The Sierra Foothills are the link between the past and the present. Here lies Gold Country, and it’s impossible to emphasize the significance of this enough. Before the Gold Rush of the 1840s-50s, California was a sparsely populated outpost of what would become part of the United States. (Yes, that’s a heavily truncated version of history.) The Gold Rush brought California a flood of hungry fortune-hunters seeking wealth, a tradition that has continued through to today via Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
The Gold Rush is also part of why grapevines are found in the Sierra Foothills AVA. Since no self-respecting prospector goes without drink for too long, intrepid entrepreneurs quickly planted grapevines and founded distilleries. Today, long after the boomtowns have faded, wine remains with remarkably diverse varieties thriving in this rugged terrain.
How to get to the Sierra Foothills and Murphys
The Sierra Foothills AVA extends from Tuolumne County all the way up to Plumas County, over 2,600,000 acres. However, those acres only hold about 100 wineries, so we’re focusing on the Calaveras County, and in particular, on the vibrant town of Murphys.
Murphys, previously named Murphys New Diggings, (Come ON! How cool is that?) is about two hours southeast of Sacramento, California. Or, head almost due south from Sacramento to check out Lodi first and then head east to Murphys. It’s about three hours due east from San Francisco, and six hours northeast from Santa Barbara. In other words, give yourself time. The views you’ll encounter along the way will have you stopping often for selfie-worthy shots. Once you get there, start with a few of these Murphys wineries that are worth a visit.
Recommended Itinerary for Wineries in Murphys and the Sierra Foothills
Nestle in the cozy tasting room, which is tucked away in a cellar on Main Street in Murphys. Taste through the line-up, from their Pinot Grigio to a Syrah-based Port, while you geek out on wine facts with winemaker Jack. Standouts are Zucca’s Barbera and Mourvèdre, but all are well made and definitely worth trying!
Lavender bouquets line the walls in this gorgeous old stone house that is Lavender Ridge’s tasting room. With a focus on Rhone varieties, Lavender Ridge produces versatile and food-friendly wines. Be sure to try the Grenache Blanc – and grab some lavender-based beauty products while you’re there, too!
Housed in a more modern tasting room, Newsom Harlow pours from a precise and focused list. Be sure to try their Sauvignon Blanc, which is much brighter and zippier than you’d expect! Big John Zinfandel, which is more traditionally-styled and nuanced than most zins, is another favorite.
Located in a cool stone cellar, Hatcher pours a wide range of wines, from Chardonnay to Malbec and Port. Perhaps the most interesting, though, is their Alicante Bouschet, a French variety that was planted in California throughout Prohibition and continues to dot California wine country.
Set back from the main strip just enough, Val du Vino is a tasting room as well as an event center. What could be better than hosting a wedding in beautiful Murphys with Val du Vino’s very own wines being poured? Before you decide, taste through their line up and you’ll be convinced soon enough.
Where to Stay
The Sierra Foothills are full of fantastic campgrounds that are perfect for getting a taste of the gold hunting days, but if you want something a little less rustic, here are some great options.
Built in 1856, Murphys offers both heritage- and modern-styled rooms. We personally love the accents in the historical rooms, particularly those named after famous names who’ve stayed there. Be sure to book in advance because Murphys Hotel is a perennial favorite.
Floral Victorian in style, Robin’s Nest holds the perfect night’s sleep and the even more perfect breakfast. Make sure to wake up hungry because you’ll definitely want to try everything served as you chat with fellow travelers in the morning.
Ready to go off the grid? Trek up to Mountain Ranch and stay at the Permaculture Retreat, where accommodations include everything from a yurt to a treehouse. Shared kitchen space and outdoor showers help connect dwellers with one another, but privacy is also respected. This is a must for total peace and tranquility.
Technically an RV resort, Yosemite Pines offers camping, cabins, and wagons – yes, that’s right, wagons. Rent one of the Conestoga Wagons to really get in the spirit, though they’re admittedly far more comfortable than those of pioneering days!
Recommended Restaurants in the Sierra Foothills
Offering weekend brunch and nightly dinner, Alchemy focuses on California cuisine with global influence. Their curated wine list includes everything from Gruner Veltliner to Zinfandel, so you’ll definitely find the perfect pairing for your dish!
Offering a huge range of options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the ambiance alone is worth making reservations. A bonus is the locally-focused wine list! If you want a rough and tumble taste of the Old West, head to the Saloon attached and have a colorfully-named cocktail.
But are you in the mood for a sit-down meal, or do you just want to grab down-to-earth eats and go? Murphys Taqueria is tasty, convenient, and will have you and your full belly on your way in no time at all.
Located just down the road in Arnolds, Snowshoe will be the stop to make if you want an honest-to-goodness burger and beer after a long day of hiking, and by that we mean wine tasting. Try a beer sausage sandwich and Long Pole IPA for a hearty dinner.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
It would be a shame to be in the Sierras and not experience them, right? Head up to Big Trees where you’ll see, ahem, big trees. Different trails offer different levels of difficulty, but you’ll be speechless no matter where you hike. Enormous sequoias seem impossibly high and you’ll have space to connect with nature like never before.
New Melones Lake
Located near CA-49, New Melones is a reservoir located in the Sierra Foothills. Fishing and boating are both allowed, but just a stop along a vista point is breathtaking enough.
There are several former gold mining towns around the area – Angels Camp and Chinese Camp, for example – but Groveland is a stand-out by far. And the emphasis really is on “far” because Groveland is accessible by a long, steep, windy road that seems to go right into the sky. It’s worth the trek because you’ll be able to visit the ever-lively Iron Door Saloon, which claims to be California’s oldest.
Plan Your Getaway
The beauty of the Sierra Foothills cannot be overstated. With its proximity to Yosemite, it’s absolutely worth making it your next vacation. (That so much wonderful wine available is a bonus!) Take the time to hike, eat, drink, and relax in one of the most beautiful pockets of the States.