Two dozen motorcycles are parked along the flagstone sidewalk outside the Murphys Historic Hotel, the placid destination of their up-country run. The bikers stretch their arms and greet each other loudly, yelling over the remaining rumbling engines as stragglers ease into place. They arrive with all the grace of a freight train, but their gregarious demeanor dispels any discomfort that the rudeness of the motors might have suggested. Like so many other visitors, they have come here on a mission—they are here to drink wine.
The contrast of a wine-tasting trip in a town like Murphys cannot be overstated when compared to a day in Napa. Located two hours from Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierras, Murphys has gained a reputation as an up-and-coming wine destination, refreshing for its sincerity and affordability—two things Napa has lost over the years. Though Napa remains a vinous paradise to be sure, it is sold to us with a resolute single-mindedness that smacks of marketing ploys. What was once a fairyland of rustic idealism has become a high-stakes endeavor ruled by multinational luxury corporations, where aristocratic gentility has made tasting wine a humorless act.
Elsewhere in California, the wine industry has retained the qualities that once made Napa the scourge of France: experimentation, enthusiasm and dedication to the craft without the heavy weight of reputation.
Luckily for us, Sacramento is within easy daytripping distance of many of these regions. While areas like Amador County and Clarksburg are enjoying their time in the spotlight, many other retreats less obvious to earnest seekers remain—and most spots offer tastings for less than $10. From the lesser-known corners of Yolo county to the central valley hometown of old-vine vintners, your options are more numerous than we could cover here. Regardless, we have a few suggestions.
Lodi for zinfandel
Reading the literature on Lodi wine means taking in a lot of numbers: The region produces 40 percent of the state’s zinfandel, grows more than 20,000, vineyard-acres of sustainable grapes and holds more than 80 local vintners within 15 minutes of downtown. All you really need to know from this is that Lodi—just 40 minutes south of Sacramento—is a zinfandel town and many wineries will be pouring you their version of an “old vine zin” made from grapes grown at area vineyards such as Soucie, where the gnarled and twisted vines were established in 1916 and have been tended to by the Soucie family for five generations.
Within the confines of Lodi and its just-north ag-burb of Acampo you’ll find wineries that span the gamut of tastes and styles. On one hand, you have spots like m2 Wines, featuring a gorgeously modern tasting room that opens up to the surrounding vineyards, imbuing your visit with a sense of refinement and control. On the other hand, you have mom-and-pop stops like Heritage Oak Winery that offer a friendly and informal tasting experience with a mood more akin to “choose your own adventure.”
When you park outside the farmhouse at Heritage Oak, your tires will kick up dust from the dirt path winding through the vineyard. In the tasting room, the wine list offers a selection of unique single-varietals like carignane that are normally reserved for blending, giving tasters a rare insight into the grapes’ individual profiles. Of course, wine tasting is about the wine, but as it’s also a “day-vacation,” Heritage Oak scores extra points for the hiking trails the family made through its 100-acre property. Visitors are encouraged to explore the paths through vineyards, meadows and riparian woodlands, all the way to the loamy bank of the Mokelumne River, where picnic tables and a rope swing greet kayakers who reach the winery by river.
Wine and cheese in Winters
When you mention Yolo County wine, the south-eastern town of Clarksburg is the appellation that usually comes to mind, but the county’s north-west corner has a very different climate that’s producing favorable results. Located at the foot of the Vaca Mountains, the region around Winters experiences cold breezes from the coastal range and Lake Berryessa, making for a longer, cooler growing season and contributing to a wine scene that is small but well-defined.
Arriving in downtown Winters, you have your choice of four tasting rooms, but their limited hours means you can’t hit them all at once. Whenever you make your trip, plan to visit the Turkovich Family Winery, which also houses the family’s Winters Cheese Co., and yes, your free wine tasting does come with a free cheese flight to match. Besides their street-facing patio outfitted with couches, heat lamps and a wraparound container garden, Turkovich’s tasting bar offers a large collection of very good varietals, including a 2015 stainless-aged albariño that took home the double gold at the 2016 state fair competition.
A wine flight here includes five pours of your choice from the list, rounded out by a selection of sparkling wines, though the majority of these are not from the Winters area. The 2011 Sparkling Reserve is made in Mendoza, Argentina, where head winemaker Luciana Turkovich was born and raised, and where her father, also a career winemaker, still crafts excellent blends. The Sparkling Reserve tastes like honey, fresh baked bread and pears, finishing with notes of walnut—and while it is the most expensive bottle they offer, it still only rings in at $43.
Murphys for all
Settled as a mining camp in 1848, French and Italian immigrants arriving during the Gold Rush were the first to plant roots in this foothill town, capitalizing on miners’ need for drink. The region’s second wave of viticultural settlers came in the 1970s when winemakers from Napa and Sonoma migrated to the area, capitalizing on what they found to be extremely inexpensive land. Today, the town boasts a population of just over 2,000 people and an astounding 24 tasting rooms.
Most tasting rooms and restaurants are located along the town’s main drag of Main Street, nestled between the occasional art gallery and trinket shop.
An old stone shop, which in 1891 was a custom boot and hat store, now holds a long bar backed by a wall of pressed-tin panels: the elegant setting for Vina Moda’s tasting room. The enthusiastic and welcoming staff serves up noteworthy barbera and grenache, making it a good first stop on your trek along Main Street.
Further down the road, the airy house containing the tasting room for Hovey Winery was the childhood home of Nobel-prize winning scientist Albert Michelson, the first person to accurately measure the speed of light. Hovey naturally offers two blends in the scientist’s honor, the C2 White and C2 Red, though the barbera is most popular, earning double and single gold awards from the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. All of Hovey’s bottles taste best when sipped outside on the lawn.
*Article text as appeared in SN&R on 10.27.16. Cover photo of Murphys Bikers credited to Thepinetree.net