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The Luck of the Irish Paving the Way for Calaveras Wine Country

The Irish Wine Geese

Irish people have a long history of wine consumption. In fact, they were the top importers of wine up until the 1800s (4 times the amount of wine imported than the Brits). After the Willamite-Jacobite wars, Irishmen fled and were given the name "Wild Geese". Many immigrated to France and flocked to wineries where they honed in their winemaking skills and excelled as winery workers. They were known as the "Wine Geese". They combined their passion for wine with a hard work ethic and were influential in wine regions across France, especially the Bordeaux region.

Murphys and the Irish

In 1848, Daniel and John Murphy first arrived in California in search of gold and landed in a ranching area that would later become the town of Murphys. The Murphy brothers, originally from Southern Ireland, were the largest immigrant family to succeed in bringing wagons over the Sierra mountains in 1844. Having made the treacherous trip from illness-plagued Missouri and before that Canada, where luck had not been on their side, they arrived in California and quickly saw a change in their fortune as soon as they arrived in Calaveras County.

The father, Martin Murphys was a trader and his sons were some of the earliest miners and traders following along the California gold trail. On their trek up the hill from Angels Camp, which was already being mined, they encountered an Indian tribe near the town of Murphys. John Murphys was quite experienced with the Indians and quickly noticed that the tribe had gold jewelry and gold ornamentation on their clothing. Upon inquiring as to the origin of the gold during that early encounter with the Indian chief, John Murphy traded a 5 pound gold nugget for a blanket. John was rumored to be very good at trading with the Indians however his methods were certainly frowned upon. He even later married the Indian chief's daughter!

John resided in Murphys for less than two years and left with almost 2.5 million dollars at 23 years of age (over $60 million in todays' value) . Daniel left six months prior to John at age 22 with 1.5 million but not before the brothers had a fist fight over who the town was going to be named after. The story is the fight was a tie and they decided to name it Murphys’ for the both of them.

Gold Mining and the Founding of a Wine Country

Apart from Murphys Camp founding and its' Irish heritage, the area was first settled primarily by Italian and French immigrants. As part of the initial wave of newcomers from the Old World to the U.S., the immigrants had landed on the east coast and traveled across the country to stake their claim among the fortunes sifted out of Californian soil. The early settlers also brought a way of life from the old country that included a love of wine and a knack for winemaking. As a result, a number of vineyards and wineries were planted and built in the area.

Winemaking roots run deep in Calaveras County as the first vineyards were planted in the early years of the Gold Rush, with the first 1,000 vines set out on the lower Calaveras River in 1851. The earliest grape growers to have settled were impressed by the healthy abundance of the native grape, Vitus Californica, that grew along the banks of the rivers and streams in Calaveras County. Although never confirmed, the vines planted must have been the Mission grape with origins that date back to the old world for over 500 years. Mokelumne Hill was the first big wine area in the county and settlers here from Chile, Mexico, France, Germany, England, and the Eastern United States, were quick to develop vineyards in the surrounding areas.

"First among these vineyards was that of Madame Catia at Chile Gulch, where 7,000 pounds of grapes were raised by November of 1858, most of which were to be pressed into wine. The following year, Francis Mercier’s “French Garden” Ranch in Chile Gulch had 6,000 planted vines and 1,800 fruit trees, with 15 gallons of wine in stock for his hotel. This was the earliest known large commercial winemaking operation in Calaveras County. Chile Gulch vineyards continued until recent years, on the McSorley Ranch, where the Garamendi family made Zinfandel wine in their cellar carved from the rhyolite hillside behind their house. In 1869, John Heinsdorff of Murphys was awarded the First Gold Medal Award at the California State Fair for the best red wine.

By 1870 Calaveras County had become the fourth largest wine producing county in the state, with 116 winemakers. In ten years the county’s wine production had grown from 277 gallons in 1860 to a reported 100,500 gallons in 1870. Only three other counties were producing more wine: Los Angeles, 531,710 gallons; Sonoma, 308,496 gallons; and El Dorado, 118, 831 gallons (Costa n.d., Heintz 1-5)." ( "History of Wine in Calaveras")

In 1976, the first new winery was bonded in 40 years, Chispa Cellars. Bob Bliss, with partner Jim Riggs, ran the new winery out of the old barn at the end of main street (now the home of Val du Vino winery). Chispa Cellars was later purchased by Steve and Liz Millier of Black Sheep Winery and Milliaire Winery and moved to the other side of town.

The true beginning of modern winemaking in Calaveras County however, must be laid at the feet of Barden Stevenot, a fifth-generation resident of Calaveras County. Barden purchased the Shaw Ranch on San Domingo Creek in the late 1960s, without a plan, because he was in love with the valley and the land. He took crash-courses in winemaking at UC Davis and asked everyone he could to share in their knowledge of grape-growing and winemaking. Stevenot also encouraged many others to plant buy land and plant vines in Calaveras County, thus starting the rebirth of the wine industry in the area. The 1970s were the beginning of the expansion of the California wine industry, an industry that until that time had remained in the hands of a few old families or conglomerates in the Napa, Sonoma, San Joaquin, and Cucamonga valleys.

Gold Leading the Way to a Thriving Wine Industry

The lucky Irish that traveled out this way to find a fortune, brought a rich culture and history, and as a result planted a lively community and fruitful agricultural region. Many people that gained their fortunes during the gold mining days, gave back to the land and developed prosperous businesses in Calaveras County. Our beautiful wine region now offers 30 tasting rooms, a variety of family restaurants, unique lodging options, outdoor recreation ranging from boating to skiing, arts/entertainment and concert venues.

Today, the Murphys Business Association hosts the "Murphys Irish Day" festival and parade to celebrate our Irish heritage and to remember those who've paved the way. Main Street is closed to cars but open to people, once a year, on the third Saturday in March to enjoy entertainment, food, wine, art and live music. This year's celebration takes place on Saturday, March 16th and is free of charge to attend.

The Calaveras Winegrape Alliance will be selling Irish Day mimosas and wine by the glass at our Wine Information Center located at 202 Main Street, Murphys. Stop by between 10:00 and 3:00 to try your luck at finding your four leaf clover to win a VIP Grape Stomp Package and have some photo booth fun!


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