Calaveras County Cowboys Making Wine & Jumping Frogs

Have you ever wondered what “Calaveras” means, as in Calaveras County?

Well, I did a few years ago, so I got to the bottom of it.

It all started as I was traveling to Calaveras County to work. The company I was working for was in the tiny, throwback-in-time town of Murphys, which was made pretty famous by Mark Twain.

At the time I was continuing with my Spanish studies. And it hit me, just as I entered Calaveras County… this has to be a Spanish word! Because I was deeply getting into this language, of course I was traveling with a Spanish-English dictionary, so I pulled over alongside a dried-out creek bed, and read:

calavera 1. f skull;

Well, there you go. I got back on the road, and my mind began to wander. I imagined a conversation that would have taken place back when Mark Twain used to frequent Murphys. You know, during the time when he was writing “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

It would have gone something like this:

THE SCENE: Henri and his cowboy guide named Bernard were standing in a dried-out creek bed, thirsting for water amid the skulls of so many steer that had come before them. These remnant cows had just stood there waiting for the rains to come. But – alas – the rains never came, but the buzzards were right on cue.

Henri (a mild-mannered Frenchman, who had been drawn to the area for the sake of freedom, has also brought a few vines with him that would also go feral) said to Bernard (who had become a bare footed, beer guzzling, tobacco chewing, tequila shooting cowboy), “Mon Dieu! Qu’est que ce! Where did all these bones come from, Bernard?”

Bernard, who had been in the area for a few years before Henri panning for gold, but it didn’t pan out, said, “Legend has it, mon ami, that many a steer came before us, and they just weren’t smart enough to mooove on.”

And so, Calaveras County was born by someone who needed to name names.

Fast forward to today, and I’m going to share with you my new favorite Calaverian… Jeff Stai. Poking fun at most processes, Jeff’s out in Calaveras County promoting wine with rubber chickens, and I’m not sure which he’s more passionate about… But, what I do know is Mark Twain woulda loved Jeff.

I’ve come to know Jeff Stai because he’s my only Sierra Foothills PS I Love You member. Everyone needs a little Sierra Foothills connection, because it tethers us to the history of the Gold Rush and what that did for California’s/*8 development.

Jeff’s Petite Sirah is big, bold, and totally yummy. Twisted Oak Winery is what it’s called, and his Website is a total trip. He’s not quite what I’d call a cowboy (there are plenty of them out there, though), but he is a bit twisted and proud of it. If you can’t get out there any time soon, just visit his site for ordering Twisted Oak wines. If you can get there, Jeff should be number one on your list. His wine palate is phenomenal.

If you like going back in time, Calaveras County is a really fun place to visit. There are great artisan wineries in the neighborhood, and they offer delightful wine for tasting in a rustic setting. The town is a total trip…with a main street still the size of what it was during the gold rush days. There’s nothing else that’s rushed about it. I loved being in Murphys during those really fun days. (It was worth the four hour ride – in one direction – once a week for well over two years.)

The third weekend in May, Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee holds their annual event. This year it’s May 19-22. I’m sure there will be plenty of wine, frogs, and good times… And they’re all gearing up for it. (I pity the frogs.)


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7 Responses to “Calaveras County Cowboys Making Wine & Jumping Frogs”

  1. Steve says:

    Based on my limited evaluation of the wines from that region, Calaveras County could be one of California’s best kept secrets. I have reviewed many, many sensational examples of varieties from Murphys and environs – from pinot noir to barbera to late harvest moscato. Yum, yum, yum. Wish I was there!

  2. Jo Diaz says:

    I know what you’re saying, Steve. I spent two and a half years working with Ironstone as their director of PR, and learned a lot about that region. I’ll never forget the night, while staying at the Murphys Hotel – right on the main narrow drag – I heard a coyote in the distance. The sound kept getting closer and closer, until it ran right under my bedroom window, and then continued out of town in the opposite direction. This has nothing to do with wine (except I was there to work with Ironstone), and everything to do with the rustic charm that I remember well… and lots of artisan brands making wine and living in cowboy country… a fascinating part of California’s heritage, and a great region to make wine.

  3. El Jefe says:

    hi Jo – Thanks for the kind words! We actually named a wine after the real story of the name of our county (though yours is definitely more colorful 😉 The county is named after the Calaveras River which runs through the middle of the county. So, we named the wine River of Skulls. In 1806 or 1808 a small group of Spanish soldiers explored the Central Valley with the idea of establishing more missions. In the process they gave names to all of the rivers. Being masters of the obvious they named one river after all of the (human) skulls found along the banks… cheers! – j

  4. Jo Diaz says:

    Human? Ewwwww… Yeah, I like my story better, but thanks for the Calaveras River 101 (I think).

  5. Txmusicman49 says:

    It was great to stumble across this blog post since will be in the Calaveras area in mid-July. I had already included Twisted Oak on my list of “must visits” list, having bought several of their wines via Wine.Woot.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  6. Jo Diaz says:

    You’re welcome, Tony. Have a great time. I need to get out there sometime soon. I miss going there with regularity!

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