This picture-perfect Gold Country town has gone from mines to fine wines

You could say that the town of Murphys got its second start because of a swimming pool. More than 50 years ago, Barden Stevenot, then age 11, visited a ranch near the Calaveras County town. “My family took me out there and they had this old concrete pool,” Stevenot recalls. “I had never seen a pool before. I sort of wished on it, and I ended up getting it.”

That is, 22 years later, Stevenot ended up buying the entire ranch, pool and all. Then he did what any good Californian would do with 156 acres of fertile land: He planted vineyards.

Today, Murphys―between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe―is home to half a dozen wineries of note. Add to that a growing number of sophisticated but casual restaurants, the town’s historical charm, and the spring scenery of the surrounding Sierra foothills, and you have every reason to visit this month. 

Old roots for a young wine region

While Barden Stevenot is the pioneer of modern Murphys winemaking, the region has a grape-growing heritage that dates back to the Gold Rush. Murphys may bear an Irish name, but many gold-seekers from Genoa, Lucca, and Serbia settled here in the 1850s, ’60s, and ’70s, Stevenot says. “In the process they brought their winemaking and food to the area.”

The biggest wine producer in the region is Ironstone Vineyards. The top tourist destination in all of Calaveras County, it draws up to 500,000 visitors per year, with landscaped gardens, manmade caves you can tour, a Gold Country museum containing the largest crystalline gold piece in the world, and a stamp mill where kids can learn mining techniques.

This month, Ironstone hosts the fifth annual Spring Symphony, a celebration of their Obsession wine―made from the slightly sweet Symphony varietal―timed to coincide with the blooming of thousands of daffodils. Concurrently, Murphys Irish Days brings a street fair to town.

In the wake of Ironstone’s success, a handful of small wineries have opened. With the exception of Ironstone, which produces 300,000 cases per year, and Stevenot (30,000 cases per year), Murphys’s other wineries operate on a miniature scale, producing anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000 cases per year―a drop in the bucket, comparatively speaking.

What’s fun about the smaller wineries is that all of them specialize in different varietals, so you get to taste all kinds of wines. And most of them occupy historic buildings that give you a taste of Murphys’s Gold Country heritage. “This is one of the few Mother Lode towns that didn’t get remodeled in the 1950s and ’60s, because it was just a side road,” said Stevenot. “As a result, there’s been a continuum of architecture.”

That’s no idle claim. Main Street is a textbook example of Gold Country architecture, with all the establishments tucked inside good-looking, historic buildings. Milliaire occupies an old gas station. Black Sheep Winery is in an old barn. The newest tasting room, Zucca Mountain, is underground, in a 150-square-foot grotto. “The only place I could find to open my tasting room was an old cellar,” says owner Gary Zucca. “So that’s what I did.”

He had a vision and acted on it, just like Barden Stevenot, who bought 156 acres all because of a pool. True to its Wild West heritage, Murphys is the kind of town that inspires big dreams.

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