MURPHYS — In 1989, a team of miners using pickaxes and dynamite set to excavate wine-aging caverns on a ranch in Murphys, at the heart of the Sierra Nevada foothills. So hard were the limestone and Calaveras schist the miners were working through that, on some days, the team progressed only one, two or three feet. It was like cutting through iron, the miners said.
Thus, Ironstone Vineyards was born.
Today, those aging caverns hold as many as 1,500 oak barrels, each containing 60 gallons of wine. They are at the core of an award-winning vineyard that has also become the largest winery entertainment complex in California.
“This has put Murphys on the map,” says Bruce Rohrer, Ironstone’s General Manager. “We strive to be a boost to the local community.”
The wine-making business that would become Ironstone Vineyards started in 1948 when row-crop farmer John Kautz began growing wine grapes on a dozen acres of land in Lodi. Over time, he would become one of the state’s largest wine-grape growers.
Then, in 1988, Kautz, his wife, Gail, and their children decided to produce a wine of their own. Construction on the new brand’s Murphys headquarters soon followed, with the family aiming to create “an environment that would reach beyond the world of winemaking to include the support of all the cultural arts,” according to company history.
Located about 90 miles southeast of Sacramento, Ironstone Vineyards features a tasting room and delicatessen where visitors can order gourmet sandwiches and homemade desserts to eat alongside a 42-foot fireplace – or to enjoy, picnic-style outdoors on the ground’s Lakeside Park.
honors Gold Rush
At the Heritage Museum, established to honor the Sierra’s Gold Rush history, find artifacts from the 19th century gold-mining era and from the Miwoks, the American Indian community that originally inhabited the region. The collection includes photos, mining maps and letters – but its highlight is the “Gold Pocket,” a 44-pound crystalline gold leaf specimen. Discovered on Christmas Day in 1992 by the Sonora Mining Company, it is the largest specimen of its kind in the world. Also inside the museum is the Heritage Jewelry Shoppe, featuring gold-in-quartz jewelry, gold nugget jewelry and a wide selection of other gift and art items.
Meanwhile, art and antiques from the Kautz family’s personal collection can be seen inside Irontone’s Alhambra Music Room, which also houses the fully restored Alhambra Theatre pipe organ. Built in 1927, the organ’s original home had been Sacramento’s Alhambra Theatre. When the theater closed, the organ was moved to First Baptist Church in Stockton, and finally to Ironstone. Now fully operational, the theatrical organ is played to accompany silent movies and other special events in the Music Room.
But perhaps the music for which Ironstone is most famous is played at the Vineyard’s outdoor amphitheatre.
The most recent addition to winery, the five-tier, horseshoe-shaped amphitheatre was completed in 1998 – but it had been part of the Kautz family’s vision for Ironstone since the beginning.
events & concerts
Every September, the Amphitheatre hosts the Concours d’Elegance car and club show. And every summer it sees performances from world-class artists as part of the Ironstone Summer Concert series.
Like the vineyard itself, the concert series has grown and evolved over time.
While the first performance at the Amphitheatre featured the Russian National Orchestra, the artists who have taken the stage since then represent diverse backgrounds and genres, from B.B. King to Huey Lewis and the News, and from Etta James to Jackie Evancho and Tony Bennett.
“We’ve seen them go from smaller acts to bigger acts to the biggest acts,” says Kevin Burroughs, who has been going to Ironstone to listen to music since the first Russian National Orchestra Concert. “You could not have asked for better acts and better music then they’ve had at Ironstone over the past 15 years. … When I think about our musical bucket list, a lot of the performers we’ve been able to erase because of Ironstone.”
In booking acts for the summer concert series, Rohrer explains, the vineyard looks to the musical tastes of its guests, which lean toward rock and country.
This year’s lineup is true to that preference. The series kicks off on July 20 with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Melissa Etheridge follows on Aug. 2. Finally, Big & Rich, with special guest Cowboy Troy, are set to perform Aug. 10. Tickets range from $45 on the lawn, to $140, which includes buffet dinner. (For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to ironstoneamphitheatre.net).
This year’s three-concert schedule represents a scaling back from previous years and an opportunity to distill the series down to what makes music at Ironstone special and unique, Rohrer says.
“These days everyone is in the concert business,” he says. Every summer, the Northern California venues quickly become saturated with the same touring acts. Rohrer wants Ironstone to offer something different: “I defy you to find another Big & Rich show. We’re flying them in from Texas.”
Rohrer says that while he hopes visitors enjoy music at the amphitheatre, he also hopes the concerts reflect the values and vision that have been part of Ironstone since it was created – especially the value of giving back to the greater Sierra community. Every year, the venue works with local nonprofits to host benefit events, and its concerts draw new tourism dollars to the region.
“I hope people remember the hospitality,” He says. “I hope people want to stay. They can ask anyone, we’ll be happy to show them around.”
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