Monday, December 13, 2010

Murphys, Where Tasting Is A Walk In The Park

Wasn't it just a year ago when I last was in Murphys, the wine capital of Calaveras County? Maybe it was two years, at the most. Whatever the gap, much has happened in and about Murphys between visits. A new stretch of Highway 4 that bypasses Angels Camp, for one, speeding up the 100-mile drive from Sacramento by a few minutes.

Secondly, "22 or 23" winery tasting rooms now are clustered in downtown Murphys, nearly double the total a year or two ago. Locals weren't sure of the total, and we were in town just a few hours, not long enough to count them all, but "22 or 23" were consistent estimates.

Wall of Comparative Ovations, Murphys
While Murphys today is perhaps the most dynamic of the old gold camps of the Mother Lode, one attraction that remains fairly constant is the Wall of Comparative Ovations, some 80 ceramic plaques embedded in the stone of a building dating from the 1850s. The creation of E Clampus Vitus, variously described as an "historical drinking society" or a "drinking historical society," the wall commemorates people and institutions that played pivotal roles in creating the West, including John Murphy, who founded Murphys in 1848; Dr. Richard Coke Wood, a Stockton history professor and writer who the state legislature in 1969 proclaimed "Mr. California"; early coastal explorer Sir Francis Drake ("Drake was a Clamper, but not in good standing because of his propensity to be piratical," says his plaque); and Emma Nevada, "nightengale of the Comstock," who sang for Queen Victoria.

Someday, no doubt, the Clampers will add to the wall a plaque to recognize a vintner responsible for helping establish the Sierra foothills as a region for fine wine. Local candidates almost surely will be Barden Stevenot, Chuck Hovey and Gay Chatom, all of whom were early and key players in the development of the wine trade about Murphys.

Rich Gilpin, his two brands, and lavender
Another candidate would have to be Rich Gilpin, who with his wife Siri owns Lavender Ridge Vineyard. Rich Gilpin just finished his 25th harvest as a winemaker. The old rock building that houses the winery's tasting room was our first stop Saturday. The winery itself is on a sunny slope just west of Angels Camp. There, Rich Gilpin grows grapes; Siri Gilpin grows lavender. Together, they market the results of their green thumbs at the Murphys tasting room. The scent of lavender that hangs sweetly in the air will startle and perhaps upset some wine tasters, who are apt to fear that the distinctive smell of the shrub will intrude and distract from their appreciation of the aromas that the wines have to offer.

Maybe the combination is just a test by Rich Gilpin to see if his wines are as strongly aromatic as he would like them to be, able to transcend the bouquet being cast by clusters of drying lavender and the assorted oils and creams derived from them. And sure enough, they do, without exception, helped by the Reidel water glasses into which he and his counter crew pour tastes.

We were in Murphys in large part to look for possible wines for the weekly column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee. At Lavender Ridge, I came away with a month's worth of candidates, with the first most likely to be one of the two wines we bought, either the substantial Lavender Ridge Vineyard 2009 Sierra Foothills Roussanne, its sunny fruit shot through with a current of minerality, or the nimble Lavender Ridge Vineyard 2009 Sierra Foothills Grenache, possessed of the brilliant if light color, strawberry essence and overall grace of a refined pinot noir.

Complicating the prospects, however, is that the Gilpins have introduced another brand and opened a second tasting room. Coppermine is the name, and the tasting room is just off a wide curve of Highway 4 at Vallecto, a few miles outside Murphys. At Lavender Ridge, Gilpin makes only wines with grapes traditionally associated with France's Rhone Valley, like mourvedre, viognier and syrah. For Coppermine, he's making wines only with grapes commonly associated with Bordeaux, like cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

The Sierra foothills generally is seen as having enough heat and sunshine for Rhone Valley grapes to thrive, but too much for Bordeaux varieties. By searching out growers as undaunted as he is by the bad rap on Bordeaux-styled wines in the Gold Country, Gilpin is hopeful that he can at least update if not rewrite history. His first efforts to be released under the Coppermine label are nothing if not assured in their precision and proportion. While not as ripe and muscular as his Lavender Ridge wines, they aren't meant to be, showing the restraint that comes from grapes when they are grown in relatively cool sites, which Gilpin apparently has been able to find in the foothills. All were varietally distinct, especially the angular and lively Coppermine 2008 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Sauvignon, the herbal and arresting Coppermine 2008 Sierra Foothills Cabernet Franc, and the inky yet accessible Coppermine 2008 Sierra Foothills Petit Verdot.

After tasting through the Lavender Ridge and Coppermine wines, we sauntered over to the tasting room of La Folia Winery, opened a month ago by Ryan Teeter, Gilpin's assistant winemaker. Rather than Rhone Valley or Bordeaux, however, Teeter looks to Italy for hs models. His early lineup includes a rich pinot grigio, a fleshy barbera and a vibrant zinfandel, all made with grapes grown in the Sierra foothills.

Another nearby newcomer is Metate Hill Vineyards, where winemaker Michael Stange is looking to the Iberian peninsula for inspiration. Thus, his first rollout includes two blends of garnacha and carinena, one fresh and youthful, the other sweeter and smokier because of its extended time in oak barrels, and a tempranillo of unusually refreshing lift.

We also visited some of the oldtimers in Murphys, notably Twisted Oak, Frog's Tooth and Hatcher. Of all of them, just the Frog's Tooth tasting room was crowded, perhaps because it was the only one with a musician performing out front. That's apt to change, however, as word gets around that Murphys has the most concentrated and most varied array of tasting opportunities of any wine community in Northern California. Given that range, I don't think I'll be putting off for a year - or two - my next visit to the town.

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