Early spring in the foothills. March storms have delivered swollen creeks, some limited drought relief, epic wildflowers, the promise of extended spring skiing in the high country, and the best river rafting in five years. In the vineyards, the pruning and mowing has commenced. It’s the season of preparation. The cool morning air is ripe with possibility. The cycle begins anew.
There is no longer a slow season in the formerly sleepy town of Murphys, and wine is the primary attraction. You can barely turn around on Main Street without bumping into a new tasting room. A crop of talented and innovative recent arrivals has benefited from the experience of the area’s veteran winemakers, and the overall quality has gone next level. Something potentially transformative is afoot. But first, a little history.
Michael Ninos was introduced to Calaveras County back in the late ‘80s by none other than Barden Stevenot, the undisputed patriarch of the modern Calaveras wine scene. At the time Michael owned a chain of high end gourmet food and wine stores headquartered in the Bay Area, and he was having great success with Stevenot wines. “Barden was one of my favorite people in the business,” Michael recalls. “He invited me up to Murphys, and soon I was spending my free time up here skiing and fishing.”
Enamored with the area, Michael soon found himself living part time at the Stevenot winery. It seems all of the people he met early on were involved in the local wine business. Back then Murphys was a rustic little outpost, as close to its dusty gold rush roots as to the bustling wine-centric destination it has become. There were only about a half dozen wineries and a handful of vineyards in the county. Although the quality of wine being produced was improving rapidly, the foothills were barely a blip on the viticultural radar in comparison to the explosion that was occurring to the west in Napa and Sonoma.
Nevertheless, Michael found himself drawn to the bucolic town of Murphys and its welcoming community of winemakers, and he saw the region’s potential for both wine production and tourism. He eventually sold his business interests in the Bay Area and bought a couple of buildings on Main Street in Murphys. He then developed and opened the Victoria Inn as well as his popular upscale eatery “V”.
Over the past three decades, from the vantage points of both a Bay Area wine retailer and a local restaurateur, Michael has had a front row seat for Murphys’ transformation into a lively hub for some thirty wineries.
Like Michael, Joe Virgilio found his way from Chicago to Calaveras County, albeit more recently. His wife, cardiologist Dr. Courtney Virgilio, was recruited by the Mark Twain Medical Center in San Andreas to lead the hospital’s new Heart Center. Joe and Courtney had a desire to raise their young boys in a small town, and they were attracted to the Calaveras lifestyle. Joe is, to put it mildly, a wine enthusiast. His specialty is finance, a business analytics guy specializing in, you guessed it, the wine industry. Michael and Joe struck up a friendship based on their mutual affinity for the grape, and the idea for the Murphys Wine Club soon followed.
Of course there’s no shortage of wine clubs out there, and perhaps none of this would matter much were it not for the caliber of wines coming out of the county right now.
Thanks to a group of gifted winemakers including Chuck Hovey and Scott Klann working alongside talented vineyard managers like Steve Collum and Mark Skenfield, the quality of several varietals coming out of Calaveras County has risen to rival or exceed those from our more celebrated wine producing neighbors to the west.
Should we be surprised? According to Michael, the reasons behind the ascending Calaveras wine scene are pretty fundamental. The aforementioned gifted winemakers, most notably Chuck Hovey, have now spent decades honing their craft while simultaneously developing a nuanced understanding of the climate and soil characteristics (often varying dramatically within the same vineyard) and the varietals and styles they favor. An influx of more recent arrivals, including many who studied under Chuck, have added their own wrinkles.
“Chuck found that Rhône varietals and Spanish varietals like Syrah and Tempranillo really produce great fruit here,” says Michael. “I honestly can’t think of the last fantastic Syrah I tasted from Napa or Sonoma. Some of the very best Zins, Syrahs, and Tempranillos you’ll find anywhere are coming out of Calaveras County and the foothills. They are deserving of wider acclaim.”
Enter the Murphys Wine Club. Michael and Joe envision the club as a celebration of the region in all its many dimensions, from the hiking and mountain biking, skiing and fly fishing to the live music and theater. (More on that soon.) And what is a celebration without great wine? Toward that end, they are intent upon encouraging you to stray from the beaten path while introducing you to the very best wines these beautiful hills have to offer. They are your imminently qualified guides, and they are here to help you round out your quiver. This is something different, something new. Welcome to Calaveras and the MWC.
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