Rediscovering Gold Country

Once beautiful but sleepy, the little towns of the Sierra foothills are growing more sophisticated. Autumn is the perfect time to explore them.
Peter Fish and Sara Schneider

You can't depend on autumn. Of all seasons, it's the chanciest. What you want are days ― weeks ― of amber leaves and deep blue skies. What you get is one perfect October day followed by other days that are too hot, too cold, too gray, too weary. And autumn is gone.

Not in California's Gold Country. In the folded foothills of the Sierra Nevada, autumn lingers as if it knows a good thing when it sees one. Here are the blue skies, the tawny hills, the grapevines tinged fierce red.

If Gold Country autumn seems changeless, the Gold Country itself does not. Once beautiful but sleepy, it is now beautiful but sophisticated. Good new restaurants are popping up in unexpected places. Even more strikingly, an influx of creative new winemakers has made the Gold Country one of the most fascinating wine regions in the West.

New tastes in a classic land

If your family owned a station wagon when you were a kid, you took a Gold Country vacation, and here is what you did. You drove State 49. At a living-history museum, you saw men in suspenders, women in bonnets, and butter churns. You panned for gold, obtaining a small vial of glitter that an older sibling informed you was not real gold but worthless iron pyrite. You began to cry.

Forget about that. Make the classic Gold Country drive now ― along State 49 from Placerville south into El Dorado and Amador and Calaveras Counties ― and you will see more BMWs than butter churns.

Drive, for example, into the tiny Amador County town of Plymouth. At first glance it looks unchanged from 1964, or maybe 1864. But on the south side of the street is the restaurant Taste.

"I had never been on Plymouth's Main Street," says chef-owner Mark Berkner. "I saw the For Sale sign."

The sign was on the old Sportsman Club, which Berkner and his wife, Tracey, bought and transformed into a sleekly appealing restaurant. On a Thursday night, Taste is crowded with diners who have driven from as far as Sacramento to sample grilled prawns on gazpacho, or black Mission-fig salad.

 

The Berkners had worked in hotels and restaurants in Colorado and the Bay Area, and they could have landed anywhere. But they chose Plymouth. "This little Main Street needed us," Mark says. "We're going to give it a shot in the arm."

One measures the changes in the Gold Country in many ways: in the menu at Taste, in the cost of real estate, in the signs advertising yoga classes and family therapists on the 19th-century main streets. ("Tarnation!" you think to yourself. "The forty-niners didn't need no yoga or family therapists! They just whittled!") But maybe the best way is to drive the wine country: El Dorado, Amador, and Calaveras Counties.

Wine has a long history here. Boeger Winery, near Placerville, has roots that go back to the 1850s. Still, it's just in the last few years that Gold Country winemaking has taken off.

The launch is ironically tied to those winemaking roots. Nowhere else in California is a wine region as multifaceted as the Sierra foothills identified with just one wine: Zinfandel. Many of these hills were planted in Zin during the post-Gold Rush years by would-be-rich miners forced to return to more traditional ways of making a living from the earth.

The demand for Zinfandel survived because of an enormous audience who knew very little about true red Zin but who bought copious amounts of the grape in the form of sweet white Zinfandel. Sierra foothills vines supplied this taste and were saved from extinction.

In the last decade or so, though, red Zin has regained a passionate following. And Amador and El Dorado Counties are producing some of the state's most intense versions. Gold Country Zins are not for the timid. Their fruit is almost pruny ripe and earthy, their high alcohol levels often pushing up past 15 percent. But the best are in balance, with acid and tannins to match. They're spectacular wines. And they've been joined by Rhône grapes (Syrah, Mourvèdre, Viognier), Italian grapes (Barbera, Sangiovese), and most recently, a Spanish grape (Tempranillo) ― all worth watching.

Family vintages

A common denominator of most Gold Country wineries is that they're family-owned, not corporate, operations. Take a twisting road from Placerville, for example, and you come to Holly's Hill Vineyards. Carrie Bendick had lived in Washington and Utah before returning to California, where her father, Tom Cooper, planted vineyards on the family property - and made her winemaker. Now Bendick and her husband, Josh, earn gold medals for their Rhône-style wines.

A few miles away live Chaim Gur-Arieh, a former Bay Area-based food scientist (among other things, he helped create Cap'n Crunch cereal), and his wife, Elisheva, an artist. They had long wanted to make wine and spent years scouring Napa and Sonoma. Then they were invited to the bat mitzvah for the daughter of a Gold Country winemaker. "The moment we drove into the Shenandoah Valley," Chaim says, "my heart started pounding. Elisheva said,  'This is it. We've found it.' "

 

Their winery, C.G. Di Arie, has a gorgeous Mediterranean-style headquarters filled with art; at monthly open houses (which the couple has chosen over having a tasting room), you sip Chaim's Syrah and Zinfandel. "All my life I made products for other people," he says. "This I'm making for me."

The autumn kingdom

For all the ways in which the Gold Country has been altered, some things remain the same. One is this: You will get lost.

In the rest of California, directions are simple. Ocean west, land east. Here, nothing is that easy. In these rumpled foothills, you're never sure where you are. The roads twist, dip, turn. You pass signs for little towns - Mt. Aukum, Vallecito - but not the little town you're looking for.

This rambling is annoying when you want to get someplace on time. But it is also wonderful. Travel is meant to surprise. Here surprises arrive at every curve. You give in. You find yourself recalling the good moments from those childhood car trips. The sweet towns, the grazing cattle, the barns ― some brightly painted, others creosote-dark, rafters shattered, noble in decline. Even that vial of fake gold, you realize now, was beautiful: It glimmered like sunlight shining through oaks.

Between 1848 (when gold was discovered at Coloma) and 1854, 300,000 people came from New England and Chile and China to find fortune in these hills. California is, famously, the land of the big dream. Here was the biggest dream of all.

New dreams are here now. Drive south through Angels Camp, then east to Murphys. "Queen of the Sierra" is Murphys's motto, but for decades she was a drowsy queen. No more. On Main Street you come to Alchemy, a stylish wine bar and cafe. A few doors down is equally attractive Grounds, and then V, cofounded by the former executive chef of Yosemite's Ahwahnee hotel.

Not far from town, you follow a driveway that climbs up a high round hill. IS THERE A WINERY HERE? asks one road sign. *%#&@! YEAH! answers the next. And then a final yellow sign depicting a figure carting a glass of wine. SLOW, it reads, ADULTS AT PLAY.

You've reached Twisted Oak Winery, brainchild of Jeff and Mary Stai, abetted by winemaker Scott Klann (aka Fermento the Magnificent). The Stais were Southern Californians who happened across Murphys 10 years ago and decided to stay. They chose local boy Klann to help them make wine. Twisted Oak is named for a tree that grows at the crest of the hill, but it also describes the sense of humor the Stais and Klann display with their Rhône- and Spanish-style blends. With vintages like the 2005 Sierra Foothills white, %@#$! ― "Ask for it by name," Jeff says ― and a vast number of rubber chickens on display, Twisted Oak answers the question: What would it be like if Monty Python made good wine?

On another Murphys hilltop, a more serene dream. Mike and Mary Jo Macfarlane moved from San Francisco to build a bed-and-breakfast. It took them nearly a decade to finish Querencia's luxurious, one-of-a-kind four-room inn, which springs from the hilltop with the sinuous grace of a manzanita.

Stand on the patio with the Macfarlanes and they will list all the things they like about life here. The hiking, the wineries. And the views, of course. Mike will point out mountains and ridges and river canyons - all the places, you realize, you were lost in. Never mind. From here, the Gold Country is an autumn quilt of greens and golds and ambers under a blue, blue sky. It is perfect. For today it will last forever.

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