Culinary Expedition Through California’s Gold Country

by James Stevenson

Last month I hit the road with Visit California as a part of the Gold Rush Rally, a celebration of California’s Gold Country and the state’s global reputation as the ultimate road trip destination. This part of the state isn’t necessarily known for its culinary excellence, but you have definitely heard of its historical charm and outdoor adventures. So embarking on a 6-day expedition, myself and 29 other travel writers, bloggers and content creators from all around the world spread out to cover as much ground as possible and show off this wonderful slice of paradise to our collective audiences.

Our adventure started in Sacramento, where all of the participants got together at the Railroad Museum to get acquainted before separating into our groups and heading our separate ways to see what this wonderful region has to offer. I was designated to a group that was exploring the delicious culinary offerings, with a little bit of culture thrown in for good measure. Luckily, I am obsessed with anything to do with food, so I was super excited when the first stop on our adventure was a small olive oil company in Calaveras, where we met with the proprietor Ed Rich to talk about why he chose this remote location to start such a niche enterprise.

As it turns out, when Ed was ready to retire, he wanted to keep busy and purchased himself a parcel of land to farm on, and after a few studies of the terroir, he quickly found that olives trees would thrive the best, given the minerals and climate. With no former background in anything to do with olives, Ed dug deep and invested his time, and money, in exploring principal regions where olives flourish and speaking with olive “aficionados” to absorb all that he could. He spent a lot of time in Italy, speaking with specialists over there, and eventually took home some seedlings to see how they fared on his land. After years of study and analyses, he observed what he was looking for, and the end result was phenomenal. If there is anything I learned from my time tasting olive oil in this region, it’s that the base products are great, but the lemon macerated olive oils are the best.

Calaveras County is full of surprises, and golf resorts, so after a quick visit to the Saddle Creek Golf Resort we carried on and found ourselves at Camps Restaurant overlooking the first green at Greenhorn Creek Resort. What I loved most about sitting down here, other than the impeccable weather, was relaxing with my new friends and watching the golfers swing away on the course while enjoying some amazing local wines. My favorite throughout our lunch was a local Syrah from Prospect 772 Winery, that was labeled as the Black Tie Charlie. It was just such rich and bold wine, with a lot of character; probably the reason for the name.

I certainly didn’t expect to find a brandy distillery out there, yet that’s exactly what happened. The Indigeny Reserve was a pleasant surprise, and a great palate refresher after the bold red wine, with tastings of their hard cider and apple brandy. I had to start easy of course and tasted through their ciders, though I don’t think I had a favorite at the end, they were all pretty damn good. Once the easy stuff was out of the way I stepped up to the big boy booze and helped myself to some of their brandy, which was a real treat, as I’ve never sampled apple brandy on an actual apple orchard.

Of course, the highlight of our first day was dinner, DUH, not just because I love food, but because we had the opportunity to meet with Eric Davis, a local restauranteur who has been setting the standard in the region for years. He isn’t ready to throw in the apron just yet but wanted to step out of the conventional service kitchen and open Industrial Food Works, where he shares his passion for great food and wine in a more casual, interactive atmosphere. Eric sat us around his large prep table and spoke with us about flavor pairings with ingredients and then, most importantly, wines. I consider myself to be a bit of a foodie, so listening to someone with so much hands-on experience and wisdom in a real kitchen is always a great way for me to spend an evening, and when the wine is flowing freely, who can complain? The dishes and wines throughout the evening were absolutely delicious and amazing, however, there was one piece of information that rung true more than the rest; bubbles go with everything!

After a relaxing evening at the McCaffrey House Bed and Breakfast Inn we made our way to the charming town of Sonora, a thriving community during the gold rush that still holds its own today. After an insightful walking tour that delved into the history of the town, and showcased many of the town treasures, I was just in time to drop into one of the local watering holes and have my first “real” drink of the trip. The proprietor of Servente’s Saloon and Market, Marianne wasn’t around, however, I met up with her daughter Sally who told me all about the history of the saloon. This property is a goods market in the front with a lot of international wines, personally selected by Sally, who happens to be a sommelier; but once you walk to the back, the old school saloon opens up.

It’s a beautiful old bar that’s been restored to its former glory, and on the menu, you’ll find beer, wine, and spirits. However, at the top of the spirits list, I spotted a little item with a $2 surcharge for “specialty drinks” and just had to know what these were. I’m pretty sure the answer was close to “I can mix you a martini if you really want”, however, Sally doesn’t claim to be a mixologist and customers like me are few and far between I assume. Nevertheless, it was 12 pm at this point, and if you think I was leaving without a midday Martini, you’re dead wrong. Sally mixed me a great vodka Martini with some local Corbin Sweet Potato Vodka, and classic Cinzano Dry Vermouth then finished it off by throwing a lemon twist in there or good measure. It may have been the unique vodka, environment, Sally’s personality or just the entire experience, however, it was one of the best damn Martini’s I had tried in some time; and if I’m ever back I look forward to spending more time at the Servente’s Saloon and Market.

My Martini didn’t last long and I had to get back on the road and off to some more wine tasting at Gianelli Vineyards Tasting Room, one town over, in Jamestown, which was even smaller, and more enchanting, than Sonora somehow. Now I’m no expert, though I do drink a lot of wine, and their Petit Sirah was absolutely stunning; it was rich, dark and full of notes of dried red fruits that just overwhelmed my palate; but in a good way. It was only outshone by the contrasting White Merlot at the beautiful Butterfly Creek Winery in Mariposa; a truly pleasant surprise. The vineyard here was tucked away in the hills, and their little church on top of the hill sitting amongst the vines is exactly the kind of magical setting most people dream of.

The majority of tourists passing through this region are either on their way to, or from, the Yosemite National Park and although I only entered for a short afternoon, I was absolutely blown away by its natural beauty. This wasn’t all that impressed me here, as we met with the team at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel for a tour and cocktail tasting. The hotel is excellently designed to blend into its surroundings wonderfully. One of the major concerns, when they were designing the hotel back in the 1920s, was building such a grand structure in a location that has an unfortunate history with wildfires. Someone, much smarter than myself, concluded they could offer a structure that melded superbly with its environment while also being almost entirely fire resistant. How did they accomplish this? Almost all of the big wooden beams you see throughout the façade are actually concrete that has been fashioned and discolored to mirror the appearance of big oak beams.

After our short tour of the grounds, we decided to take a little break and made ourselves comfortable at the bar to enjoy a round of drinks alongside some bar “snacks” that included a ridiculous, giant pretzel. Perusing the menu, I just couldn’t pass up on the Gold Rush cocktail, because of the name obviously, but it also sounded delicious; combining Irish whiskey, honey, lemon, and aromatic bitters; this is my kind of cocktail. I especially loved sitting outside watching the early sunset surrounded by the picturesque bluffs and waterfalls all around me. The evening wasn’t finished yet, and with appetizers out of the way, we jumped in the car and made our way a short distance down the road to the Mountain Room Restaurant at Yosemite Valley Lodge. Our table was right in front of the floor to ceiling windows, and as the sun was just dipping below the horizon we could just make out the white mist of the beautiful Yosemite Falls in the distance; just another majestic sight to add to the list in this park.

Did I mention olive oil tasting was a thing on this excursion, not hating, it was one of my favorite activities, wine tasting aside, and in Mariposa, we discovered another great olive oil company. This time however we were really in for a surprise; at CostaLivos Gold Olive Oil they don’t just make amazing olive oil, but they actually operate as an Italian restaurant. When you first arrive you are taken through an olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting, where you pair a variety of olive oils with different kinds of vinegar until you find your perfect pairing. This combination is then used as the primary base profile for your dinner if you so choose, or you can order one of their delicious menu items. Again, the lemon olive oil was a standout, but at this shop, I really enjoyed their variety of balsamic vinegars just a little more.

I never get tired of wine tasting; never, and another great vineyard in California’s gold country, just off Highway 49, was the Idle Hour Winery at the Queen’s Inn. We tasted our way through 5 of their current releases, beginning with bubbles, and although their products are delicious, what really stood out were their labels. I was blown away by the quality of the artwork on their label, and it somehow looked familiar, even though I wasn’t previously aware of their wines. As we were tasting the wines I learned that the owner of the winery was actually good friends artist Tim Cantor, who is famous for his work with surrealism paintings. Once you look past the label you will not be disappointed, wine is a very individual thing, but my personal favorite was the 2017 Tannat; it was bold, full of tannin and finished with delicious red fruits.

It should have been no surprise at this point of our adventure, but somehow, secreted away in the lush foothills of the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains, is one of the most extraordinary restaurants and cocktail bars in the nation. Just 20 minutes from the south gate of Yosemite Park we were introduced to The Elderberry House. This exquisite venue brings culinary and cultural elements from both Austria and France, in a phenomenal contemporary American adaption, utilizing ingredients from local Central Valley farms. Most remarkably, this wonderful Château has an incredibly elegant antique European bar, The Cellar Bar, with a cocktail program that rivals that of the major players in the game. I just wanted to pick one and ordered the Nori, a concoction that begins with a wonderful base of Hibiki Harmony Japanese Whiskey, accentuated with Aperol, Antica Formula, and yuzu. The restaurant tasting menu is exquisite and changes daily, so you will never get bored at The Elderberry House Restaurant.

As much as we were hustling around Highway 49, trying to see and do as much as possible, we did still find time to just kick back and relax. If you’re a sucker for beautiful sunsets while looking out over a lake, then the Pines Resort is the place for you. Hidden away amongst the huge pine trees along the shore of Bass Lake, I was awestruck by the beautiful scenery surrounding the patio of my suite at the lodge, and luckily for me, the bartender at Ducey’s Bar mixes a mean Manhattan. The property has so much going on, and when I was able to stop staring at the view, I made my way to dinner at Ducey’s where they are famous for their steaks. They had some great options, such as swordfish which is my weakness but I just had to have a steak, and damn am I glad I did. The steak was perfect, as expected, and Mark, the manager paired it with a really great bottle of red form their impressive wine list.

If you know your port wine, then you know Ficklin already, and it was a great experience to visit the barrel storage and tasting room and see how they respect the ancestral Portuguese traditions in a Californian winery. Ever since 1948, the Ficklin family has been working tirelessly to hone their craft, and it all started with a used crusher and 15 acres of Portuguese vines. It was amazing to tour the aging warehouse and see the barrels holding the delicious port, though I think the locker with all the bottles being held for the Liga da Caravel members was what really drew my attention; it just looked so special, being held under lock and key. It was great to see the team putting their more unique barrels to use; bottling them in the tasting room for those who know to drop in and fill their growlers. With the individual barrels not holding enough product to warrant an entire bottling, most companies would do a special release and charge double the usual fee, but at Ficklin, they actually do a release for locals and club members to enjoy.

A story that continues to ring true in this region, is that of people who have worked their whole lives thinking of escaping their concrete confines and corporate offices to get out to the “real” world and find themselves here. People like Mike, from Oakhurst Spirits, who after 40+ years of running a manufacturing business with his wife near San Diego finally made the move to Oakhurst. After watching the craft distillery scene boom down south, Mike and his wife Ally decided to try it out for themselves and combined their passions by opening the joint distillery and art studio just off Highway 49. It’s great to be able to sip on some great local spirits distilled by Mike while walking around the art studio and admiring the wonderful artwork made Ally; they really make a great team.

When we rolled into Murphy’s, possibly the most famous of the small towns along the historic gold rush trail, we knew to expect some good wine, as there are over 20 wine tasting rooms within walking distance of each other. Anticipating the wine tasting ahead, we started our day at Gold Country Roasters to enjoy some delicious fresh roasted coffee and prepare ourselves for the day ahead. It was really great to be able to watch the coffee beans being roasted in one room then walk next door and get a fresh espresso made with those very same beans. Of course, this would have been less impressive if the coffee were average, however, they are pretty well known for their coffee roasting here and after watching the team hard at work I can see why.

Once we were sufficiently caffeinated, our guide for the day, Tom Pratt, a bit of a local legend in his own right, took us on a little tour of the town. We wound our way along the main street, stopping at the local bakery, spice store, olive oil company, and wine tasting rooms. The story behind The Spice Tin was quite intriguing; tucked a little bit back behind Main Street, the space used to serve as a storage building, and during prohibition, the Murphys Hotel had a tunnel that went under the street and into this storage shed. The Marisolio Tasting Bar may not have an awesome prohibition story, but they make up for it with their amazing olive oils and balsamic vinegar. Here you will find gems like the blackberry ginger balsamic, which won me over in the end, and I made an effort to taste as many as possible to be sure.

In the end, with all of the great wine bars in town, we had limited time and had to choose just two of them. Luckily for us, we had Tom to make the hard cuts and we ended up at Lavender Ridge first for a wine and cheese pairing that really impressed everyone. I’m a fan of almost all wine and cheese so I’m not hard to entertain, however, the Roussanne was particularly spectacular from Lavender Ridge. We tasted the 2016 vintage and the vinter mentioned that they expect it to age very well, so I would love to get a hold of it again one day to see if it holds up. We also visited the Broll Mountain Vineyards tasting room, and their red blend, titled Samantha, really shone through. They also served a Roussanne, which seemed to be my favorite white from the region, but red wine will always have my heart, and this 2016 blend was just exceptional.

Before all was said and done, we had time for just one last big hoorah; and what better location than Ironstone Vineyards? A splendorous winery just a short drive from downtown Murphy’s with a reputation for fine wines, and a venue that exudes elegance and history all in the same breadth. A family of winemakers that began as simple farmers and planted their first grape vines in 1968, the Kautz family have been leading the way ever since and now have over 5000 acres of vineyards. This was a once in a lifetime experience for many of us, however, after speaking with our host, I found out they actually offer elevated wine experience for the average enthusiast and they sound awesome! After touring the estate, with select wine stations scattered all around, we wound up in their uniquely shaped event cave under the main building; this is an actual cave that was blasted out of solid rock.

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