My first visit to an unusual winery in Calaveras County began with whimsical road signs along a dirt and gravel road winding through a vineyard to the top of a hill. The Twisted Oak Winery in Vallecito, between Angels Camp and Murphys on Highway 4, introduces its visitors to signs such as "Beware of Signs," "Land of Some Uses" (emulating national forest signs), "Rubber Chicken National Forest" and "Slow Adults at Play." The last one depicts a figure running with a glass in one hand and a bottle in the other.
My purpose for being there one Friday evening was to experience one of Twisted Oak's summer concerts. I later learned that this was the first year of concerts provided by owner Jeffrey Stai. Reasonably priced, the concerts have brought both local and out-of-the-area talent to the open-air venue at the top of a hill upon which towers a 300-year-old California blue oak. The tree, with its massive trunk and limbs that look like a giant hand had twisted them, was Stai's inspiration for the winery name.
Of the 120 acres that he owns, Stai says that 11 acres provide his grapes for his winemaking, with the balance coming from other Calaveras County vineyards. He's been in this location about 10 years.
Stai was an engineer before starting his winery. When asked about the leap, he said, "Well, many engineers drink wine." He has many friends in the wine industry, but he didn't have any personal experience in winemaking.
This 50-plus-year-old winemaker and his wife, Mary, now distribute their wines to Northern and Southern California, northern Nevada, and even Chicago and Denmark.
The wine he is most proud if is "The Spaniard," a blend of Temeranillo, Grenache and Graciano grapes. It is also their best seller.
Stai has wanted to offer concerts for some time, both as a marketing strategy for his wine and also for the public to enjoy music in an idyllic setting. "This first year we actually made a little money from the concerts," he told me after his season ended Sept. 22. He plans on building on this success and hopes to have a schedule next year with six to eight concerts.
Twisted Oak Winery has another distinguishing feature: rubber chickens hang from trees along the road. It's a hint to Stai's "twisted" sense of humor that from the comment "Wine is great to enjoy with friends and a rubber chicken" came a sort of winery mascot.
This laid-back former engineer may probably be found in shorts and a T-shirt, emblazoned with the words, "Are you twisted?" and working these days to get in the harvest and arrange for deliveries of grapes for the crush. Engineering must seem like a distant past to him.
Kirkbride lives in Twain Harte and writes about Mother Lode and Sierra issues. Send questions or comments to email@example.com.