Wine Tasting in the Sierra Foothills: Calaveras County

Twisted Oak Tasting Room

Saturday morning, in Lodi, started with breakfast at the Wine and Roses Hotel. Our wine group consisted of 22 people. The planning began six months prior. While Lodi is a large wine region, with a lot of wineries (see last weeks blog), the services to cater to wine lovers is still building. I hired Neumann Limo services, out of Sacramento, to take our large group to the wineries I had selected in the Sierra Foothills. Today we traveled to Calaveras County and the Sierra Foothill communities of Angels Camp, Vallecito and Murphy’s.

Since the gold rush days, Calaveras County has been a wine growing region.  Probably best recognized as the location for Mark Twain’s famous frog jumping contest, Calaveras County is part of the five sub-districts within the Sierra Foothills AVA (El Dorado, Shenadoah Valley, Fairplay, Fiddletown, and North Yuba). The AVA was established in 1987, and was recognized for it’s rolling hills, moderate climate and elevation (averaging about 3,000 feet above sea level).

We left Lodi and drove through miles of rolling hillsides, covered with grape vines and oak trees. Along the 90 minute drive, we passed small rural towns that looked like they were straight out of the gold rush days in the mid to late 1800’s. Our first stop was at Twisted Oak Winery. They are a small, family owned, boutique winery in Vallecito. When I arranged the tasting, I had talked with the owner, Jeff Stai. He had warned me that there were two entrances to the property: one along a dirt road; the other paved. Our limo bus driver was familiar with the property, and chose to drive the dirt road. Now they’ll tell you that the name of the winery came from the twisted oak at the end of their parking lot, but I think it also reflects their twisted sense of humor. As we drove up the road, we passed through the “Rubber Chicken National Forest”  and saw numerous signs posted along the road preparing us for the journey ahead..

Entrance to Cave at Twisted Oak
Twisted Oak has a small tasting room, packed with humorous gift items. At 22 people, our group was too large to handle all at one time in the tasting room, so half the group tasted while the other half toured the gravity fed production area, and ultimately the man-made caves. The large wooden doors to the cave hid how large and deep they actually were. Once back at the tasting room we were presented with a large array of Spanish and Rhone Varietal wines. They have a nice mix of whites and reds, from Verdejo and Viognier to Grenache and Touriga Na├žional.  This is a fun location, and one you’ll want to visit.

Our next stop was up the road, about 15 minutes away. From small boutique winery, our next stop was the large Ironstone Winery. As we drove to the front gate, there was a welcome sign for our group. The property is immense. But, we had no idea how immense until we took the one hour tour of the property. The creeks, wedding grounds and amphitheater were impressive. The large caves built into the mountain side offered a cool respite from the growing heat of the day. They also have a Gold Rush Heritage Museum on the property, that includes a 44-pound gold nugget. The tasting room is huge too. The tasting bar is comes from an old saloon, and was originally built in 1907. Our group of 22 people easily fit at the bar.

The tasting bar at Ironstone
After our tour, we had lunch from their deli. All meals were pre-ordered. The sandwiches and salads were handmade on the property. As each of us finished lunch, we headed inside for wine tasting. Many bottles that were not on the wine tasting list were made available to us. One of the more unusual wines was made from the Symphony grape (a cross between Grenache Gris and Muscat of Alexandria). As we were tasting, the owner of Ironstone, John Kautz, happened to come in for lunch, and we spent some time talking about how he got in the business, and developed this huge operation.

The next stop on our tour brought us back into the town of Murphy’s. The town grew out of the gold rush in 1848, when brothers, John and Daniel Murphy established a trading post and gold mining operation. Now the town has numerous small shops, 20 wine tasting rooms and craft brewing houses.

At Newsome-Harlow
We traveled just out of town to a newer subdivision, and found Newsome-Harlow. Instead of going to a tasting room, we did our tasting at their wine production facility. The winemaker, Scott Klann, met us along with Shelly, who conducted the tasting. Grapes were soaking in plastic bins, as we entered a backroom on the property. The tasting went through each of the varieties, an Scott shared some information on each wine. We all noticed a spiciness that ran through each of the wines. 

Newsome-Harlow has a unique flavor profile that is different from the previous wineries we had visited in the area. After some discussion with Scott, we determined that the difference might be due to his use of natural, local yeasts. This gives the wines a more “terroir” driven profile.  This is Zinfandel country, and Newsome-Harlow makes some good ones. Add Syrah, Petit Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and you have an idea of the tasting. These are serious wines, for people who like wines that are small production, and not manipulated. If it is any indication, the most wine purchased by our group was at Newsome-Harlow. A great find, and really nice people.

Chatom Winery
Our last stop of the day was at Chatom Winery. The small winery was recently purchased by Hatcher Winery, and now includes Chatom, Hatcher and School Street. Our group took over most of the small tasting room. They offered either a tasting of the Chatom wines or School Street. My wife did one, I did the other, and we shared the tasting of all the wines. This is Zinfandel, Barbera, Syrah  and Tempranillo country, and that is what we found here. This day, the winery was preparing for a club member gathering, so I didn’t get as much information about their winery as I would have liked. I can tell you they have a nice grassy picnic area in front, and very nice wines.

It was now about 4:30 and we headed back to Lodi, arriving at 6:00pm. After unloading the limo bus, and separating out all the purchases everyone made, we headed back to our rooms for a short break before going out to dinner. Our dinner this evening was at Fenix, in Old Town Lodi. The original downtown area of Lodi has been completely redone. The store fronts and sidewalks make you feel like you are back in an Andy Griffith show, walking through downtown Mayberry. The Fenix restaurant, on the other hand, is like being at a trendy place in downtown San Francisco. This is contemporary American Cuisine, served in an eclectic atmosphere. The menu is creative and beautifully presented. Chef Richard Hyman walked through the restaurant and spent time at each table. 

Our entire group kept on saying, “this is Lodi?” We had not expected to find this type of restaurant/downtown/wine tasting experience in Lodi. If I haven’t convinced you to visit Lodi or the Sierra Foothills yet, I have one more blog to write about our visit to Amador County. Check back next week.

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