When Jeff Stai and his wife frequented the Murphys area many years ago they would often go wine tasting, a natural thing to do in the Sierra Foothills. Little did they know that several years later they would contribute to the area’s unique wine tasting landscape with their own winery.
“We came down here to taste wine and it tasted really good. The area got our attention as a place you could do wine and that’s one of the ideas that evolved into this project,” said Stai.
“This project” has since evolved into a fully fledged, award winning operation known as Twisted Oak Winery.
It’s rather apropos that Twisted Oak Winery is located at the end of a mile long twisted road that arrives at the summit of a hill where one is greeted with a tall, warped tree: the twisted oak after which the winery is named. When searching for a property to establish his winery in 2001, the California Blue Oak of more than 350 years of age was the last image that Stai snapped with his film camera.
“I had one more picture to take and I said ‘oh that’s a nice tree’. Click. Only later did I look at the pictures and realize how interesting the tree was and the name popped into my head,” said Stai.
While the deformed tree still serves as a reminder of the winery’s origins as it stands on the property today, the genesis of the winery is a little less simple. Prior to founding Twisted Oak Winery Stai worked in the technology industry and enjoyed wine purely as a consumer. Feeling that it was time to “slow down a little” — or so he thought — Stai began his venture into the wine industry.
“The winery has its origins in a lot of unfortunate drinking and decisions made in regards to starting a winery and thinking it would be a nice relaxing thing to do. It’s been anything but that,” joked Stai. “It’s been a ride.”
It’s been several years since Stai made the plunge to found his own winery, a process which began in 2001. With his first vintage created in 2002, Stai came across the property that houses the unique twisted oak tree and he decided to plant his roots there just outside of downtown Murphys in the town of Vallecito in 2004. Intentionally located off the main drag, Stai wanted to offer wine tasters a unique experience that more closely resembles an adventure than an average wine tasting experience.
“When we were visiting wineries and just having fun some of the wineries we liked the best for the experience were the ones where there was a journey involved. Maybe you had to go in on a dirt road or it was little farther out than some of the other wineries but usually you found something special out there,” said Stai.
Well, special is what guests will find at Twisted Oak Winery as the dirty, gravelly, twisted road that winds past vineyards to lead to Twisted Oak Winery is embellished with signs and rubber chickens. Hanging from branches and nestled in tree hollows amongst comedic road sings, the rubber chicken has become a signature of Twisted Oak Winery and represents, well, nothing more than what Stai calls the winery’s vibe.
“On our very first bottle of wine we sold we wrote on the back ‘Enjoy this with a bunch of friends and a rubber chicken… People said ‘I’ve got the wine now but where do I get the rubber chicken?’” said Stai. “We needed chickens. So now we have lots of rubber chickens.”
But where did the idea come from?
“My brain,” shrugged Stai.
Stai’s lighthearted approach to wine making is evident not only in the winery’s gift shop — where tasters can walk away with their bottle of wine and, of course, their rubber chicken — but is reflected in the bottles’ labels as well, many of which quote classic movies. One of Twisted Oak’s most well known wines is a nod towards the Calaveras County’s river El Rio de las Calaveras, which when translated from Spanish to English means River of Skulls. Composed of the locally sourced Mourvedre and Monstrell varietals in the Calaveras County, the River of Skulls bottle bears a label with this name and a unique image of a skull designed by Stai’s younger son, a nod towards to family operation that supports Twisted Oak.
“That paid off a phone bill,” said Stai jokingly.
Twisted Oak specializes in Mediterranean varieties and offers wine drinkers a multitude of wines the majority of which are blends of varieties that originated in the South of France, Spain, and Portugal. Locally sourcing from nearby vineyards, Twisted Oak Winery’s unique blends set them apart in the industry and often attract those with a more adventurous palate.
“We don’t make zinfandel. We don’t make chardonnay. We don’t make cabernet. There’s a lot of wineries that do that but we decided, let’s take a look at what does really well up here and run with it,” said Stai.
Stai’s exploratory attitude has served Twisted Oak well as those who enter the tasting room on the property are greeted with hundreds of awards and ribbons decorating the doorway, an ode to the winery’s success in an already competitive industry.
“We’re trying to make wines that reflect the character of the area and grow really well in the area and I think that’s reflected in the awards,” said Stai.
While the awards are plenty and the labels are funny, at the end of the day the most important factor is that the wine tastes good, which it does — especially when enjoyed with a rubber chicken.Twisted Folk Summer Concert
All Twisted Folk concerts take place at the winery, 4280 Red Hill Road at Hwy 4, Vallecito.
Advance tickets are only $25 and can be purchased online at twistedoak.com. Tickets will be available the day of the concert, if not sold out, for $30 each. Concertgoers will be admitted starting at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7:45 pm. Admission is $10 for children under 12. All proceeds from children's ticket sales will be donated to support music education in Calaveras County.
Seating is "festival style" — first come first served — but all seats are good! Bring your own low back "beach" chairs and blankets.
Aug. 23 — John Jorgenson Quintet
Music virtuoso John Jorgenson, known for his blistering guitar licks and mastery of a broad musical palette, has earned a reputation as a world-class musician and guitarist who has collaborated with the likes of Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan. In addition to acoustic and electric guitars, he is also regularly featured on the saxophone, clarinet, bouzouki, pedal steel, mandolin, vocals and has garnered recognition for contributing to numerous platinum-selling and GRAMMY-winning albums.
Currently touring as the John Jorgenson Quintet, Jorgenson creates a unique musical experience that equally enthralls the most discerning and the casual music fan. The group’s style has been called “gypsy jazz” after the dynamic string-driven swing created by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in 1930s Paris, but Jorgenson’s compositions draw in elements from Latin, Romanian, Classical, Rock and Greek music, so “21st Century World Music” is perhaps a more apt description.