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.

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  • Pioneer in the resurgence of Gold Country winemaking ― Greg Boeger with his dog Kirby

    Greg Boeger

    Brown Cannon III

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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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