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.
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.