Three and a half hours east of Sonoma, Calaveras County is a collection of small...um, what is smaller than a town? Because it is a bunch of those. On the edge of the Stanislaus National Forest, Calaveras County is mostly known by 4th graders on field trips studying California Gold Country. Unfortunately for those 9 and 10 year olds, they aren’t getting to experience the great Rhone-style wine this region is producing.
On a weekend birthday celebration for my mother in-law, an interest was shown in doing some wine tasting. Being based in Sonoma wine country I had never explored this wine region and was eager to do so. After a little research, I contacted a few wineries in the area to see if I could set anything up for me and my family. The first person to respond was Jeff Stai, owner of Twisted Oak Winery, agreeing to show us around the property and do some tasting with us.
As we drove up to Twisted Oak we got the vibe of the place immediately. The twisted gravel road was marked by signs such as “Severe tire damage will not happen,” “Speed limit 9,” and “Adults at play” with the silhouette of a person running with wine glass and bottle in hand. Not to mention the countless rubber chickens you were challenged to find hiding in trees and bushes. I like to think that the signs and chickens were all part of a distraction so you wouldn’t realize how long you had been on this road. Finally reaching the top of the hill we were greeted by a simple looking barn-style building with a modest production facility.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but when I saw Jeff walk up to meet us clad in jean shorts and sandals, I can safely say that wasn’t it. We exchanged pleasantries and quickly realized that the relaxed feel we got on the drive to Twisted Oak was reflected through the entire winery. Started in 2004, Jeff got into the wine business after being “a wine consumer and just started critiquing.” While classic rock music played Jeff walked us through the production facility answering rapid-fire questions from my family.
Our next stop was the tasting room, a small room that doubled as their warehouse, made exponentially more awesome because of the A Christmas Story leg lamp replica in the corner. Staying true to the county’s claim to fame, Twisted Oak focuses on Rhone style blends and varietal wines, coincidentally my mother-in-law’s favorite style. One of the first wines that really caught my attention was the 2006 Calaveras County %#&@!. No seriously, that is the name of the wine. We were told we could insert our own expletive for it, and I will afford you the same grace. This blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, and Grenache was a nice bold red without being so full-bodied. I got complex flavors of cherry, raspberry, balanced with a hint of spice. This array of flavors worked well together and the %#&@! was a favorite of the whole family.
One of the next wines we tasted was a club special, reserved for The Twisted Few, but Jeff was nice enough to let us taste it anyway. Known as liquid Stairway to Heaven, the 2006 Tanner Vineyard Syrah was another well balanced wine. Flavors of dark fruit mixed with leather and cloves was ready to drink but will also continue to get better with age. Katie and I brought a couple bottles home with us to test that theory.
If you do like the really big, hearty red that makes you feel like you just ate a full meal, like my father-in-law does, The Spaniard is for you. Mostly Tempranillo but blended with Graciano and Granacha, this wine maintained the tradition we had come to realize from Twisted Oak in producing well balanced wines with complex flavors. Cloves and currants led the way in this wine with hints of blueberries and plums.
I honestly could go on and on about the wines at Twisted Oak because there was not a bad taste the entire day. From the 2004 & 2006 Tempranillo to the 2006 Murgatroyd there wasn’t a single wine I wouldn’t consider drinking if the situation was right. Thankfully some of my family joined The Twisted Few wine club and Katie and I will be able to continue to enjoy their wines. I was so impressed with this because Jeff and his team clearly focus on making smaller quantities of really great wine, rather than spreading themselves thin and making a whole bunch of mediocre wine. If you needed one more thing to convince you of the quality Twisted Oak is producing, those that joined the wine club bought a $35.00 bottle of wine not open for tasting simply on Jeff’s word and their experience tasting that day.
With a glass in hand Jeff was generous enough to take us down to the barrel cave to round out the afternoon. In addition to showing us around, Jeff gave us the chance to taste 4 wines from the barrel, including the 2009 Torcido Grenache and the 2009 Graciana, not typically enjoyed on its own. What made this experience truly wonderful was the interaction between us and Jeff. While down in the cave Jeff had no shortage of questions for us as he quizzed us on what we tasted from each barrel as well as other wine knowledge.
After more than two hours, two wine club memberships, and plenty of wine purchased it was time to leave Twisted Oak Winery. We took the obligatory picture at the Twisted Oak and made our way to our next stop. The quality and consistency of great wines paired with the hospitality shown to me and my family, Twisted Oak Winery made a lot of new friends and new fans that day. While Calaveras County isn’t exactly a tourist destination and you may not take a trip out there just to go wine tasting, I can’t imagine a trip out to this region without a stop at Twisted Oak.