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Treasures in the heart of Gold Country.

SEVEN HISTORIC TOWNS INVITE A LATE-AUTUMN GETAWAY

State Highway 49 slices a nearly 300-mile route through California's Gold Country, in the Sierra foothills. If you were to bisect the highway, you'd find its midpoint somewhere near Placerville. But if you look just south of Placerville, you can find the heart of the Gold Country in seven towns clustered along State 49. Visit over a quiet November weekend, and you can still hear the rhythms of history in the thump-thump of footsteps on the well-worn boardwalks of Amador City, in the roar of the furnace at a foundry in Sutter Creek, and in the pocketa-pocketa of an ore-stamping mill replica at Jackson. What you won't hear is the noise of the crowds of summer tourists.

There are enough discoveries to occupy you for a long weekend: shops laden with antiques and potential Christmas gifts, wineries where vine leaves still show the flames of autumn, sophisticated dining spots, and tidy inns. November brings more than just cool air and a chance of rain to the foothills here. It brings a measure of peace. So you can just listen--and enjoy.

WINERIES NEAR PLYMOUTH, ANTIQUES IN AMADOR CITY

South of Placerville, the two-lane road winds past cottonwoods as it crosses into Amador County, then dips into rolling oak woodlands as you enter tiny Plymouth. The wide, gold-bearing vein of the Mother Lode runs through here, stretching from the American River south to somewhere near Mariposa.

Plymouth Consolidated Mine produced some $15 million in gold, and east of Plymouth in the Shenandoah Valley, riches are again being extracted from the red granite soil. Wine grapes, which were first planted here during the gold rush, are now grown by 17 wineries; wines produced (in order of prominence) include Zinfandel, Barbera, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Sobon Estate, 14430 Shenandoah Road, has a shaded picnic area. Nearby, in a fieldstone building dating to 1856, a free museum displays agricultural and winemaking artifacts, including an early basket press, strainer, and corker. At Charles Spinetta Winery and Wildlife Art Gallery, off Shenandoah at 12557 Steiner Road, you can buy a glass ($2 or $3) and do your tasting while enjoying the art (no one under 21 allowed inside). For a map listing wineries with their addresses and hours, call Amador County Chamber of Commerce at (800) 649-4988 in California, (209) 223-0350 elsewhere.

Back on State 49, head south through wryly named Drytown (it once boasted 26 saloons) to Amador City, whose tin-roofed buildings cluster around a sharp bend in the road.

Stroll wooden boardwalks to Victorian Closet (linens, quilts, and vintage clothing) and pick up a free walking tour pamphlet. It locates a half-dozen or more antiques stops, as well as Pig Turd Alley (it's next to God's Hill). If you've worked up an appetite, check out Buffalo Chips Emporium for a malt or a slice of homemade pie (we liked the rhubarb).

Down the block, in what was once the rough-and-tumble 1880 Mooney Saloon, A Tisket A Tasket (10:30 to 5 Wednesdays through Sundays and holiday Mondays) sells fall and Christmas floral arrangements and porcelain dolls. The two-story wooden Amador Hotel (circa 1855), which dominates the main drag, was under restoration when we visited; owners hope it will open this month with shops.

Amador City boasts two fine restaurants (both in the moderate to expensive range): Ballads (267-5403); and Imperial Hotel (267-9172), in an imposing brick building. Next month, during Calico Christmas on December 4 and 5, costumed performers roam the streets, and buildings are outlined with evergreen boughs and tiny white lights.

VICTORIAN CHARMS IN SUTTER CREEK, MINING RELICS IN JACKSON

From Amador City, it's just 2 miles south on State 49 to Sutter Creek, where Stanford University got its start--sort of. During the gold rush, a debt to storekeeper Leland Stanford was repaid in shares of a Sutter Creek mine. It earned him his first fortune, which he parlayed into another with the Central Pacific Railroad, enabling him to endow the university.

Today, Sutter Creek charms visitors with its handsome Victorians and balconied facades on shops along Main Street. The Columbian Lady, 61 Main (open noon to 5 Saturdays, or by appointment), sells outstanding but pricey Victorian furniture: we saw a rococo revival rosewood dressing table priced at $100,000. The prices are more digestible at Sutter Creek Confectionery, 51 Main (open 9 to 5 daily except Tuesdays), which sells 12 kinds of homemade fudge, including amaretto swirl and chocolate walnut, for $7 per pound.

At the end of Eureka Street is Knight Foundry, built in 1873 and one of the few water-powered foundries left in the country. On most Saturdays, it casts iron for engine parts and custom pieces; a self-guided tour costs $2.50 (9 to 4 daily; call 209/267-5543 to check pouring schedule). Nearby, stop in at Ruby Tuesday Cafe for a warming care mocha or espresso. On December 3, Sutter Creek shops will be open from 6 to 9 P.M. for the annual Currier & Ives Christmas Open House.

Back on State 49, head south again to Jackson, the area's biggest town, with a population of 3,800. Here you'll get the best look at early mining techniques. Start at Kennedy Mine Tailing Wheels Park, just north of downtown. Short trails lead to four massive wooden wheels (a display explains their workings). Unique to the Gold Country, the wheels lifted mine waste, called tailings, into flumes to carry it over the ridge and down to a holding area. To get to the park, take Main Street about 1 mile north (the road becomes Jackson Gate Road).

Amador County Museum, 225 Church Street, is quartered in a handsome 1859 brick house. The museum (open 10 to 4 Wednesdays through Sundays) has a good collection of mining memorabilia. Brief tours of a model mine take in a working replica of a 10-stamp mill, a wooden headframe from the Kennedy mine, and a tailing wheel. The tours cost $1 and run at 11, noon, 1, 2, and 3 on weekends.

If you need a pick-me-up, Caffe Tazza, 214 Main, can whip you up an Affogato--made of espresso, gelato, steamed milk foam, and whipped cream--for $3.20. From the menu at Upstairs, 164 Main, we enjoyed trout with a sauce of lemon, capers, and roasted pine nuts ($7.95 lunch, $13.25 dinner) and semifreddo (a whipped cream dessert with fresh fruit, $3).

At Trims & Treasures Christmas Year Round, 33 Main, we found an egg ornament painted with Christmas scenes of Jackson for $7.

South of Jackson, State 49 meanders through pines and grassy hills (perhaps greening up again if rains have started) to Mokelumne Hill. Moke Hill, as locals call it, is a sleepy little town that's worth a quick detour to see its Victorian structures; many shops are closed.

Back on State 49, the road straightens out for most of the 8 miles to San Andreas. Here, the Calaveras County Museum and Archives, 30 N. Main Street (open 10 to 4 daily), dispenses free copies of a pamphlet titled Tour of Historic San Andreas. This self-guided walking and driving tour is well worth an hour or two, and the museum itself is one of the tour's architectural highlights, as it's housed in the handsome brick Hall of Records, a classical revival structure dating to 1893 (note the lions' heads atop the columns).

CALL FOR LODGING AND DINING GUIDES

The Amador City and Sutter Creek area, with its concentration of inns and dining spots, makes a good overnight base. For lodging and dining guides, call the Amador County Chamber of Commerce and the Calaveras County Visitor Center at (800) 225-3764.
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Title Annotation:California
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Publication:Sunset
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:1275
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