Nothing excites me more when traveling than finding an off-the-beaten path gem. When I can say a destination and get a response from others like, “where is that?!” I’m in…
Murphys, California proved to be that and more. The picturesque village in Calaveras County, 2.5 hours drive from San Francisco off Highway 4 East, offers splendid natural beauty, adventures through caverns and old mines, a charming Main Street with friendly merchants and unique shops, art galleries, and most notably spectacular wineries. In fact, I’d say this is the Napa Valley of 30 years ago – a throwback to family-owned and operated estates with small productions and huge passion.
Daniel and John Murphy settled in the area in 1848. From a small tent, the Murphy brothers did some very shrewd trading and sold supplies at inflated prices, while using the local Indians for labor on their claims. Rumor has it that both brothers were millionaires before they turned 25, and Murphys earned a reputation for being one of the more “hidden” Gold Rush towns.
Fifteen miles up the mountain, A.T. Dowd put Calaveras on the map when he discovered the huge groves of Giant Sequoia Redwoods. Because their fame grew so quickly, by 1855 the Sperry & Perry Hotel – now Murphys Historic Hotel – had been built to accommodate the multitude of travelers. The old hotel register contains names such as Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charles Bolton, aka “Black Bart.”
Murphys has a climate that closely imitates that of some superb wine regions in France. There are now several wineries that have staked their claim within a four mile radius of Main Street, many of which have unique tasting rooms. The best part is that unlike larger, more popular wine destinations like Napa, here in Murphys, the chances are that the one serving you the wine is actually the winemaker or the proprietor.
- Villa Vallecito (263 Main Street, www.villavallecitovineyards.com) Owner Ghee Hagedorn had a vision when she discovered Murphys, purchased the property where the Villa and Vineyards now thrive, and ultimately built her dream home. She hired winemaker extraordinaire Nathan Vader (originally from a large ranching family in Colorado who got his start in wine as a “cellar rat” at a local winery), to craft the Villa’s wines, arguably some of the finest wines in the Sierra Foothills. The Payaso and Barbera will delight anyone with a palette for big, bold reds. Watch out Napa!
- Vina Moda (147 Main Street, www.vinamoda.com) Also at the hands of Vader, who hand crushes every grape, this is his own personal label. A passionate winemaker who follows the natural energy of the fruit itself, Nate ages the artisinal wines in premium oak barrels. His approach here is lighter, more Old World Style wines than at Villa. Nate takes pride in each sip wanting to deliver a sensual experience in a glass – hurry and get one of the last bottles of the 2008 Mouvedre – you’ll thank me later. The tasting room itself is delightful located in one of Main Street’s oldest stone buildings, with gorgeous artistic elements that bring out Nate’s style and flair, like a vintage-styled chandelier and paneled doors. It’ll catch your eye on your left-hand side as you drive into town.
- Newsome Harlow (403 Main Street, www.nhvino.com) The owners of NH don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk like most in Murphys. They know the vineyards intimately, and they create wines they personally like to drink! You can taste the care and precision in the wine itself. Whether you’re looking for a single vineyard Zinfandel, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or a bold red blend, this is one must-stop on your tasting itinerary.
- Lavender Ridge (425 Main Street, lavenderridgevineyard.com) This tasting room was one of my favorites, not just because the wines are lovely, but because of the relaxing scent that soothes the senses as you walk into the space. “Lavender” is in the name for a reason! Inside the store, you’ll find lavender in culinary and therapeutic forms, as well as dishes that use lavender in innovative ways, alongside artisan cheeses from around the world. Most of their wines are Rhone varietals.
- Twisted Oak (4280 Red Hill Road at Hwy 4, www.twistedoak.com) While Twisted Oak has a tasting room at 350 Main Street, venture away from Main Street to have a more quirky tasting experience at the Twisted Oak Winery. You’ll head up a “twisted road” with road signs that say things like “rubber chickens have the right of way” and “potholes are complimentary” — don’t ask. Just go see for yourself. Owner Jeff “El Jefe” Stai has a sense of humor that is — yep, twisted! Their most popular wine is appropriately titled “*%#&@!” (and commonly referred to as the “potty mouth blend.” The other standout for me was “The Spaniard.” This is undoubtedly the most fun of the tastings because it’s wacky and weird and wonderful. Wine snobs need not apply.
- Ayrael Vieux (1690 Monge Ranch Road, www.ayraelvieux.com) Another tasting room worth venturing off Main Street to visit is Ayrael Vieux. Winemaker Kate Boyle MacDonald had been around wine and vineyards since her childhood, when her parents moved to the German countryside. As such, her wines show the influence. The gorgeous property of Ayrael Vieux itself is worth the visit, and all wines are handcrafted from grapes grown only at the estate vineyard. Kate also has her own label with Boyle MacDonald wines.
Tasting Tip: Most tasting rooms are open on weekends from 12 to 5 pm and on Saturdays only during the winter. Be sure to check the websites or call before visiting for hours. Winemakers are also typically more than happy to open the tasting rooms in Murphys on any day and time by appointment.
You won’t find a McDonald’s or Starbucks in or anywhere near Murphys. And that’s a good thing! There are no chains. No big box stores. Every shop and restaurant is locally-owned and operated, utilizing the freshest local and regional ingredients, and locally-produced goods. Talk to the waiter, chat with the bartender, have a drink with the owner… everyone in Murphy’s has a story and you can count on it being a good one!
- Grounds (402 Main Street, www.groundsrestaurant.com) Owned by the unofficial “Mayor of Murphys” River Klass, a connector, friend, businessman, and genuinely nice person, Grounds is the hot spot in town. Eat there once, spark up a conversation with a local who will be more than happy to share with you their life story and hear yours, and the next day, the whole town will know you too. It’s that small. The Chicken Cordon Bleu with sherry and light cream, mixed spring greens, and sautéed vegetables for $17 is an excellent choice.
- Firewood (420 Main Street, www.firewoodeats.com) Where can you still find a taco for $2.25? Here! And they’re excellent. Also owned by Klass, the menu is simple, fresh, and uncomplicated, just like Murphys itself, although you’d be seriously remiss to eat at Firewood without trying their pizza, cooked in a wood-burning oven.
Insider tip: Feel like a burger or a pizza, but want a martini and a more elegant dining atmosphere? Or want to be casual, but drink a fancy cocktail? No problem. The locals know: since Klass owns both Grounds and Firewood and they’re literally within doors of one another, they will send food and drinks from one place to the other anytime.
- Mineral (419 Main St, www.mineralrestaurant.com) I am not a vegetarian or a vegan, but this restaurant could easily make me one. At the hands of chef Steve Rinauro, the food is quite simply the best hand-crafted boutique organic vegetarian, vegan, and raw eats I’ve ever had. The land scallops and burger are exquisite. Chef Steve’s inspiration: his own garden behind the restaurant that produces 50 different varietals of herbs, 30 different lettuces, and more. The intimate courtyard is perfect for dining outside and people watching.
- The V Restaurant, Bistro and Bar (402 Main Street, vrestaurantandbar-murphys.com) Located at the Victoria Inn, next to Grounds, the V has two small locations – one a bit more upscale than the other, but both offer casual European style dining with small plates and specialty cocktails. Delicious, fresh, and delightful.
- Lila and Sage (219 Main Street, www.lilaandsage.com) “Keep calm, eat a cupcake” is the theme at this adorable cupcake shop, now famous after owner and cupcake queen Karen Henderson won “Cupcake Wars.” They’re worth every bite too. Try the guilt-free minis to get a taste without going into a sugar high, or the gluten-free and vegan options which are equally scrumptious.
- Big Trees State Park (www.parks.ca.gov) Calaveras became a State Park in 1931 to preserve the North Grove of giant sequoias, including the “Discovery Tree,” also known as the “Big Stump”or the first Sierra redwood noted by Augustus T. Dowd in 1852. You can take a very easy, gentle hike through the park to learn the history of the trees, many of which are named, and enjoy pure magnificence of their size. The park is about 25 minutes from Murphys’ Main Street.
- Moaning Caverns (5350 Moaning Cave Road, www.caverntours.com) About 20 minutes from town off Highway 4 and Parrotts Ferry Road is an adventure seeker’s haven. From a zipline where two can race on parallel lines the traditional way or “superhero style” with your belly to the ground, to rappelling through an old mine shaft into a gigantic cavern, to spelunking through the caverns as the old miners once did, you’re in for a thrill. Those who prefer not to get the adrenaline pumping at high speeds can also visit the cavern by walking down a spiral staircase. Claustrophics and parents of children who are afraid of the dark, be forewarned – this is indeed a cave and they will turn off the rock lighting at one point to show the full effect of what total darkness is like.
Where to Stay
Villa Vallecito Vineyards (8330 Airola Road, www.villavallecitovineyards.com) This luxury hideaway offers the kind of off-the-beaten-path serenity that you never want to leave. Owner Ghee Hagedorn recommends guests stop at the grocery store before arriving so they don’t have to leave at all! While not a full-service hotel, and more of a vacation rental, any need can be met by planning in advance, from catered dinners to spa treatments by the pool. The main house even has a private movie theater/screening room. As the wrought iron gates open, and you climb to the top of the hill toward your personal Casita (you have the choice of three different options – my favorite was “Mi Compania Dulce” – visit the website for more), you look to the west you are struck by the stunning cobalt blue of New Melones Lake 500 feet below. The property offers 360 degree views of water, hills and vineyards in a very private setting, with Mexican-inspired decor and furnishing.
Querencia (4383 Sheep Ranch Road, www.querencia.ws) “The Q” as it’s known to locals is located in the middle of 40 acres on a remote ridge top in the heart of Calaveras, with views of mountains, vineyards, and countryside in all directions. The property has a fenced garden area, a small vineyard, vegetable, herb, and flower gardens, and a fish pond. It’s a B&B type of experience, but it’s much more than just breakfast — their customized gourmet dinners are extraordinary. The owners are absolutely delightful and the food is homemade and delicious. The resounding feeling you’ll get is that they care, uniquely and deeply, for each guest and want you to feel at home from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave and return again the next season for another peaceful retreat.
Victoria Inn (402 Main Street, www.victoriainn-murphys.com) This is the most convenient and nicest place to stay right on Main Street, a good thing if you’ve been wine tasting all day to be able to walk home to your hotel. The rooms are very well-appointed and comfortable, but here’s the insider tip — choose to stay at one of their vacation rentals instead of the Inn itself. Some are right on the property, some are scattered around town. All are charming and offer something special. It’s like having your own little cottage right in the core of Murphys.
Murphys Historic Hotel (457 Main Street, www.murphyshotel.com) You stay here for one of two reasons. One, it’s historic. And two, it’s haunted. Yes, you can sleep in a room once frequented by Mark Twain or Ulysses S. Grant, but you can also take your chances on seeing the resident ghost. No joke! The paranormal activity television folks were recently there doing their scientific analysis and found evidence. I’m not going to lie; I had a hard time sleeping and was afraid to walk the hall by myself at night to use the restroom (it’s historic – the toilets and showers are not located in the room, although the rooms have sinks), but sadly, we left with no paranormal activity of our own to report. Each room has a guest log for ghost sightings – some are truly ridiculous, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. My advice? Visit the hotel’s saloon for a taste of history, but if you choose to sleep here, only do so for a night if you want to get any rest.
To learn more about all that Calaveras County has to offer, visit gocalaveras.com.