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A sweeter Napa

The enclave of Murphys, in the Sierra foothills, has great wine-- and no attitude

Tell someone you’re spending a weekend in Murphys, a gold mining town about 150 miles east of the city, off Highway 4, and you’re likely to get a quizzical stare. But you better get there before the stares turn into knowing looks. Tucked among Calaveras County’s thick oaks, aging barns, and acres of hearty grapes, Murphys offers one of California’s best, if little known, wine-tasting weekends. Boutique tasting rooms hide behind saloon doors along Main Street—think Dionysian Nevada City—and granitic and volcanic soils combined with a tepid alpine climate have created the perfect milieu for Rhône-style varietals. And while the Napatocracy sometimes shuns Murphys, it’s probably just because they’re jealous. “Some very knowledgeable growers are moving here instead of Napa. They’re saying, ‘We want lives, not lifestyle,’” says Ron Morris of Lavender Ridge Vineyard. And grapes are just the beginning. Calaveras boasts redwoods, deep caves, and rivers, and Murphys has a growing culinary scene that, for a town of just over 2,000, might surprise you.

Happy vintners make for happy sippers, as evidenced by some of Murphys’s downtown tasting rooms. Founded by a UC Davis–trained enologist with 20 years of experience, Lavender Ridge seems the most academic, but all of its bottles—including the popular, chocolatey grenache—go for under $30. Newsome-
Harlow
, run by two bubbly couples who may be having more fun than the tasters, is the place for hearty reds, like its meritage. And folks at Hatcher make you feel like family while you’re sipping one of their fruity tempranillos. All tastings are free, and you can walk (or stagger) between all of downtown’s 12 tasting rooms.
To make it even better, snobbery does not yet seem to be in the local lexicon: you’re more likely to get invited to a dinner party at the winemaker’s home than to be made to feel you don’t know your acids from your tannins.

Lavender Ridge, 425a Main St., 209-728-2441, www.lavenderridgevineyard.com. Newsome-Harlow, 403 Main St., 209-728-9817, www.newsomeharlow.com. Hatcher, 425 Main St., 209-605-7111, www.hatcherwinery.com.

A stay at Querencia is an experience you won’t forget. Set atop a peak 4 miles outside of town, the B&B offers feather beds, sunset hors d’oeuvres in the organic garden, and a suspended hot tub overlooking a stunning valley. The architecture is charmingly idiosyncratic. Says co-owner and designer Mike Macfarlane, “If you’ve been to Spain, you’ll probably think Gaudi.” Another plus is the personalized breakfast that starts with homemade scones delivered to your door, coaxing you out of bed for the remaining courses, served in the dining room overlooking green hills and vineyards.
If you don’t want to leave town, the Victoria Inn provides elegant, Western-themed rooms: clawfoot bathtubs, small-paned windows, and fireplaces transport you to the 19th-century Murphys Mark Twain described in his famous tale about a jumping frog.

Querencia, 4383 Sheep Ranch Rd., 209-728-9520, www.querencia.ws. Victoria Inn, 402H Main St., 866-490-4815, victoriainn-murphys.com.

The Victoria Inn also houses the town’s best dinner restaurant, V, where Bob Anderson (formerly the executive chef at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel) serves up plates like duck and foie gras over warm spinach (above) and rib eye rubbed with cumin and coffee and served with blue cheese gratin. Less than a block away is Grounds, which offers what locals say is the best breakfast in town. Be sure to get the potato pancakes with your scramble; they’re delicious, and you may need the heft for another hard day of tasting. For lunch, Alchemy Market and Wine Bar is the spot. A Diestel smoked turkey and bacon sandwich with avocado and jalapeno-chutney mayo is the perfect midday pick-me-up.

V, 402h main st., 209-728-0107. grounds, 402 Main St., 209-728-8663. Alchemy, 191 Main St., 209-728-0700, www.alchemymarket.com.

Wines can be enjoyed in all seasons, but summer
is the best time to picnic by the town stream or hoof it on one of the area trails. For some of the best hikes, swimming holes, and caverns—and the area is full of them—head west a few miles on Highway 4, make a left at Parrots Ferry Road, and stop at Moaning Cavern, where you can rappel among the stalactites and escape the heat (caves stay 59 degrees all year). A little farther down Parrots Ferry Road, stop at the Natural Bridges trailhead and take the 1.4-mile-long trail that, not surprisingly, takes you to a natural bridge—one you can swim right under if the
snowmelt has been plentiful.

If you’re not in the outdoorsy mood, spend an hour perusing Moon Alley, where Brooke Langlois sells her one-of-a-kind candles. Poured and carved by hand, with designs inspired by Japanese woodblock prints and art nouveau motifs, they offer far more than wax and a wick. Most of the other Main Street shops are typically cutesy—good for passing time between tastings and hikes—but don’t miss Handmade Gallery’s locally blown glass and colorful abstract ceramic sculptures.

Moon Alley, 332 Main St., 209-890-5272. Handmade Gallery, 215 Main St., 209-728-8155.