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Travel: Fire and Wine


Posted on January 12, 2016

In Calaveras County’s wine country, the historic town of Murphys barely escaped the Butte Fire (but, yes, unscathed!), snow is falling in the big trees and history lives on.

Drink in the View: Villa Vallecito
Vineyards has a tasting room in
downtown Murphys, but a short
drive away on its vineyard property
overlooking New Melones Reservoir
and Calaveras County’s rolling
hills, a secluded casita awaits. It
sleeps two to six people and runs
approximately $225 a night.
Drink in the View: Villa Vallecito Vineyards has a tasting room in downtown Murphys, but a short drive away on its vineyard property overlooking New Melones Reservoir and Calaveras County’s rolling hills, a secluded casita awaits. It sleeps two to six people and runs approximately $225 a night. Photography by Gil Munoz

As my car buzzed around a bend in the forest road, the late-afternoon sunshine dimmed and ashes drifted across the windshield. A campfire scent squeezed through the cracks in the car’s weatherstripping, and the view changed from evergreen and autumn orange to filmy white. Just a burn day, I told myself. At least I hoped it was just a burn day. Two months before, the Butte Fire had licked the edges of this Calaveras County community, and now it was all too easy to envision the brilliant orange November foliage as flames, the smoke more sinister than the benign curl off a controlled burn pile. I jammed my foot on the gas and imagined the panic of driving this skinny road with photo albums on my lap, pets and children in the back. 

These thoughts came readily because I had just left Murphys, the cute little wine-tasting town off Highway 4, and there in the boutiques and tasting rooms, on Main Street itself, remained reminders that the big fire’s flames had licked too close for comfort: signs thanking firefighters, posters begging donations for burned animals, shopkeepers who still talked about it as a narrow escape. 

Yes, Murphys still stands, with its restaurants and shops and the 22 or so wine-tasting rooms that line its Main Street. It’s a great winter getaway, tucked into the foothills at an elevation just low enough to stay snow-free most of the time (about 2,000 feet) and close enough to ski country so that a 30-minute drive up the road can yield fresh powder for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, another 30 minutes, a ski/snowboard resort. 

In Murphys itself, though, you can wear your fuzzy boots and warm coats and scarves while you mosey beneath the trees on Main Street. It’s idyllic and pretty, a miniature historic town. Tree branches bough over the roadway, and small shops and winery counters fill old spaces that you can imagine once held barrels of dry goods, jars of old-fashioned candy, a postmistress, strong-booted men with long beards and suspenders. Just window shopping, you can do the length of the street, both sides, in one pass, but to really take it in, you’ll want to stay the weekend. 

Nab a room at one of the B&Bs in town: The Victoria Inn, centrally located just off the main drag, or Dunbar House, creekside and situated away from the hustle. The Victoria Inn is actually contemporary, built in 1992, but with an eye on history: Antiques, clawfoot tubs and curly-toed woodstoves mix with remote-control gas fireplaces, coffeemakers and modern-day light fixtures. The Dunbar House building dates back to 1880, a Greek Revival mansion, and the inn has Norwegian fireplaces in each room and a combination of historic and contemporary amenities and decor. Both inns serve breakfast—expanded continental at The Victoria and a lavish, innovative hot dish extravaganza at Dunbar House. (Really: Stuffed avocados, enchiladas, chili corn cob muffins are just the beginning.) 


Visitors to Calaveras Big Trees State Park can enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides and more during the annual Winter Wonderland Carnival on Dec. 29.

Wine-tasting is one reason to come. Calaveras County is a wine country all on its own, flanked by the better-known Amador and El Dorado appellations, and the region turns out chardonnay, zinfandel and cabs much like its foothills cousins. Other reds, including merlot, petite sirah and syrah, grace the tasting menus, too. You can drive around and visit charming wineries and tasting rooms off the highways and back roads—including the gargantuan Ironstone Vineyards outside of Murphys, with its tasting room, gift shop, museum, deli and outdoor amphitheater. You can also park your car and your bags in Murphys and do most of the county’s wineries in that one walk along Main Street. You’ll find wine and cheese (Lavender Ridge, which doubles as a French boutique and tasting room), wine and hats (La Folia, where headwear, beribboned and not, lines the walls), wine and history (Hovey, in the 1850s Albert Michelson House), wine and a cool courtyard (Newsome-Harlow, with comfy couches and a fire pit), wine and a gas station (Milliaire, in a former Flying A gas station), wine and Old World Mexican decor (Villa Vallecito) . . . and beer. Wait a minute! Beer? Yep— Prospectors Brewing Co. pours a mean pint of Pistol Whipped Wheat or Bootjack Blonde, among others. Murphys PourHouse, recently opened behind the Hovey tasting room, fills pints with some of the motherlode’s finest craft beers, including Knee Deep out of Auburn, and some from right here at home, including Oak Park Brewing Company and Track 7. 

Murphys maintains a healthy collection of shops. Antiques shops, junk shops, a cool record store at the far end of town (you can pick up a set of original Star Wars figurines), lovely ladies’ boutiques including a consignment shop, a kitchen store, a shoe store with beautiful high-end shoes and a sweet rescue dog, a yarn and book place, a tea shop (not so much for sitting and sipping but for buying cool tea paraphernalia like reusable linen tea bags), a spice outlet (lots of wonderful aromas and sample tastes), an olive oil/balsamic/pasta shop (more samples), a cool adventurewear store with old ’80s rock pouring from the speakers (think old Genesis, before Phil Collins sold out, and UFO’s “Love To Love”) and, of course, a bookshop. You can also find a pet store—not to purchase a pet, mind you, but somewhere to buy food, leashes, sweaters or fancy feather toys for your pet—and an artsy candle place in a teeny white historic building with a creaky floor.

For such a small town, Murphys brings on the food, with several innovative restaurants on the main drag. Word to the wise: Mineral, the renowned vegan place, has gone out. (If you want a delicious vegan/vegetarian meal, duck off Main Street onto Highway 4 and hit Outer Aisle for fresh fare straight from the farm.) At Alchemy Market & Cafe, the restaurant menu teems with options ranging from sandwiches to pasta to great green salads full of crisp, crunch and protein. But let’s be clear: You’re there for the bread. Alchemy’s house bread—soft and warm, buttery, cheesy, just the right amount of spicy, and topped with corn kernels. V Restaurant & Bar, at The Victoria Inn, has a cozy indoor dining room, a patio with heat lamps, and a menu that includes reasonably priced food that’s darn good: flatbreads for about 10 bucks with ingredients like fresh mozzarella, smoked Gouda, baby artichokes, prosciutto, wild mushrooms; you’ll also find three-cheese ravioli, lamb meatballs and steak. At Rob’s Place, try the bacon apple turnovers. Firewood serves a crazy mix of Mexican cuisine, pizza and burgers, but it’s all good. Owned by the same folks as Firewood, Grounds—just down the street—was one of Murphys’ first eateries when it began its revival in the early 1990s. Grounds serves tremendous lunches and dinners, but its breakfasts won our hearts completely. The omelets! The Belgian waffles! The marionberry syrup drizzled over French toast . . .

For an afternoon pick-me-up, visit Lila & Sage for a cupcake, and boost your energy further with a trip to Gold Country Roasters, a great place to catch up on your email and social media over a rich double-shot mocha. If your sweet tooth veers toward ice cream or candy, head across the street to JoMa’s Artisan Ice Cream (open only Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the winter) or Nelson’s Candy Kitchen.

Brain food is good, too, and a history lesson feels appropriate in a town like Murphys—note there’s no apostrophe, because it’s named after two brothers named Murphy, guys who successfully weathered the Sierra Nevada on wagon wheels and set up a gold mining operation and trading post. They made a killing extracting gold ore from their self-named “diggins.” Learn about these two millionaires at Murphys Old Timers Museum—better yet, take one of the walking tours at 10 o’clock on Saturday mornings. Also, you’ll find culture in town: In addition to numerous art galleries, Murphys Creek Theatre kicks off its 2016 season with “The Clean Break,” full of hilarity and conflict that takes place in a laundromat (opens Feb. 19).

UP THE ROAD TO SNOW COUNTRY

Highway 4 begins to climb just outside of Murphys, and with luck, Calaveras Big Trees will have enough snow in its North Grove for some snowman building and cross-country skiing (BYO skis) and so that docents can conduct the 1 p.m. Saturday grove tour on snowshoes (provided for participants). Snowy paths wind among majestic sequoias, and the warming hut is welcome after a good cold-weather stomp. Come on in and toast your hands near the fire, which roars beneath a copper chimney. Cocoa and hot apple cider make it even better. For a place to spend the night nearby, reserve a room at Black Bear Inn in Arnold. Tucked into the woods, it’s got five luxurious rooms, most with whirlpool tubs (this feels great after a day in the snow), and a full, sit-down breakfast comes with your stay. Before winding down for the night, pop over to Snowshoe Brewing Company for a Midnight Moon Oatmeal Stout.

HISTORY FOR REAL

About 20 minutes from Murphys, Columbia State Historic Park turns back the clock to the 1849, or fourth grade, depending on how you see it. Time has stood still, and some 30 buildings remain from the Gold Rush days, and the whole place is now designated a National Historic Landmark. You will learn—or relearn—a massive amount of California history. The town is a working museum, with people in period costume, stagecoach rides, old-fashioned candy making, blacksmithing, dagguereotype creation, sarsaparilla on tap and, of course, gold panning. Check out the schoolhouse and the jail and the cemetery, see a history-steeped show at the Fallon House theater, and plunk down on an old barstool in one of the saloons. Drinks: market price, 2016. Go all the way and spend the night at City Hotel—oil lamps, antiques and maybe, just maybe, ghosts.