Gold is not all that glitters in Sierra Foothills 

click to enlarge Twisted Oak Winery
  • Ari Burack/special to the s.f. examiner
  • Twisted Oak Winery (pictured), the Tuolumne River, Moaning Cavern and Calaveras Big Trees State Park offer everything from wine to adventure as you wind your way through seemingly throwback towns in Gold Country. A well-rounded escape to the small cities east of Sacramento can incorporate a little bit of everything before the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
In the sun-soaked hills of the western Sierra Nevada, a few outposts have begun to shed the nostalgic Gold Country image for a more cosmopolitan look. Towns like Angels Camp, Murphys, Arnold, Sonora, Jamestown and Groveland, little more than a two-hour drive east from San Francisco, are no longer relying just on well-worn tales of rough-and-ready pioneers or soaring frogs — they’ve added winemaking and high-quality dining to the list of reasons to visit.

It’s been an ongoing transformation over several years in rustic Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, where the summers broil and work can be tough to come by. There are still cultural reminders that this definitely is not the Bay Area — big-wheeled pickups tearing down country roads, a defiant pro-NRA sign decorating a front yard, an RV proudly flying a Confederate flag at the county fair — but you would be painting with too broad a brush if that’s all you chose to see.

Underneath the backcountry patina, entrepreneurial locals and transplants alike have begun to make these areas more than just a history-and-hiking destination or a through-route to Tahoe or Yosemite. Now, after you venture into sequoia forest or raft down whitewater, you can also while away an afternoon on an idyllic country estate, sipping wines made from fruit plucked off nearby vines, or enjoying a dinner worthy of any bistro table in downtown San Francisco.

As you make your way through the tasting rooms of the wineries, you might notice that the grapes are not so familiar. For instance, grapes popular in Italy (montepulciano, barbera) and Spain (mourvedre, grenache, tempranillo) abound in these parts.

Wine producers range from the behemoth, exquisitely designed and manicured Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys — which pairs its wine business with an impressive collection of historical art and other lavish items, a giant replica water wheel (an old gold-mining standby), and big-name concerts and weddings on the property — to the tiny, family-run organic vineyard Ayrael Vieux in nearby Douglas Flat.

The latter is run by Bob Eisenman and Linda Stockstill, an Oakland couple who ventured out some years ago and bought the property, then bereft of a single vine. Since they began planting in 2004, the place has been recast in the style of a European villa (Italian cypress trees and all) and they now annually produce 350 to 400 cases of excellent sangiovese, montepulciano, rosé and zinfandel. Visitors will likely find the family bottling the product in the garage out front as their dog Ollie wanders over to greet them.

Another small producer, Mineral Winery, has its vineyard on a gorgeous pond-side property in Angels Camp. The winery’s offerings include merlot, petite sirah, cabernet franc and a Rhone-style white wine Vino del Oro (which translates to “gold wine”). Owner Brett Keller, also an aficionado of rare and precious minerals, wonders if trace amounts of the area’s fabled gold, or other mineral compounds, have made it into the earth underneath his vines. He is having the soil tested. Results aren’t in yet for that potential marketing coup, but the wines taste wonderful anyway.

Twisted Oak in Vallecito is also making interesting wines with distinct character, like the dark, lush mourvedre named River of Skulls — the name in line with the winery’s themes of pirates and general wackiness. Wines made from other offbeat grape varietals — tempranillo, grenache and others — also can be found here.

At the heart of the property lies its eponymous tree, a 350-year-old blue oak, gnarled and curling as it overlooks a majestic hillside. Equally impressive is the winery’s cave-like cellar bored under the hill beneath the production area.

In quirky, old-timey downtown Jamestown, another newcomer, Inner Sanctum Cellars, the creation of the warm and effusive Karen Mariano-Luckhardt and her husband, has a tasting room for its wines, including a delicious barbera, tempranillo and cabernet. Nearby Gianelli Vineyards also offers several Italian-style wines, such as a dark-purple 2010 montepulciano that is substantial, smooth and fruity.

But for a change of pace, you could visit Sonora hard-cider maker Indigeny Reserve, another family-owned business that opened in 2012. Its ciders bear the distinctive taste of the apples from which they are made, and Indigeny also distills a potent apple brandy. Indigeny’s 160-acre estate — picturesque apple orchards, covered bridges, walking trails and picnic areas — is alone worth the visit.

Downtown Murphys is one of the trendier locales in the area, with wine-tasting rooms, hotels, bars, bistros, bake shops and more within a short walk of each other. A day of exploring can be topped off with a great meal at V Bistro and Bar, the restaurant at the Victoria Inn. Its outdoor seating area includes an ample fountain and has an almost European feel, and the seasonal menu, with its Mediterranean accents, is superbly constructed. Appetizers of tzatziki and hummus, charcuterie, and cheeses with honeycomb and quince paste are offered with entrees of duck breast, candied apple and couscous, or Jamaican jerk fish, kale and mango jicama salsa. Suffice it to say, it’s not exactly what you’d expect when you roll into Gold Country.

Of course, you can still come for what you expect, and have a great time. There are plenty of places to pan for the shiny stuff, hike and camp, and the annual Calaveras frog-jumping festival, associated with the beloved 19th-century Mark Twain tale, is still in full swing.

In fact, every third weekend in May in Angels Camp, you can witness grown men in period garb take to a large outdoor stage, microphone and tape measure in hand, for a competition whose lightheartedness (the frogs — American bullfrogs, to be exact — are kept in a pre-competition spa and serenaded with music) masks the intensity of the challengers. A silver-bearded, longtime winner in a shiny black vest and hat to match confides that the key lies in finding the right frog, and says his clan has located a winning spot that shall remain a family secret. The actual competition is technically more active fleeing than it is jumping, as the amphibians are set down on a mark and lunged and/or shouted at until they leap away. The 2014 winner bagged $750 for one hopper’s series of jumps totaling 19 feet, 8 inches (short, alas, of the world record of more than 21 feet), along with untold glory. Here’s hoping Mr. Clemens would be amused.

A short drive away, the wooden floorboards of an otherwise nondescript gift shop sit atop a dark, yawning cave hundreds of feet deep under the hills of Vallecito. For those not wanting to rappel down into the Moaning Cavern, the main chamber is also accessible on foot. No, that moaning sound is not your knees after descending and then ascending 100 feet along a narrow spiral staircase. It’s the echo of dripping water. For anyone who hasn’t been inside a cave of that size, it’s a special experience — a physical narrative of time, earth and shadow. Once you’ve hoisted yourself back into the brightness of day, you can coast through the air on Moaning Cavern Adventure Park’s quarter-mile zip line.

Before this was gold country, this was home to some of the largest trees in the world. And they’re still here. At over 4,000 feet, near the town of Arnold, Calaveras Big Trees State Park has two groves of giant sequoias, and seven hiking trails. These ancient trees offer a wider, grander view of the stunning age, grandeur and diversity of life on Earth. The park just celebrated the opening of a new visitor center to mark its 150th anniversary — a milestone also being celebrated by nearby Yosemite National Park.

The forests have not fared so well in parts of nearby Tuolumne County, but the devastation of the 2013 Rim Fire is showing signs of recovery. Along the Tuolumne River, the scorched and barren hillsides are still visible. Other swaths are an otherworldly mix of singed orange and spared green, flecked with ghostly white tendrils — colors like a perverse New England autumn. Look closely in some spots and you can see new green grass and purple wildflowers amid the black threads of tree trunk remains.

On days when the dams are opened upstream, the Tuolumne River flows cold and fast for miles, dipping and churning as a skilled young guide from one of the few whitewater rafting outfits on the river, Sierra Mac River Trips, drives his oars into the whitewash, pivoting the raft in balletic turns, and smiling and shouting as his team paddles for broke through the rapids.

Wildfires, drought and water politics aside, such experiences can be more than an adrenaline-soaked thrill ride (and they are surely that). They are also an opportunity to view the history captured in old stone ruins and footpaths along the river, and take in the vast, raw and fragile beauty of California’s parks.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com

IF YOU GO

Mother Lode Adventures Charter Services: Husband-and-wife team Scott and Kelly Smith offer a variety of tours in the Sierra Nevada and beyond in one of their colorfully decorated shuttles. Contact for prices. www.mlacharters.com

Court Wood Wine Tasting Tours: Larry and Chris Parker, another husband-and-wife team, take winery-goers by shuttle throughout Calaveras County. Contact for prices. www.courtwoodwinetours.com

Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee: The county fair and frog-jumping competition takes place every third weekend in May. Admission $8 to $15 adults; $5 to $10 kids. Calaveras County Fairgrounds, Angels Camp. www.frogtown.org

Twisted Oak Winery: This winery specializes in wines made from Spanish varietals, and its offbeat sense of humor shines through. It also has live concerts on the property. 4280 Red Hill Road, Vallecito. www.twistedoak.com

Ayrael Vieux Wines: This picturesque organic vineyard and winery may be small, but its owners are making great wines. 1690 Monge Ranch Road, Douglas Flat. www.ayraelvieux.com

Mineral Winery: Rhone-style white, cabernet franc, merlot and petite sirah at this small vineyard and winery. Look for the gemstones on the labels. 769 Dogtown Road, Angels Camp. www.mineralwines.com

Ironstone Vineyards: A huge, beautiful property includes the winery, more than 14 acres of gardens and a museum. 1894 Six Mile Road, Murphys. www.ironstonevineyards.com

Indigeny Reserve: Two generations of the Watson family have in short time made a growing hard-cider business on their 160-acre preserve, which includes a tasting room to sample their delicious alcoholic apple juice. 14679 Summers Lane, Sonora. www.indigenyreserve.com

V Bistro and Bar: Michael and Melissa Ninos, owners of the Victoria Inn, opened a superb restaurant at the inn in 2004, featuring upscale dining in a relaxed, European-style atmosphere — a credit to the newer face of Gold Country. 402 Main St., Murphys. www.vrestaurantandbar-murphys.com

Arnold Black Bear Inn: Bruce and Wendi Davison own and run a delightful inn in the sleepy, forested town of Arnold. Luxurious amenities in mountain resort-style comfort, great views of the property and warm hospitality. Included is a full breakfast prepared by chef Bruce. The couple is also working to further enhance local palates by hosting an annual cooking competition featuring area chefs. Rooms $225 to $265. 1343 Oak Circle, Arnold. www.arnoldblackbearinn.com

Calaveras Big Trees State Park: Two groves of giant sequoias can be witnessed in the park, which has seven hiking trails of varying difficulty and a new visitor center. Vehicle fee $10 to $12. 1170 state Highway 4, a few miles northeast of Arnold. www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=551

Moaning Cavern Adventure Park: Rappel 165 feet into the cavern, soar with a friend down the twin zip lines and scramble up a 32-foot climbing wall. A three-hour adventure trip includes rappel and cavern exploration. Adventure trip $130; rappel $72; cavern walk $14.95 ($7.95 children); zip line $44; climbing tower $5. 5350 Moaning Cavern Road, Vallecito. www.caverntours.com

Columbia State Historic Park: The Gold Rush town of Columbia is now part of the state parks system and has maintained some of the original shops and restored others, for a functional historical recreation of the 1850s. Free weekend tours, stagecoach rides, gold panning, blacksmithing, candle-making and more. www.visitcolumbiacalifornia.com

National Hotel: The hotel, built in 1859, still has its original 19th century bar and a restaurant serving old-school favorites. 18183 Main St., Jamestown. www.national-hotel.com

Sierra Mac River Trips: The whitewater rafting outfit has been running the beautiful Tuolumne River, with some of the most challenging rapids in the country, since 1965. Experienced and knowledgeable guides lead one- to three-day trips $150 to $750. www.sierramac.com

All Seasons Groveland Inn: A lovely bed-and-breakfast in downtown Groveland. This two-story Victorian, originally built in 1899 and restored with a warm touch in 1999, has five beautifully decorated rooms with hand-painted murals and modern amenities. Rooms $139 to $179. 18656 Main St., Groveland. www.allseasonsgrovelandinn.com

Cellar Door Restaurant at the Groveland Hotel: The restaurant at the historic Groveland Hotel (a former trading post built in 1849) features California-style cuisine prepared with local ingredients and a massive, award-winning wine selection put together by gregarious proprietor Peggy Mosley, a Tennessee native who with her husband restored the hotel in 1990. 18767 Main St., Groveland. www.groveland.com

Iron Door Saloon: Sidle up to this colorful watering hole, which having opened in 1852 claims to be the oldest continually operating saloon in California. 18761 Main St., Groveland. www.iron-door-saloon.com

About The Author

Ari Burack

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