Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
Gold country in the Sierra mountain foothills is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco. For my wife and me, a Calaveras County road trip was a big question mark. Having been, we now know that Calaveras County has a gold and copper mining history, but today is a mecca for hiking, biking, wining, dining, golfing, fishing, camping, river rafting, gold panning, spelunking, and even vodka, gin and whiskey tasting at a local distillery. With a group of friends from San Francisco, we traveled to Calaveras for an education. We experienced quality wines, amazingly grand vineyards, gourmet dining, a beautiful local country club, and quality lodging. We viewed stunning old-growth forests and many artistic renditions of Mark Twain’s jumping frogs of Calaveras County. So, for our next road trip, instead of turning North to Healdsburg, Napa, or Sonoma, we can now consider, instead, a turn to the East to revisit Calaveras, particularly since there is so much there to do and see that invites further exploration.
Calaveras County is hidden away in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains with Tuolumne County and Yosemite to the South and Amador County and Lake Tahoe to the North. Our short drive east from Stockton took us from green fields and valley orchards up into the golden, rolling, rocky hills and valleys of the Sierras where fir trees dotted the landscape. Checking into the Gateway Hotel in Copper Valley, we found the hallway to our room lined with historic early 19th century photos of local mining. As a history buff that got my juices flowing and I was eager to find out more.
In 1849, Henry Angel found gold in ‘them-thar-hills’ but he really struck it rich when he gave up placer-mining, (panning and sluice box), and set up tents to sell shovels and supplies to other miners. His Angels Trading Post came to be known as Angels Camp – and still is.
Mark Twain and the Calaveras Jumping Frog
Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), while visiting San Francisco in the 1860s, was invited to visit friends mining for gold in a shack on Jack-Ass-Hill in Tuttletown. Being near Angels Camp, according to local folklore, Clemens visited the bar in the Angel Hotel. There he overheard the barkeep tell stories of bored miners betting gold on jumping frogs. That bar yarn led Twain to write “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”. The narrator of the story tells of a bartender at the Angels Camp Hotel whose patron, Jim Smiley, was bilked by two city slickers. When Smiley was absent, they filled his championship frog full of lead shots so it couldn’t jump. Appropriately embellished by Twain, the short story was published in the New York Saturday Press, on November 18, 1865. Republished in many other newspapers across the country, it helped put Mark Twain on the map as a teller of tall tales. Twain, in turn, put Calaveras County on the map for its annual frog jumping competitions at the county fair, held each year in the third week of May.
Gold Mining History
In Angels Camp, after gold dust ran out in the rivers and creeks in the 1850s, a vein of gold was discovered encased in quartz rock. By crushing the quartz in a stamp mill, gold was liberated. Chasing that gold-bearing deposit, five mines sprang up down the main street in Angels Camp. Over thirty years more than $20 million in gold was harvested in just Angels Camp. Further, into the foothills, similar veins were discovered and yet more mines popped up. Ten miles from Angels Camp the town of Murphys was born.
The Town of Murphys and Its Entrepreneurs
In 1844, five years before the gold rush, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party pioneered the original wagon route over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, past Lake Tahoe, and into Northern California. Brothers John and Daniel Murphy came from Iowa with son Martin. After reaching what is now Silicon Valley, Martin Murphy purchased a portion of Rancho Pastoria de las Borregas; founded the Bay View wheat farm; it became Sunnyvale. (Elisha Stephens settled nearby a creek that now bears his name, i.e., Stevens Creek. John Townsend, in turn, was an early mayor of San Francisco, and Townsend Street is named for him.)
Five years after John and Daniel Murphy pioneered the wagon route into Northern California, gold was discovered in Calaveras County. The two Murphy brothers bought shovels, picks, and mining supplies, packed them up into the foothills, and set up tents to sell supplies to the miners. According to folklore, they hired Miwok Indians to harvest gold, sold supplies to the miners, and six years later packed up their mules and returned to the Silicon Valley as very wealthy entrepreneurs. Today, the historic town of Murphys, with more than 26 entrepreneurial winery tasting rooms, bears their name. Those seeking fortune now come to plant vineyards and mine the grape harvests, although ‘there’s still gold in them thar hills’.
Calaveras Wine Making
“Calaveras is a quaint little drinking county with a fishing problem”, said Scott Klann, winemaker at Newsome-Harlow Winery. He, like many other quality small-lot winemakers in Calaveras, was mentored while working for the Kautz Family.
When the Kautz family moved from Lodi to the matriarch’s family land at Ironstone Mine in Calaveras county 25 years ago, the family invested themselves in the rocky Calaveras soil, as well as, in its people. The trained extensions of the Kautz family are now quickly establishing Calaveras County as a winery destination; and, as one wine writer in our group remarked: “it’s what Napa was like 30 years ago.” The remarkable achievements of the Kautz family are on display at Ironstone Vineyards near the town of Murphys in Calaveras County.
As Scott said: “Calaveras County is geological chaos. Every block of grapes is unique and requires a different approach for winemaking.” For dedicated wine seekers, geological chaos means many small vineyards with unique excellent vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rose, Syrah, and other Loire region clones. The wines are generally “under the radar”, “under-appreciated” and “not recognized”.
Our group reserved a gourmet winemakers dinner at The Golf Club at Copper Valley in the Vine 18 Restaurant which was prepared by Executive Chef Jaime Alderete, previously the gourmet chef for the Gallo family in Napa and owner of Verona-18 Cucina Italiana in Modesto. We were extremely impressed by both the quality of the gourmet dinner, and the excellent local small-lot vintages presented by Prospect 772 winery; Newsome-Harlow (winemaker, Scott Klann), Stevenot Winery (winemaker, Barden Stevenot), and Val du Vino Winery (winemaker, Mark Hoover).
We tasted: Sauvignon Blanc, 2021 Newsome Harlow (paired with a Charcuterie Board of cured meats and imported cheeses); Syrah/Viognier Blend, Prospect 772 (paired with a Tomahawk Rib-eye appetizer brazed with garlic compound butter); Grenache Blanc, Prospect 772 (paired with a fresh spring salad topped with almonds, strawberries, and feta cheese); Petite Syrah Rose, Val du Vino (paired with parmesan-crusted halibut served with dill aioli, leek risotto, and grilled asparagus); and Cabernet Sauvignon, Val du Vino (paired with French lemon Crème Brulee).
For an after-dinner tasting we enjoyed 2019 The Donner Party Zinfandel, Newsome Harlow, and for comparison a Waypoint, (Napa), Shake Ridge Zinfandel made with grapes from Shake Ridge Vineyards in nearby Amador County. My palate preferred the Newsome-Harlow Zin.
When the Kautz family moved from Lodi to Calaveras, they kept their quality Bear Creek Winery and thousands of vineyard acres in the Lodi AVA. Those vineyards, now more than 6000 acres, have, over the past decades, supplied grapes to many of Napa’s most prominent winemakers. Starting in 1948 with just 12 acres, John Kautz quickly built a reputation for quality and skill at recognizing and developing unique micro-climate blocks of grapes. He and his two sons have continued the tradition in Calaveras. The family was recognized in 2012 as the Winegrape Growers of the year by the California Association of Winegrape Growers, but their real signature achievements are secreted away in the hidden regions of Calaveras County. The family has grown their vineyards to be the sixth-largest in the United States. In Calaveras alone, they hold 1100 acres with 100 acres already in grapes. There, they have constructed a luxurious three-story spacious winery with grand gardens, and a 6500 audience open-air concert stage that hosts name entertainers. The winery is a destination definitely worth the drive from San Francisco.
Ironstone Vineyards Heritage Museum
In addition to the beautiful winery, a heritage museum is located just off the main entrance at Ironstone Vineyards. It contains a collection of Calaveras mining equipment used locally in the 1850s. Also on display is “The Crown Jewel” of this historic collection is a 44-pound crystalline gold nugget. It is the largest specimen of crystalline gold in the world, and the largest single piece of gold mined in North America since the 1880s. It was unearthed in nearby Tuolumne County in 1992 in a rock consisting of clay, quartz, shale, and pyrite. Kautz purchased the rare crystal and had it treated to remove the accretions.
Another treasure displayed in the nearby large reception room used for weddings is the Alhambra Organ. The huge pipe organ used to accompany silent films in the Alhambra Theater in downtown Sacramento; complete with bird whistles and horn honks. The unique Gothic theater at 31st St. and Alhambra Blvd. in Sacramento opened in September of 1927 and was demolished in 1972 to make way for a Safeway grocery store. The organ was saved and completely restored by the Kautz family. It periodically comes to life to accompany children’s silent films, such as the 2018 screening of the original 1953 Peter Pan film starring Mary Martin. (Check the Ironstone Vineyard for possible future events.)
Sometimes there is just no substitute for local knowledge of where to go when to go, what to do next and how to get there, especially when wine-tasting can dull the senses.
We were fortunate to tour with an excellent local Gold Rush Tours guide. In addition to Ironstone Vineyard and the historic town Murphys with its 26 tasting rooms dotted along Main Street, (described above), we also visited: The Red Apple on Hwy-4, for wonderful fresh-from-the-pot homemade donuts; The North Grove of Calaveras Big Trees State Park, discovered by a miner in 1850 and a big tourist destination ever since; and, Hinterhaus distillery in Arnold, run by husband and wife team Nate and Bonnie Randall, for spirits tasting of vodka, gin, whiskey, and liqueurs.
Discovered and exploited by a miner from Murphys in 1852, the grove of huge Sequoia trees is amazing and awe-inspiring. The largest tree in the grove was more than 1200 years old, 25 feet in diameter at its base, and over 280 feet tall. The giant Sequoias can live more than 3000 years and now grow only in 75 small groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada range. Walking quietly among these gentle giants is a humbling reverent experience.
Copper Too in Copperopolis
Copper is key in the production of brass, and brass, in turn, was sorely needed during the Civil War and World Wars-I and -II for engines, artillery shell casings, and even bullets. Founded in 1860, Copperopolis, the town at the gateway into Calaveras County, ramped up mining during the Civil War and World Wars-I and -II. Finally, after World War II copper prices crashed, mining slowed and in 1946 the mines closed. During their heyday, the mines produced more than 72 million pounds of copper worth about $12 million ($160 million when adjusted for inflation).
The original town of Copperopolis was mostly destroyed by fire in 1867 and never completely rebuilt. Now, a mile away, a new repro-town of Copper Valley is emerging complete with all the historic ambiance of the original 1860s buildings.
Our visit showed us that Calaveras County is so much more than just mining, hiking, biking, wining, dining, fishing, camping, and jumping with Mark Twain’s frogs. These foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains have their own unique vibe that is definitely worth a visit.
Related Article: Calaveras County: A Place for all Seasons, Story and Photos by Lee Daley.
IF YOU GO:
Calaveras Winegrape Alliance hosts special events each year including a “Spring Wine Weekend” that sells out quickly. There website is a good resource for upcoming local wine events. (www.calaveraswines.org )
Ironstone Vineyards www.ironstonevineyards.com 1154 Pennsylvania Gulch Rd., Murphys .
Newsome-Harlow www.nhvino.com 403 Main St., Murphys.
Steveneot Winery www.stevenotwinery.com 458 Main St., Murphys.
Val du Vino www.valduvinowinery.com 634 French Gulch Rd., Murphys.
Prospect 772 www.prospect772.com 772 Appaloosa Rd., Angels Camp.
Boyle MacDonald Wines, www.boylemacdonaldwine.com 448B Main St., Murphys.
Murphys Hotel, restaurant (excellent), and bar www.murphyshotel.com 457 Main St., Murphys.
Hinterhause Distilling www.hinterhausdistilling.com 925 Hwy-4, Ste. 1-2, Arnold.
Vine-18 Restaurant www.vine18.com 1001 Saddle Creek Dr., Copperopolis.
Gold Rush Tour Company www.GoldRushTourCompany.com
Copperopolis and Copper Valley Village is located on Hwy-4 at the gateway to Calaveras County and features the Gateway Hotel (www.gatewayhotelcv.com) with 19 rooms and connections for rental houses and condos available at Golf Club at Copper Valley and nearby New Melones Lake in Tuttletown.
The Golf Club at Copper Valley (https://www.coppervalleygolf.com/) 1001 Saddle Creek Dr., Copperopolis.