of the wineries sit at elevations of 1,500 to 2,000 feet, where the climate is too extreme for some grape varieties. Zinfandel was one of the first varieties planted locally during the Gold Rush, and it still thrives here; districtwide, it accounts for more than half of the grapes crushed each year in the foothills. Recently, thanks to hardier vine selections and better frost-fighting technology, several Calaveras vineyards have also had success with white varieties, particularly Chardonnay.

For each winery, we list wines in order of quantity produced. Unless listed otherwise, telephone numbers are area code 209.

Black Sheep Vintners, 342 French Gulch Road, Murphys; 728-2157. Open noon to 5 weekends, or by appointment. From its rustic barn-turned-winery, Black Sheep puts out more than 2,000 cases a year, most of it Zinfandel. …

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