fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)

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in the foothills for food

One of the best things about being willing to travel for food is that the allure of food…or wine or beer…can be the thing that motivates.

The release of monthly wine selection, which we elected to pick up rather than expanding our carbon footprint with door-to-door delivery, led to a last-minute decision to take a road trip last Friday that would loop through the Sierra Nevada foothill towns of Murphys and Jamestown. The last-minute part was a decision to make it a day trip rather than pack, unpack, then pack again for a short weekend stay at the cabin.

Spring Flowers at Ironstone Winery

Tulips at Ironstone Winery

Departure time that often dictates one’s route, and since we’d first stop in Murphys, timing put us in Stockton for breakfast. Yes, that Central Valley town, in the middle of some of the most productive farmland in the world. Yet is isn’t the prototypical farming community. Stockton is a city of 300,000.

When the real estate bubble burst, homes built on cheap agricultural land in and around Stockton — almost within commuting distance of San Francisco — were left empty. Without customers, businesses closed and shopping centers went dark. The construction industry that built both residential and commercial properties collapsed, increasing the rolls of unemployed. Income and property and sales tax revenue fell.

But Stockton is a city with a deep freshwater port handling over $1 billion in product shipment annually. It is home to the prestigious University of Pacific and its 7,000 students. During the boom years the city gained a new ballpark, a city activities center, at least one new hotel, an ice rink and a lovely marina. It’s been described as a slice of Los Angeles minus Hollywood.

Our stop for breakfast was at a restaurant within Stockton’s Miracle Mile Improvement District, three blocks south of UOP. Karen found the Midtown Creperie on our ever-present travel companion, Yelp. Years ago I spend half a week in New Orleans and Midtown Creperie offers any almost Disneyesque décor, and though dark, is complete with Mardi Gras beads at each place setting. The mood set, it was the King Cake crepe for me, with dark chocolate sauce substituted for the white chocolate glaze. Karen ordered an omelet with spinach, sausage and tomato with country potatoes. Per our usual strategy in a new place, we split our meals.

Apparently, I haven’t learned my lesson when it comes to trying a place for the first time, particularly one that specializes. The King Cake crepe was good, but with too much going on — apples, cream filling, chocolate sauce and multicolor sugar crystals — it was tough to judge the foundation of the dish, the crepe itself. It was good, to be sure, but I’d say the great presentation didn’t match the flavor. The omelet was good but the sausage was less present than I would usually hope.

After a 30-minute walk down Pacific Avenue and its eclectic mix of shops, we were headed to Ironstone Vineyards, the home of one of Karen’s favorite everyday wines. Outside planters around the winery always filled with the best-looking plants, and being spring, they were filled with flowers. We’re not extravagant with wine club memberships, but it is nice to walk in and taste all we want without a fee, so we did. A case of Karen’s favorite walked out with us.

We hadn’t planned for lunch, but after walking the grounds at Ironstone and up and down Murphys’ Main Street — and the result of my interest in the beers at Alchemy Market — we ended up at the Alchemy Café next door. My wife had suggested sharing a beer — gotta love her — and I suggested a small appetizer. That didn’t quite work out as expected.

We’d been to Alchemy Café before, and split the Thai Chicken Salad, which was more than enough. The idea was to just have small plate to nosh on. Karen ended up with a nice lamb soup. I ordered the Crispy Fried Calamari and forgot about the awesome and complimentary Alchemy’s Famous Gold Nugget Cheese Bread.

Despite its awesomeness, Karen won’t touch Alchemy’s bread. She doesn’t like cheese. But that’s okay. I got the whole serving of this spicy, heavenly goodness. It’s a foundation of ciabatta bread spread with a fluffy mix of salted butter, corn kernels, chopped green onions, minced serrano chiles, minced garlic, chopped cilantro, shredded white cheddar cheese and Parmesan cheese, the baked until golden brown.

Had I remember the bread would come, I’d have skipped the calamari. However, I’m glad I didn’t.

Then there was the beer. Both the Alchemy Café and the associated Alchemy Market offer a good selection of beer, along with a long list of local and not-so-local wines. I tend to gravitate to local brews, and most local offering on the list that day was
Knee Deep Brewing Co.’s Batch 135 from Auburn. To my tastes, it was a bonus that Batch 138 uses Simcoe hops in addition to three unnamed “C” hops (likely Cascade, Chinook, Columbus or Centennial). It was a good light but hopped up beer, though the Simcoe only served up a pine aroma and wasn’t too dominant in the drinking.

We sipped, talked and noshed. It was a great day.

Oh, there were flowers, too.



practicing for retirement

From the start, we knew it’d require a different mindset. Not since our honeymoon 10½ years ago had Karen and I spent more than three or four days at the cabin. Eight days, however, clearly presented an opportunity for adventure; exploration at our own pace.

Potty-Mouth Wine

Potty-Mouth Wine

I did spend a couple of days fishing, but our destinations most days were only decided the evening before and sometimes only that morning. Our internal alarm clocks — or at least mine — meant I was up by oh-dark-thirty every morning, but that left plenty of time for a full breakfast if desired.

More than anything, we wandered; around town (Twain Harte) and through hill and dale. The higher elevations were colored by fall foliage while below 2,000 feet the grass of the oak woodlands was a pale gold.

Our day-long loop through Copperopolis, Angles Camp and Columbia took us through these distinctly different habitats, past the Sierra Conservation Center (aka prison) and over the very low New Melones Reservoir. In all my years in the area, never has New Melones looked less like a lake and more like a canyon than it did last week.

A map won’t tell you that Copperopolis has something of a split personality. The “real” Copperopolis — near Reeds Turnpike — was established in the 1860s and is a bit unique in that it was founded near a copper mine, not gold. But just north, near Hwy 4, is what looks like a Hollywood set plopped down in the middle of nowhere. It reminded me of the town of Lago, in High Plains Drifter; without the red, of course.

The buildings in Copperopolis Town Square tap historical architectural design of the mid and late 1800s, with retail shops and restaurants surrounding a small park with a gazebo, landscaped fountain and flag pole. Allowing for the fact that we were visiting on a Wednesday, during the fall, it was still quite vacant. It’s clearly designed with a pedestrian focus, including park benches, stone masonry walls and faux old-fashioned gas lamp posts. It was a nice enough place for a leisurely walk, with a stop for a root beer float in an old-style ice cream parlor.

The town square is nice enough, but peeking behind the curtain — actually one block off the main street — reveals paved streets complete with sidewalks and lightposts but devoid of homes; just dirt lots. While folks there will tell you Copperopolis Town Square is a phased development, I couldn’t help but wonder if these vacant lots were remnants of the recession. After all, developer Castle & Cooke did break ground on Copperopolis Town Square in April 2006.

Our loosely outlined plan was to stop in Angels Camp and Columbia before returning to the cabin. One suggestion: Don’t visit Angels Camp on a Wednesday; it seems as if half the businesses were closed.

The drive from Angels Camp to Columbia was interrupted, however, by my sudden veering on to Red Hill Road near Vallecito. During the summer I met a young man dispensing tastes at Mammoth Brewing Co. and learned in the course of conversation that his family owned Twisted Oak Winery. He was taking a break from the wine business to learn about beer, and after I mentioned the cabin in Twain Harte, he suggested a stop at the Twisted Oak tasting room in Murphys. I didn’t know the winery was in Vallecito until I saw the sign.

It was clear this was a place where the folks didn’t take themselves too seriously; the posted speed limit on the driveway is 9 mph. One wine label says it all: “*%#&@!” (described as a potty-mouth Rhone-style red blend). It’s a friendly place, and laughter pairs well with wine, so we lingered, bought some wine then headed on down the road.

We covered about 80 miles that day, agreeing to expand the circumference of our exploration the next time we can take the time to slow down.

It became clear we were enjoying ourselves and spending our time wisely when my sister emailed to ask if we had retired and not told her.

Not yet. But it sure was nice to spend a week acting as if we have.