The (Italian) wines of Murphys, California

Go to Murphys. But don’t go for the wine!

Okay, well maybe a little bit of it is good. But don’t count on too much from this area.*  Still, it’s a fun town to visit.

A couple of weeks ago, in celebration of our eighth wedding anniversary, my husband, Jeff, and I went up to Murphys, California in the Sierra Foothills to spend a long weekend. Three years ago we happened upon this town after bailing out of a backpacking trip early but we had only one day to spend. Since then we swore we’d go back but hadn’t found the chance. Finally we were making it happen.

I like Murphys because the restaurant scene is surprisingly interesting, there is a cute park, a fun zip-line at Moaning Cavern about 15 minutes out of town, a spa for any beauty or relaxing treatments one might need, and if you’re packing for a hike in the nearby redwoods, there is a great natural foods store and regular grocery market right at the entrance to town. While there is not a plethora of reliably good wine, there are a ton of tasting rooms all within a few blocks of each other right on Main Street in downtown Murphys. You’re bound to find something good with that many choices. This time I found a couple of pleasant things but what my take-home message was that this area mostly excels in the Rhone/Spanish realm (Petite Sirah, Grenache, Tempranillo, etc). And beware of all whites; most of them were astoundingly horrible.

We pulled into town at 8:11pm on a Thursday evening and while this is our usual dinnertime, in Murphys, the dinner scene comes to screeching halt right at 8:01pm on most nights. Luckily we found an empty seat at the bar at the V Bistro, which is attached to the V Restaurant at the Victoria Inn, where we were staying. The friendly bar tender, Craig, assured us we would not starve. (They stop serving food at 9pm!) I ordered a glass of the most appealing-sounding Italian local varietal wine, the Zucca Barbera. It wasn’t that good but after a four-hour drive, two of which were spent in Bay Area rush-hour traffic, almost anything would have tasted good (enough).

Zucca Barbera 2009. Sierra Foothills. Sweet and ripe with strong essences of cherry pie, vanilla, tin, and coffee. The mouth certainly shows a good acidity with lime and blackberry but the finish is a little off balance: volatile with a little bit of tannins, sourness, and the ripe sweet flavors of wild blackberries.

Friday afternoon I popped in to the Newsome-Harlow tasting room, which is across the street from the Victoria Inn. The modern interior is appointed well at Newsome-Harlow and their outdoor patio looks fun for enjoying a glass. I hear their adjoining restaurant is wonderful but we didn’t get a chance to go. While I wasn’t a huge fan of their Muscat blanc, their Sauvignon blanc surprised me. I don’t like the New Zealand-ish gooseberry-papaya-tomato leaf nexus of flavors in Sauvignon blanc so if you like that, you might find this one boring. But I enjoyed it. I liked their Big John Zinfandel too.

That night we had dinner at Murphys Grille, a restaurant I have always really enjoyed. It never seems to be very busy but I don’t understand why. To me, they have the most reliable local wines by-the-glass list, I’ve always found the menu to be easy, and the food is delicious. It was a difficult decision but after a glass of Lavender Ridge Grenache Rose, I finally chose a glass of Laraine Sangiovese. While I wouldn’t have pegged it as a Sangiovese in a blind tasting, I didn’t find anything not to like in this one.

Laraine Sangiovese 2008. Sierra Foothills. Fresh strawberries and mint; light and fresh on the nose. On the palate there’s a mix of red cherries and a little bit of chalky tannins, which work in a pleasant way to balance the acidity. A strange Sangiovese but all in all pretty likeable. ☆

Saturday morning we set out on the town for some early wine tasting. We first hit up Twisted Oak, which I’ve had before and liked but couldn’t really remember if their wines tend to be on the overripe side or they are more refined. I found them to be headed more towards refined, relative to the rest of Murphys wineries. They make Spanish and Rhone varietal wines and blends. Stand-outs for me included their Albarino, Grenache, Tempranillo (they make more than one), and the Petite Sirah. Certainly it is a winery you should visit if you go.

We also checked out Lavender Ridge, a winery specializing in Rhone varieties. Their tasting room is fun because they often pair cheeses with the wines they are pouring and you can buy the cheese right there. Moreover, I still loved their Grenache Rose after trying it a second time. While splendid for the taste, its powerful watermelon pink color amused me the most. I didn’t really enjoy any of their other wines, however.

After an afternoon picnic at Alpine Lake, about 40 miles up Highway 4, we decided to try one more winery, a new one for us, Frog’s Tooth

What intelligent thing can I say about this winery? Don’t bother!

Frog’s Tooth Pinot grigio (vintage not noted). Sierra Foothills. You know that smell of the water in a vase of rotting and dying flowers? Mix in some questionable papayas and lychees and have a sip!

Frog’s Tooth Barbera 2009. Sierra Foothills. Floral on the nose with the taste of strawberries and a sour and out of balance acidity.

Shortly thereafter we sauntered down to Alchemy Restaurant for a pre-dinner drink, and to erase any remaining taste of Frog’s Tooth wine from our memories. I’d heard they have a good beer list and Jeff was ready for one. Fortunately they have wine too; I ordered a glass of La Folia Barbera.

La Folia Barbera 2009. Sierra Foothills. Truth be told, this one smells like musty, moldy shower curtain. The flavors aren’t as bad but don’t offer much more: a juice mix of lime, grape, and fruit punch. I didn’t finish the glass.

For dinner we headed over to Grounds. While we’d been a few times for breakfast (highly recommended!), we hadn’t yet tried the dinner offerings. This place is packed day and night so we thought we’d better investigate.

Here is where I found my favorite wine of the weekend! The Hovey Petite Sirah Dalton Cuvee 2009! —Darn! Petite Sirah is not Italian. (That’s okay! I like other stuff too.)

Chuck Hovey was the winemaker at Stevenot Winery (wines I haven’t yet tried) for 24 years before starting his own winery. He doesn’t have a tasting room on Main Street yet but there are evidently plans. You can order from his website:

I enjoyed this Petite Sirah so much that I asked around and found out he makes a Barbera too (along with Tempranillo, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay). I found the Barbera at the grocery market I mentioned above and opened it the night we got back home.

Hovey Barbera Walker Cuvée 2009. El Dorado. Very purple and semi opaque. Smokey in the nose with a touch of vanilla and ripe red cherries. Full and velvety on the palate with a little more vanilla — a little hot but still fresh. The finish is spicey with pleasant fruit, lots of berries, and a touch of dark roast coffee. A relatively elegant yet concentrated wine, especially compared to all the rest I tried that weekend. By far the best Italian varietal wine from a Murphys producer that I’ve ever had. This wine comes from the second harvest of this vineyard at Walker Ranch near Placerville. Only one acre is grown. It is aged 18 months in oak and he recommends drinking it over the next five years. ★☆

There is a Barbera Festival next weekend on June 9 at Cooper Ranch in Shenandoah Valley and I really ought to go. But in lieu of it, I have already committed to the TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates, Producers, and Amigos Society) tasting in San Francisco. I wish Hovey would bring his Tempranillo to the city but instead I believe he’s going to show up at Cooper Ranch with his Barbera. Too bad for me —but at least I know I can count on some good juice from Twisted Oak in the city!

* I’m not saying that all Sierra Foothills Barbera is bad. In fact I think it’s the best place in California to grow Barbera. I talk about a few producers I’m fond of in another one of my bog articles, Cal-Ital Wine Reviews from June 2010. Runquist is also one of my all-time favorites. But I don’t think you’ll find many good ones in Murphys.

† Last time I also enjoyed a couple of wines from Black Sheep and Miliare. Hatcher makes a diverse selection of reds (Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Mourvedre, and Barbera) but I didn’t find their wines to be very true to variety in character. To be harsh, I just felt like no one did much research on what these different grapes need; they made all of them like one might make Zinfandel. Pick when really ripe and throw them into some oak for aging. I wanted to change my mind and try them again but it just didn’t happen. So it’s on the list for next time!

‡ As of right now his website is merely a web page. But if you do a Google search you will find links to pages with details about his wines and an order form. I suspect this might be updated in the near future. So by the time you read this, it might be all fixed.

3 thoughts on “The (Italian) wines of Murphys, California

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit to Twisted Oak winery. It does seem you found enough wines to like around town that maybe we’re not so bad after all. And I hope the TAPAS event was to your liking. I know we had a good time pouring there!

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