Striking It Rich

Sutter Creek: In and around the small northern California town where gold was discovered in 1849, visitors can still cash in on a wealth of attractions.

Cover Story

July 16, 2000|By Lester A. Picker | Lester A. Picker,Special to the Sun

There's still gold in them thar hills, but the gold in California's Sutter Creek today is a blend of the liquid variety and the currency of tourism.

In the scenic foothills and fertile valleys surrounding the legendary northern California gold rush town are dozens of wineries, period towns and small boutiques.

Sutter Creek, a place name etched in the American psyche, is the stuff of legend. Here is where prospectors dug for their fortunes just below the surface or panned for shiny nuggets in the many streams that meander through California's gold country.

Founded in 1848 by Capt. John Sutter, the town bearing his name was the focal point for the gold fever that spread through the country the following year.

Most of the Forty-Niners never made their fortunes. Indeed, many lost their life savings before trudging down from the hills and back to where they had come from. But a few, such as Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University who went on to become governor of California, did very well.

The eventual collapse of the gold rush also meant the demise of Sutter Creek's economy, but not before $160 million in gold was mined in the area.

Sutter Gold Mine alone produced more than 1.3 million ounces of the glittering stuff. The Kennedy Mine closed after 50 years of continuous oper- ation, and boasts a shaft that plunges 5,912 feet below Amador County. Several of the abandoned mines are open for tours.

The town of Sutter Creek, an hour's drive from Sacramento, is a delight. As you turn onto Main Street, you are thrown back to the days of the Old West, complete with wooden sidewalks, gingerbread Victorian houses and horse-drawn buckboards.

The town's architecture is pure Wild West. As I walked down the sidewalks, I half-expected to see a couple of tough hombres being thrown out of the local saloon by the town marshal.

Farther along Main Street is the well-known Chatter Box Cafe, where the food is good and Pat the waitress takes no guff from customers, even those who have yet to have their morning coffee.

Four of us sat down at a table near the back of the cafe, which has a 1940s-style soda fountain running half its length, with swiveling stools and antique signs.

"Three regular coffees," I say pointing to my wife, Leslie, her sister Ruth, and Ruth's friend Reg. "And I'll have half decaf and half regular."

Pat stands there, not writing anything down. "Are you having trouble deciding," she asks, "or do you really want to ruin your coffee with decaf?"

After much banter and good humor, she arrives with my cup and good-naturedly pours from the two carafes without a fuss.

The Chatter Box has been featured on National Public Radio's "Prairie Home Companion" and in many publications. But you'd never know the place is semi- famous from the laid-back attitudes of owners Mike and Michelle Gill and, of course, Pat.

It's all part of Sutter Creek's appeal. (The cafe's baked goods are also appealing. Make sure you try the cinnamon rolls.)

Although Sutter Creek is a tourist town, it doesn't have the honky-tonk feel one comes to expect nowadays in such popular destinations. The shops along Main Street and several side streets are one-of-a-kind boutiques, sprinkled among wonderful 19th-century homes, small hotels and churches.

The town is also a great place for photographers. Tiny alleys reveal their treasures of ivy-covered wrought iron, wooden water barrels and kids with faces smeared from hand-dipped ice cream.

We spent a couple of hours wandering in and out of the many stores before visiting the Fine Eye Gallery on Main Street.

The owner of this Western gallery, Cynthia Ranka, has collected an esoteric blend of original sculptures and handmade furniture, all designed and made by Western artists and artisans. There are so many wonderful things in the gallery, we helped Ranka nail her sales quota for the year.

A tour of the grape

Reg volunteered to be the designated driver, and we took off for a day of meandering through the back-country roads of Amador and El Dorado counties, home of more wineries than you can possibly sample in one or two days.

I always look forward to wine tours as a way to beef up my wine cellar at bargain prices and to learn more about the regions whose labels look so inviting from the wine bins back East.

Wine tours are great equalizers. You can belly up to the tasting bar with a knowledgeable wine critic standing on your right and a Budweiser guy dragged there by his girlfriend on your left.

Some people bring their own tasting spoons and goblets, but most of us just show up and ask to sample a few of our favorite types of wines. You sniff, swirl, gurgle, sip, taste. Then you rinse, eat a cracker or two and sample some more, all the while listening to production and vintage details from the host or hostess, asking your own questions and wandering around exploring the ambience of each winery.

Most wineries in the California foothills are small operations, and no two are the same.

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