Take a weekend trip to Calaveras County’s Murphys to enjoy the wine, food and adventure, all served up with friendly hospitality.
By Toni Sieling
When one of my favorite wineries, Milliaire in Murphys, sent an announcement that they were having a wine member event, I decided to grab a few of my best friends (husband included) and make a weekend of it.
The town of Murphys is a wine lover’s Mecca. This small gold-country town has 18 tasting rooms, all within walking distance along Main Street. Add to this a line-up of great restaurants and shopping, then cap it off with the beautiful Sierra Foothill location that offers hiking trails, caves, a ski resort and more, and you have all the ingredients for a perfect weekend.
We drove the two and a half hours up from the S.F. Bay Area on a spring Friday afternoon and, once past the central valley on Highway 4, thoroughly enjoyed the bucolic scenery. Think velvety green rolling hills dotted with cattle, horses, historic crumbling rock walls and oak trees.
We arrived at The Cottages at La Honda Park and checked into our cottage. This place is an absolute gem! The property sits on six acres along Angels Creek and features lush lawns, ancient oaks, with the bubbling sounds of Angels Creek serenading the entire property. We had two suites housed in the same spotless cottage. The property boasts five cottages, a swimming pool, a full kitchen for guests to use, and a converted barn, with doors that slide open to the creek, housing a pool table, foosball table, dart board, board games, television with cable, a wet bar and more. Simply everything you need for an enjoyable weekend. And that’s if you never left the property! But you will want to leave the property because the area has so much to offer.
Next stop? Hop into the car and zip the mile into town for dinner at Grounds. With time before our reservation, we stopped in at Zucca After Hours (open 5-8 p.m.) for a glass of wine, taking our glasses outside and enjoying a sip on their charming patio, complete with a fountain. I had a glass of the Barbera ($8.50). Yum. Soft tannins with a blast of berries. This wine weekend was off to a good start!
Dinner at Grounds was fabulous. We started with lightly battered and quick fried bowl of green beans served with a spicy aioli for dipping. For the entrée’s, I had the broccolini stuffed pork chop on a bed of brothy cannellini beans topped with a roasted tomato compote. This was the best pork chop I have ever tasted, flavorful and moist. My friends were equally happy with the Cioppino – chock full of clams, scallops, shrimp and mussels; grilled Swordfish served over ravioli in a white wine sauce and topped with shaved fennel; and Chicken Cordon Bleu in a light sherry-cream sauce. We enjoyed our bottle of Newsome-Harlow 2010 Zinfandel so much that we bought a second bottle to take back to the barn and sip while we played some pool and foosball.
The next morning we drove into town and grabbed a quick breakfast at Aria Bakery. This is a small bakery with an impressive selection of finely crafted breads, pastries, bagels, croissants, cookies and more. The coffee was great too. We sat outside at tables along the sidewalk and enjoyed the charm of this historic Gold Rush town.
Next we headed just a mile up Sheep Ranch Road and bought our tickets for Mercer Caverns. Since the tour didn’t start for an hour, we decided to drive down to Ironstone Vineyards and explore the extensive gardens. This is definitely worth the trip. Enjoy a leisurely walk along the garden paths, which cover 14 acres and include, picnic areas, a winding stream and large pond. Throughout the 14 acres, you’ll find thousands of plant varieties and species as well as antique winemaking, mining and railroad equipment. And if you have time, visit Ironstone’s Heritage Museum, which houses the largest Crystalline Gold Leaf specimen in the world, weighing in at forty-four pounds!
Back at Mercer Caverns we began our decent down 16 stories of stairs to the bottom of this beautiful cavern, which boasts an enormous variety of beautiful and unusual natural crystalline formations of all sizes, textures and shapes. Mercer caverns contains one of the world’s largest arrays of Aragonite, a very rare and unusual frost-like white crystal that grows from the walls and ceilings in large delicate sprays. The cavern also contains a wide variety of cave formations – stalactites, stalagmites, cave bacon, angels wings, and more – that have been well preserved over the decades, all enthusiastically and humorously detailed by the tour staff.
After the caverns we went to Milliaire Winery for their Spring Garden Party. The wines here are exceptional, with the Clocktower Zinfandel having won the Double Gold at the SF Wine Competition. We bought a bottle of the Clocktower Zin and enjoyed the afternoon out on the patio listening to live music. It was quite wonderful snacking on appetizers while lingering over a glass or two of Milliaire’s fine offerings.
That night we dined at Mineral, a creative vegetarian restaurant. It was a very warm day so we sat outside on their Main Street patio taking in the Murphys charm. The details at Mineral were something to enjoy. A tall glass bottle of chilled water served with fresh mint looked as great as it tasted. We decided to eat family style and ordered everything to share. Starting with mushroom paté, we moved on to incredibly rich, creamy shells and five-year aged cheddar cheese dusted with crispy panko bits. The highlight of this meal was definitely the Truffle Burger, a vegie burger with Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor, Garlic Aioli, and Garden Greens. Very tasty! We noted that the Mineral Burger – consisting of a hand made vegie burger, organic cheddar, caramelized onions, Napa slaw, garlic aioli, and cider barbeque sauce, on a house made bun with pickled vegetables and garden greens, then topped with a fried egg – was favored by many other diners. We’re coming back to try that one for sure!
The next morning we geared up and hiked down to Calaveras Natural Bridges. The website indicated an easy hike; what we found was actually rather rigorous. But the destination was well worth the extra sweaty trouble. After an approximately one-mile hike downhill into a canyon we came to a spectacular limestone cavern that has been carved out by Coyote Creek. This place is incredibly beautiful, like nothing I have ever seen before. We waded into the cavern to have a look and found that the creek goes completely through the cavern and comes out again. It consists of three chambers, approximately 40-yards long in all, and is navigable by swimming, inner tube or raft. For more information visit www.gocalaveras.com/natutral-bridges-hike
For the adventurous, Moaning Caverns, located half way between Murphys and Natural Bridges, boasts a 1,500-foot zipline and spelunking tours. This cavern holds the largest vertical chamber in a public cavern that you can see in California. In fact, it’s so big, it could hold the entire Statue of Liberty! http://www.caverntours.com/
Perhaps the best find of the weekend was a spontaneous stop for lunch on the way home in Farmington at Lagorios (www.lagorios.com). I’ve driven by this place 100 times on Highway 4 but was always a bit intimidated by the row of beefy Harley’s out front. Well were we surprised! The charming local bar atmosphere with super friendly staff and customers were only outdone by the truly amazing barbecued oysters. These were amazing! Coated with Lagorios-own house-made special spicy sauce and barbecued to perfection. Fat, meaty and juicy served with pesto-coated French bread, which you’ll definitely use to sop up the sauce. My husband had the barbecued frog’s legs – yup, they tasted like chicken. My friend had the enormous BLT served up with baked beans and French fries. No one is going home hungry from Lagorios and we all left full and happy.
Murphys serves up a nice blend of history, charm, great food and wine, and outdoor adventure. It’s easy to get to and brimming with outstanding wineries and friendly people. Put this one on your punch list, you’ll be glad you did.