But fall is the best. You can count on long shadows, a fresh crispness in the air, and a haze suggestive of gold dust falling on the hills that rise gently from the flatland as you get closer to Copperopolis and Angels Camp. On Friday, however, the haze was more blue than gold, thanks to smoke from a control burn in the forest of the Stanislaus River canyon, locals explained.
|Steve Millier, left, John Kautz, at Ironstone|
In 1989, prosperous Central Valley farmer John Kautz came to Murphys to build what subsequently became the largest family-owned winery in the Mother Lode, Ironstone Vineyards. He gussied it up with a 44-pound specimen of gold leaf, the pipe organ from the grand old Alhambra Theatre in Sacramento, and an amphitheatre where the likes of Sammy Hagar, Willie Nelson and Don Henley perform each summer. But one of Kautz's first and more enduring moves was to hire Steve Millier as winemaker, a role he continues to fill, 22 years later.
Earlier, in 1983, Millier and his wife Liz established their own winery, Milliare, at their home. In 1990, they moved it to a former Flying A gas station along Main Street in Murphys, where the tasting room remains today, one of some 20 scattered through the heart of the settlement. (Murphys isn't yet the Carmel of the Mother Lode, but the concentration of tasting rooms has helped foster a diversified business core of first-rate restaurants, fashion boutiques, art galleries, a branch of the famed Nelson's Candy Kitchen from Columbia State Historic Park on the other side of the Stanislaus River, and the most enthralling plumbing shop in the West, Bathroom Machineries.)
Then, four years ago, the Milliers bought another small local winery, Black Sheep, whose tasting room is across and down the street a bit, in a house that may be a century and a half old, behind a small grove of redwood and fig trees.
Millier is soft-spoken but frank. His answers to question often take a philosophical turn. He's stout and round, the only hair on his head his trademark mustache, now white. He moves easily between the flash and bustle of Ironstone to the calm homeyness of Millaire and Black Sheep. He prefers to let his wines do much of the talking for him, but relishes telling tales of people and incidents behind the vineyards where he buys his grapes. At Ironstone, he oversees production of about 400,000 cases of wine a year. At Milliare, he makes 6,000 cases. At Black Sheep, 2,000.
I'd asked him to pour and discuss his wines that most enthused him, that most represented his signature, that held the most promise for the areas where he likes to get his fruit. He works with grapes from all over the region, and has cultivated long and close relationships with growers throughout the region - Calaveras County, Amador County, Clarksburg and Lodi.
His lineup at Ironstone is long and varied. At peak production around 2004 he was making nearly a million cases per year for Ironstone's various brands. That output has been cut by half as Ironstone backs off from high-volume cheap wines to concentrate on refining its core products. Many of them are still bargains, including Ironstone's single most popular wine, "Obsession," a caressing sweet white made with a grape developed by Dr. Harold Olmo of UC Davis, symphony. Ironstone makes 35,000 cases of Obsession each vintage, the 2010 version of which is as floral and spicy as gewurztraminer, but finishes with an acidity so crisp and refreshing it leaves the residual sugar hanging high and dry; it generally sells for $8.
Over at Black Sheep, Millier continues the winery's original focus on forthright zinfandel, but he's also mixing up the selection with such newcomers as the rarely exploited cinsault and the increasingly high-profile grenache. His 2009 cinsault, from a vineyard outside Modesto, is light but spirited, with an alluring spiciness to its suggestions of cranberries and raspberries. The 2009 grenache, from a Calaveras County vineyard, is surprisingly aromatic, and while it is dry it delivers enough sweet fruit to suggest otherwise. Black Sheep reds generally sell for $14 to $24.
While visiting with Millier, and during subsequent visits to other wineries in and about Murphys, I learned that very few Calaveras County wines get beyond the immediate area. Most of the area's wineries are family businesses turning out just a few thousand cases a year. They've learned that the concentration of wine sales in the hands of a few major distributors in recent years has left them with little voice in the marketplace outside of their own neighborhood. The large distributors best represent major brands with thousands of cases they can place, not small operators with a couple of hundred cases of this and maybe 50 of that, explains Millier. As a consequence, most of the wineries at Murphys sell just about everything they produce through their tasting rooms and wine clubs. Millier is tickled that his Black Sheep cinsault is poured at the highly regarded restaurant Girl and the Fig in Sonoma, but he also appreciates that 75 percent of his Black Sheep wines are sold directly at his cozy tasting room.
That shouldn't be an issue for adventurous wine enthusiasts. The drive up to Murphys just can't be beat.