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The Crush is on in Calaveras County
By Marg Jackson

The ‘Wine Country’ of California is bigger than you might think.

In addition to the traditionally thought of Napa and Sonoma county locales, you can also include the 209 – Calaveras County to be specific – to the list of go-to wine regions.

That’s where the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance, CWA, comes in.

“CWA is a membership based organization tasked with marketing and promoting our wine region and we offer educational support to our wine and grower community,” explained CWA Executive Director Shelby French.

Established in 1989, the Alliance is dedicated to increasing the awareness of all wines produced in Calaveras County and/or produced from Calaveras grapes.

“All of our wineries are family owned and operated by families who are making some of the most exciting wines in California’s historic Sierra Foothills region,” added French. “Our wines are made in small batches and family run operations dedicated to sustainability and organic practices.”

Previously, the CWA was in an office but wasn’t a spot that was open to the public. However, that changed this past summer and hopefully will mean even more visitors for Calaveras County. The new office is at 202 Main St., Murphys.

“We are conveniently open to the public for personal recommendations, winery maps and visitor guides and we often have 2-for-1 tasting passes,” French explained. “We also offer a VIP pass offered by the Calaveras Visitors Bureau that includes local discounts on lodging, dining, attractions and wine.”

Above all, said French, visitors can tap into the knowledge of CWA officials as they get ready to enjoy their trip to explore wines of the 209.

“The greatest benefit to stopping into the Wine Information Center and CWA office is the personal recommendations you will receive. With over 30 tasting rooms and wineries and over 25 of them on Main Street in Murphys, our area experts and volunteers can match each visitor to a perfect location based on interest, wine preference and convenience,” French pointed out. “We can also let visitors know who is offering cave tours, cheese pairings, cooking classes, vineyard tours, live music, concerts or elevated tastings so guests to our region are more likely to have a memorable experience that will keep them coming back.”

French said they also have many return visitors, some families that have had generations coming to visit the region and enjoy the wine quality and overall experience.

There are also more varieties of grapes grown in the county than the casual observer would expect to find, adding to the rich offerings of the region.

“Because our region most resembles a Mediterranean climate, Calaveras is a perfect growing region for hearty Spanish and Italian varietals like Barbera, Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Grenache, Graciano, Toringa, Albarino, Marsanne, Verdelho and Symphony as well as old vine Zinfandels, hearty and robust Cabernet and Petite Syrah,” French explained. “Our warm and extended summers coupled with cooler evenings ensure that our grapes get lots of hang time in which to develop more complex flavor profiles. It is known around the Sierra Foothills as one of the most diverse geological regions in California where wines are made from local grapes in elevations ranging from 3500 feet to 500 feet.”

With Calaveras County being part of the 209, it’s perfect for a relaxing day trip, whether you want to sip and savor or combine some other adventures capped off by a chance to sample and purchase some local wines.

“There is simply no wine region that can offer the value and variety that Calaveras can in terms of winetasting, experience, recreation and quality. No other wine region can offer the variety of outdoor recreation where you can spend one day wine tasting and exploring our many historical wineries and vineyards and the next day at one of our numerous lakes or reservoirs, hiking and exploring one of our National State Parks or taking in one of our many historical towns that include unique shopping and dining options,” said French. “Because all our wineries and tasting rooms are small, independent and family owned and operated, you are likely to find the owner or winemaker behind the tasting room bar, be invited to take a winery tour of the operation or vineyard.”

In fact, French said, most of the estate wineries are within a five-mile drive of downtown Murphys, while the community itself offers the convenience of more than 25 tasting rooms within a three-quarter mile walk along the historic Main Street. Murphys also serves up boutiques, artisan food shops, historical properties and gourmet restaurants.

“Not to mention how convenient the drive is,” French said, with Murphys about two hours from the South Bay, 90 minutes from Sacramento and about two-and-a-half hours from San Francisco.

French said the CWA is helping make sure the rest of the state knows about the bounty of Calaveras County.

“The last two years we have had more inquiries than ever before from wine makers in Napa and Sonoma or the southern region looking to purchase Calaveras fruit. In the Wine Information Center, we ask everyone who comes in where they are visiting from and if it is their first time. We are seeing folks visiting from the greater Bay area, Valley floor as well as folks coming from as far as Texas, Boston, Virginia, Colorado and all over the world,” said French. “About half the people who come in are visiting for the first time. Although we operate with a small marketing budget to advertise our wine region to wine lovers across the state the word of mouth about Calaveras is strong due to the exceptional experience people are having here.”

French said they also have seen regular visitors from areas nearby including Altaville, Turlock, Modesto and Lodi, coming for special events or a day of wine tasting.

And while they want to do more marketing outside the area, French said the fact that most of their wineries make small batches means they typically sell out the product in the tasting rooms before they can distribute it to other locales.

French will mark her second year serving as the Executive Director for the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance in December, having previously lived in Napa.

“I started visiting six years ago and immersing myself with the locals and was having the time of my life. My husband and I made a plan to move here for good as soon as the opportunity presented itself,” French said. “I had my eye on two jobs here in Calaveras that I would want to pursue, the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance Director being one of them and when this job opened up we made the move.”

Murphys also benefits from a handful of annual events that swell the population and provide a showcase for the region.

“Murphys Irish Days can bring in excess of 10,000 people to our small town of Murphys to help celebrate all things green and Irish with a huge street fair, parade and live music and plenty of shenanigans,” she said of the St. Patrick’s Day event. “The Calaveras Winegrape Alliance produces a Grape Stomp event in October that brings 5,000 to 10,000 people and we have Presidents Wine Weekend each February.”