Wine pilgrims eager to explore Calaveras County have it easy.
They find a parking place in the old gold camp of Murphys and start to stroll. Along the settlement's Main Street are 20 or so tasting rooms. Wineries such as Lavender Ridge, Black Sheep, Hatcher and Hovey have taken over several of the town's historic structures and converted them into handsome and comfortable satellites of their winemaking facilities.
If a visitor wants to visit an actual winery, Calaveras County offers that too. Southwest of Murphys, for one, on the outskirts of the even smaller community of Vallecito, is Twisted Oak Winery.
Motorists turn south onto Red Hill Road off Highway 4 and almost immediately must decide whether to take a paved driveway into the winery or a gravel path that twists and climbs through the vineyard and past stately old oaks.
Take the scenic route.
The narrow and rutted road is lined with convincingly real road signs with a playful attitude.
"Beware of Signs" says one. "Severe Tire Damage! Will Not Occur" assures another. "Rubber Chicken National Forest" claims another, just before a bend where shrubs and trees are festooned with dozens of rubber chickens.
Jeff Stai, a former Orange County electronics engineer who got in on the ground floor of data-storage technology a couple of decades ago, figured early that if he was going to be a vintner, he would do it with a sense of humor.
He became aware of Calaveras County's wine prospects during vacations in neighboring Alpine County. He initially looked at establishing a vineyard and winery in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. When he found an onerous regulatory climate there, he turned his attention to Calaveras County.
"You know what you have to do to put in a vineyard in Calaveras County?" he asked rhetorically. "You have to put in a vineyard. Calaveras County is an agricultural county and proud of it."
Stai planted his vineyard more than a decade ago and began to release wines under the Twisted Oak brand with grapes from the 2002 vintage. He brought with him a plastic chicken a college buddy had given him. He had intended to make a model rocket using the chicken but never got around to it, so the chicken kept tagging along wherever he went. It provided the inspiration for the back label of one of his first wines: "Enjoy this wine with a bunch of friends and a rubber chicken," it advised.
When visitors to Twisted Oak's tasting room began to ask for rubber chickens, he started to stock and sell them. He's continued to capitalize on the silliness.
(Recently, when Stai received a substantial but unspecified investment from the online retailer NakedWines.com he named his new brand for the site "Cockamamie.")
Stai's marketing acumen doesn't end with rubber chickens. He stages footraces each Fourth of July. Last summer he launched a series of concerts alongside the ancient oak for which the winery is named.
And, said Stai, "we were having our pirate party before pirates were cool."
Stai is careful, however, to not let all this fun distract from serious winemaking. He and his winemakers initially Scott Klann, now Mark Kunz, formerly of nearby Chatom Vineyards focus on wines of definition and authority, whether they be varietals or blends.
Before long, they're apt to run out of room on the one wall of the winery's tasting room devoted to ribbons Twisted Oak has won in commercial competitions.
As I made my way through winery's the current lineup recently, I was struck by the clarity and balance of so many of the wines, which customarily are made with Calaveras County grapes. The 2011 verdelho was ripe yet lilting, its peachy fruit unmarked with oak; the 2011 viognier was textbook honeysuckle and grapefruit; the 2010 *%#&@! commonly called "Potty Mouth" was a meaty yet supple blend of black Rhône Valley varieties; the 2009 "Torcido" ("twisted") garnacha was minerally, smoky and sharp; and the 2009 Sheep Shack Vineyard tempranillo was thick with ripe-fruit flavor shot through with a strain of chocolate.
My favorite was the Twisted Oak Winery 2009 Calaveras County River of Skulls, made solely with the challenging black grape mourvèdre, in this case grown at Dalton Vineyard of nearby Angels Camp. It's a dry, medium-bodied wine at first hesitant in smell and flavor but gradually revealing with assuring suggestions of cranberries, cherries and peppery spice. In the right place and with the correct stewardship, mourvèdre tends to yield a muscular but not necessarily graceful wine. This one seizes both those characteristics, richly fruity on one hand with supple tannins on the other.
Stai loves that the grapes for the 2009 River of Skulls were harvested on Halloween, but the unusual proprietary name predates that vintage. The Dalton Vineyard isn't far from the Calaveras River, also known as the River of Skulls, after its original name El Rio de las Calaveras, reputedly designated by Spanish explorer Lt. Gabriel Moraga after he found banks of the stream strewn with the skulls of American Indians in the early 1800s.
That's a gruesome heritage, though the wine itself is all sunny joy, with or without a rubber chicken hanging about.
A fitting time to visit Murphys and be introduced to the area's wines, incidentally, is Feb. 16-17, when the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance holds its 17th annual Presidents' Wine Weekend; more information: www.calaveraswines.com.
Twisted Oak Winery 2009 Calaveras County River of Skulls
By the numbers: 14.8 percent alcohol, 500 cases, $35.
Context: Jeff Stai jokes that River of Skulls is best paired with "dead people," then plays straight man by recommending it with lamb, pork and risotto dishes. I'd add a tri-tip steak to the list of possibilities, with or without the bone.
Availability: In addition to the winery's tasting rooms and online at www.twistedoak.com, Twisted Oak's wines are widely available at markets and restaurants in the Sierra foothills and Central Valley, though not in the immediate Sacramento area.
More information: Twisted Oak's tasting rooms are at the winery, 4280 Red Hill Road, Vallecito, and in downtown Murphys, 363 Main St.. Both are open 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday through Friday and 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday.