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Monday, June 23, 2014

CLASSIC TRIP - Amador County and Gold Country, California 1998 - Part 2

For those of you who are tired of all the "Napa Valley" theatrics of the wineries...i.e. overcharging for tasting, castles, gondolas, etc...California offers many other wine countries.  From the almost completely unknown Cucamonga Valley by L.A., Temecula even farther south, Monterey, Mendocino, Lodi and more.  My favorite of them all is little Amador County, about halfway between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento.  Still mainly undiscovered, this is California's oldest continuing wine producing area.  It's unpretentious, has great wine (especially reds like Zinfandel), and you can still find free and cheap tastes there.  We go there as often as we can...we were there last in June of '09.

Here's part 2 of our Amador Country trip from 1998 where we go from possibly the most historic site in California (part 1) and delve deeper into the wineries and tasting rooms of the region...

After a few hours in Coloma, we start to head south on highway 49 towards our lodging in Ione. Along the way, we decide to have lunch in Plymouth-one of the many Gold Rush era towns dotting the hills here. Driving down Plymouth’s small main street we do not see a single restaurant though we do see many saloons. Back out on the edge of town is Marlene & Greg’s Diner which serves a very nice and reasonable lunch.

Still with a couple of hours to kill before check-in time at the Heirloom, we head over to our main weekend destination, the Shanandoah Valley just outside of Plymouth. This is California’s oldest wine region. There are still vines growing-and producing-in this area that date back over 125 years.
Picture courtesy of Wikimedia and Steve Howe at www.cheers2wine.com
Under CC-BY license
There are over a dozen wineries here so we just hit a few today with plans to return tomorrow. First is the Montevina Winery, recommended by our local wine merchant. In the modern mission-style tasting room we try several good wines. Our favorites are the superb refosco (which is my number one pick of the entire weekend) and the sangiovese.

Next, we head over the Shanandoah Vineyards. Shanandoah is owned by the oldest winery in the state, the nearby Sobon Estate. The wines here are okay, but I guess being the oldest is not necessarily the best. Nothing to knock your socks off here.

We finish off this afternoon’s tasting at Renwood Winery. Several wines here really, really blew us away. The barbera was like drinking velvet, but at $35 was a bit out of reach today. Their old-growth zinfandel was superb and a drink of living history made from vines that were alive with the 49'ers. The sangiovese bested even Atlas Peak’s stunning entry. We take a couple of bottles of the sangiovese and some delicious muscat for later and head over to Ione to check-in to our room.
Driving into Ione is much like any of the other Gold Rush era towns here except Ione is not a gold town...it’s a brick town. Ione, while contemporary with the other mining towns here such as Sutter Creek, Jackson, and Amador City, was not a gold-harboring site. Rather, it made it’s living making bricks from its abundant clay that the other more famous nearby towns were built out of.

Coming in the first thing you notice is an imposing, castle-like building on the north end of town that dominates the landscape. It turns out that the “castle” is the main administration building of the local juvenile hall.

Today, Ione’s main industries are inmates (the facility has since been closed-ed) and fireworks. The local pyrotechnics factory supplies Disney with it’s spectacular shells that light up the magic kingdom. Due to this, Ione proudly puts on the Sierra’s biggest and brightest fireworks show...for free! Only, the skip the fourth (the company’s biggest business day) and celebrate on the fifth when more of the employees can put on and enjoy the show.

The Heirloom is located at the end of a 1/4 mile drive just off of the main highway through town. Separated from a nearby strip mall and the rest of the town by a barrier of big old trees, it retains a seclusion and tranquility that really help recharge your batteries.

The owners, Millicent and Pat, go out of their way to make you comfortable at the 6 room inn. 4 rooms, including ours, are located on the second floor of the circa 1863 main building and 2 more are located in an adobe walled cottage nearby.

Our room included a fireplace, private bathroom, queen size bed and balcony. After a day of touring & wine tasting we quickly settle for a nap after checking in.

Dinner that evening was at the Palace Hotel and Saloon in nearby Sutter Creek. While looking a little tacky from the outside, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and value of the food. The service and atmosphere were also top notch. The owners of the inn and other guests were surprised at this because the Palace is kind of considered the “low rent” dining establishment of the area.

Breakfast the next morning, July 4th, was served out in the garden with a quiche, fruit, and a special patriotic shortcake with an America flag sticking out of it. Despite Millicent and Pat’s efforts to include at least two parties at each table, most guests stuck to themselves on this first day, which is too bad because a big part of the B & B experience is to meet new people. The next day would be different though.

Now we had a full day to tour the local wine country. First stop: California’s oldest continuously operating winery...the Sobon Estate.

If you’re a wine lover, you know that California is one of the top wine producers in the world. What most don’t know is that Napa Valley is not where the state’s wine industry started. That honor goes to Amador County and the Sierra Foothill area known as the Shanandoah Valley.

To see where it all started, I recommend that all wine lovers make the pilgrimage to the humble little cellar...dating back to before the Civil War...here at the Sobon Estate. The estate has a historical museum...admission free...with artifacts of 19th century life and wine making. The museums goes through 5 areas, each one a little older, until you end up in the original wine cellar dug into the hill those many years ago.

It’s a small room actually, no larger that many living rooms, that is still used by the winery to age the wine in oak barrels. Nothing has changed, except the addition of electric light, in all those years. It’s an awesome sight.

For all that, however, the wines produced by Sobon are rather pedestrian but it is worth it to buy a bottle as a souvenir of California wine history.

Next, we head over to the Deaver Vineyards. The Deavers not only run a winery, but also run the Amador Harvest Bed & Breakfast (on the grounds of the winery) and the Amador Flower Nursery nearby, which is world-renowned for its day lillies.

Being July 4th, there are numerous red, white and blue banners and baloons. Tables and a big barbecue are set up on the grounds. A 2 man band is preparing to play. Is it a private party? We don’t know but a sign out front says the tasting room is open so we head on in.

Mike Deaver, his family, and employees are busy manning the tasting counter. We quickly line up for some samples and taste some fine wine. The Deavers best, however, are their port wines which just tickles the palate and goes down ever so smoothly. Mike then asks us “are you staying for the barbecue?”.

We don’t know, we reply. “It’s free”, he says. Well, in that case...
We feasted on barbecued bratwurst and burgers. Washed down with free sodas and water. To ease our guilty conscience, we buy a bottle of Deaver’s sauvignon blanc to drink with our meal. This was all while we sat on the beautiful green lawn on the banks of their little lake and listening to the surprisingly good music put out by the band...easily the biggest bargain of the weekend.

After lunch, we took a walk around the lake, watching the local birds and getting a close-up look at the vineyards.
After the great lunch break at the Deaver place, we continued over to Story Winery with its tasting room in the ancient miner’s cabin. The wine at Story is good, very good, especially the whites. What really sets them apart from the rest is the view over the Consumnes River canyon from their tasting area. We saw several eagles while relaxing here. Story also has an old growth zinfandel (like many here do) on ancient vines...but with a difference. These vines recieve only rain water, no irrigation. The result is an intensely flavored fruit that passes that excellent quality on to the wine.

That was it for the wine tasting, although there are many other wineries in the area we’ll have to get to next time. For now, it was back to the inn with our trunk load of wine to wind down, relax, and get ready for dinner.

After a nap and a very pleasant stroll along the banks of Sutter creek, we head over for dinner at the nearby, historic Ione Hotel.

Here you can have some very good food served by candle light right off of the old western-style saloon. Service is also excellent here and prices, while not cheap, were still reasonable. We walked around the small downtown area of Ione and then headed back to the inn.

Another restful night, another great breakfast (this time with some other guests to share our table) and then it was time to head back home. That evening they tell us Ione had a great fireworks show, oh well, maybe next time we’ll get to see it.

-Darryl

Friday, June 20, 2014

CLASSIC TRIP - Amador County and Gold Country, California 1998 - Part 1

Please indulge us for another classic trip, a new trip will be up next week.  For now, it's time for another trip in the WayBack Machine.  This time, way back to 1998.  One caveat is that our lodging in this report no longer appears to operate as a bed and breakfast.  It is now just a place to hold weddings and receptions, which is too bad because it was a very nice place to stay.  Kind of like a Tom Sawyer house along the banks of a nice little creek.  Oh well, time marches on...


After driving 300 miles and getting lost on some country back roads, it was amazing looking at this humble little stretch of sand that is the epicenter of California history. For it was here, on a January day 150 years ago that a sawmill manager bent over to pick up a shiny fleck in the outflow of the mill. From that moment on, things were never to be the same in California again.

Our latest getaway was taken over the July 4th weekend. Again, we find ourselves drawn to the Gold Country, this time to the area south of Placerville and east of Sacramento.

In planning this trip, we originally were thinking of seeing the star wine country of the state, Napa Valley. We were soon discouraged over the high lodging prices and the long drive. Looking over the appellations of the wine bottles at our local shop, the name Amador County popped up again and again. A little research into this area showed that it is a great area for wine and travel value so Amador County is was.


We settled on the great little Heirloom Inn in Ione, CA for our lodging. This antebellum style inn, built 135 years ago, sits on the banks of Sutter Creek and provides a secluded, private base to explore all this area has to offer.

As stated above, our first day in the area started with us taking a wrong turn near Placerville and getting lost trying to find Coloma. Unfortunately, our AAA map of California was missing some key roads in the area and was of no use. Knowing that Coloma should be somewhere northwest of Placerville, we stumbled along until we found a sign pointing in the proper direction.

The town of Coloma...really more of a village these days...is a state historic park. Coloma is the spot where James Sutter built his sawmill to process the logs from the nearby mountains. John Marshall was Sutter’s manager at the mill.

On that fateful day in January of 1848, the tailrace of the mill (where the water that powered it flowed through) was clogged with debris. The waterwheel that powered the mill would not turn. Marshall supervised the dynamiting of the tailrace. The blasting was successful and the water again flowed freely.

Marshall then went to inspect the exit of the tailrace to make sure there was no more clogging debris when he noticed something shiny in the water. There, at the spot pictured above, he bent over and picked up the gold nugget that started the California Gold Rush.

150 years later, we find ourselves looking for another kind of gold. We are frantically looking through our car for loose change because of the $5 park admission fee. We have a $20 bill, but the toll booth is unmanned and no one is available to make change. Finally, we find our $5 worth of change and somehow manage to cram it through the narrow slot of the toll booth and park our car.


From the lot it is about 100 yards to the replica of Sutter’s Mill. It’s about another 200 yards from that spot to where the mill was originally located, marked by a monument (the American River has changed course since 1848 and inundated the original site). Next to the replica is a shed containing some original wood from the real mill.

It’s what lies down river that intrigues me even more. First is that spot where the mill was actually located. As you stand on the banks of the river watching the rafters go by, all it takes is the thought that 2 of the most important men in the state’s history stood on this spot. Indeed, they worked and lived here.

Further downstream as you come upon that humble little beach (see the picture up above), again the thought comes into your mind...this is where John Marshall actually bent over and picked up that nugget. My son kids me sometimes about my getting thrilled over history, but it’s the same feeling I get when I’m in Washington, D.C. and standing behind the balcony in Ford’s theater thinking about the assassination that took place right in front of the spot I’m standing in.

Later on we visited the park’s museum and wandered around what’s left of the town...many of the old buildings were torn down as prospectors looked through the ground underneath them for gold. Of interest here is the old jail and the many pits left from those early diggings.


Up the hill is John Marshall’s grave which is marked with a prominent monument pointing down to the discovery site. It’s sad when you learn that he died broke and dejected...only after his death was his place in history noted with this monument.

Just below his grave is his old cabin. Still standing, complete with the outhouse. Adjacent is the old cemetery and an old canal, still carrying water, left over from those gold rush days.

Stay tuned for Part 2...

-Darryl
Copyright 1998 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 2, 2014

CLASSIC TRIP - Kernville, California



Not many Sierra towns can claim historic status after only 40-odd years, but Kernville can. That's because the town...in it's entirety...was relocated to its present site when the old town was inundated by the waters of adjacent Lake Isabella.

Most people come here to drop their boat or jetski in the lake, to run the mighty Kern River, or to catch that tasty Rainbow Trout lurking in the cool waters of the Kern.


Look closely and you can see the person that went overboard clinging to the side

Don't get me wrong, we like all that too, but this trip we came to see what's OFF the beaten path in Kernville.

Kerville occupies a little niche at the extreme southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, separated from the nearby Tehachapi mountains, the desert, and the Central Valley by Lake Isabella. To get there from L.A., you need to either go through Bakersfield or Mojave to get there. Either route will take about 3 hours.

From L.A., take I-5 to CA 99 to CA 178 (in Bakersfield). Go east on CA 178 to Lake Isabella. Or take I-5 to CA 14 to CA 178 and go west on CA 178 to Lake Isabella. We prefer the CA 14 route. Kernville lies at the north end of the lake.

Accomodations range from budget motels to bed & breakfasts. Many of the smaller motels in town are true classics of roadside Americana with the tidy little gardens and pine-knot paneling in the rooms. Wherever you stay, the Kern River or the lake will be close at hand.

We start off our little adventure (this is an overnight excursion from L.A.) by wandering through the riverfront park in town. Our feet are hot and tired. Taking off our shoes, we dip our feet in the very refreshing water of the river. Many others are splashing in the water and a few are jumping into inflatable boats for a homemade rafting trip down to Lake Isabella.

A Conestoga Wagon catches our eye in the corner of the park. We head over to see what's up. A local actor's group is putting on a play about pioneers interspersed with some songs. We watch for awhile, but our interest doesn't keep up and we're soon looking for something else to do.

We decide to head upriver and see some sequoias. Heading up Sierra Way, we drive up the Kern River Canyon. The canyon is hot and dry for the most part. The river makes for some quick cool down spots along the way. Many rafters are in the water today. This looks like fun.

At the top of the canyon, there's a turn up to the mountains. We pass the former logging town of Johnsondale (now a time share campground called R Ranch) and it's a quick, steep climb up to the crest of the Sierras.

Once up there, it's not a long drive to get to Long Meadow, home of the giants.
We park in the Long Meadow picnic area lot. After a picnic lunch, it's across the street to the fabulous Trail of 100 Giants. This 1 mile trail winds through an ancient grove of giant sequoias. Many of these trees have holes that have burned into them from years of forest fires that allow you to actually walk into the tree.

It's cool and shady here. A couple of creeks meander through the grove and a carpet of ferns covers the ground. I don't know what the actual count is but 100 is not a stretch for this grove of big trees.

After our hike through the trees, we head back down to Kernville. By now, it's dinner time. Kernville has many places, much along the lines of burger or barbecue joints but we come here for one very special restaurant, That's Italian.

Here, in this little out of the way river town, is one of the best Italian restaurants ever. Forget the corny name, the food here is extraordinary. We had the canneloni perfectly prepared with a cream sauce, the lasagna, bow-tie pasta with shrimp, and desserts that just can't be passed up like white chocolate rasberry cheesecake, an incredibly flaky napoleon, and more. Ever see the movie "Big Night"? That's the kind of Italian dishes they serve here. Call (760) 376-6020 for reservations.

After a splendid dinner on the balcony overlooking the town square, we take a little walk around the postage stamp sized downtown. There's a few shops here but not much that really peaked our interest.

We head back to our motel and turn in for the night. The next day we check out, have breakfast, and head over to the dam that holds back Lake Isabella. Here are a few remnants of a ghost town and many mine shafts to explore (tread carefully here, many mine claims are still worked and protected as such).

Nearby, you can see some of the wildest whitewater around where the Kern River exits the dam for it's journey on down to Bakersfield. Many outfitters here can put you in the water starting at less than $20. We checked with a few and decided we'll do the rafting on a future trip.

The last thing we want to do on our trip is to have a nice picnic before heading home. We pack up a lunch from the Vons in Lake Isabella and head south through the old mining town of Bodfish. Beyond this is a beautiful stretch of country called the Lorraine loop, because of it's resemblance of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, that begs you to pull off and enjoy the scenery.

The only sign of civilization here, besides a few houses, is the general store located in the old school house. There is a particularly scenic spot to have a picnic next door.

After a little snooze on the blanket laying in the warm sun, we continue through the loop until we reach the village of Agua Caliente, so named because of some nearby hot springs. We jump back on Highway 58 which heads over to Tehachapi, Mojave, and home.

One last sight to see is the famous Tehachapi Loop, an engineering feat enabling the trains to climb this steep pass by looping over themselves.


Darryl