“Market? Why the hell are you spending the weekend in Merced? “
I have been asked this as I drive north from Southern California, through the Grapevine, past Bakersfield, over miles of railroad tracks and graffiti painted trains.
The question has merit, because of all the glorious destinations on Earth, I had never wanted Merced. After checking crime rates and shivering, I wondered the same thing. But Merced is making a push to become the next go-to spot for wine and dinner aficionados like me, so rather than visiting Sonoma or Paso Robles, I guess, OK Merced, let’s see what you got.
The recently renovated El Capitan Hotel on the corner of Main and M streets is a modern white building with a nod to its art deco past incorporated into the design. Looking around, there are no clear signs of the crime rate that had scared me. The streets are clean, cleaner than the streets of the centers I frequent. Inside, I settle down and go to dinner in the courtyard where there is a two-man ensemble playing bass and guitar.
Andrea, who works for the hotel, is sitting across from me. Plates overflowing with pork chops, barbecued chicken, and cobs of elote corn cover the table – even bourbon and honey cocktails. Andrea tells me between sips that she grew up in Merced and that the hotel was closed. I ask her what she did for fun and she says her friends usually hang out by the creek. “We’ve never had any of this,” she says, pointing to the hotel.
Day two and it’s noon at Vista Ranch. A white farmhouse sits adjacent to vast farmland and inviting vineyards. There is a characteristic wooden sign that says “open wine tasting” with a red arrow pointing towards the farm, so of course I go in that direction.
Marc Marchini greets the group; he is the owner of a fourth generation mercedes farm. They grow everything under the sun, even grapes for pinot noir, despite not doing very well in the Central Valley heat.
“Our zinfandel is the best,” gloats Tom Jackson, who has worked for the family for decades.
At a table outside the farmhouse, they serve guests fresh salad and pasta with tomato and garlic sauce that they grow on the farm. They pour a wide range of wines: merlot, chardonnay, a brut sparkling wine and zin (which I agree is the best).
Marc takes pride in the pizzas they make, and I can see why: they’re topped with peppers, mushrooms and onions grown at the Vista Ranch and cooked in wood-fired ovens that we can see from where we’re sitting.
Looking at my surroundings, I don’t feel like I’m in central California. Aside from the absence of rolling hills, I feel like I’m indulging in a secluded mansion in Sonoma. It is at this point, towards the end of my second glass of zin, that I recognize that I am pleasantly surprised with my weekend in Merced.
Back in El Capitan, after a wine tasting induced nap, I’m ready to move on to the hotel’s latest attraction: Rainbird. While Central California Valley hasn’t exactly been known for its dining scene, at least not in the same vein as their San Francisco neighbors to the north or Los Angeles to the south, Merced appears to be up for the challenge with Rainbird.
The appetizer kicks off the five-course experience and features a white onion macaroon stuffed with pork pate, crispy chicken skin, and cranberry jam.
“This is the bark from Fish Camp Yosemite,” says Abby Johnson, the hotel’s sales manager, as I examine my macaroon. “The chef found it himself.”
I choose the porcini mushroom risotto for my second dish.
The third dish, otherwise known as a plate of bread, is clearly our table’s favorite: a country bread made of rye and spelled, crunchy and salty on the outside, buttery and airy on the inside and served with a ricotta di campana and a marmite of golden raisins. When the chef comes to our table to say hello, he admits that bread is his favorite too
The main dish for me is a Mariposa Ranch ribeye crusted with black salt and beeswax, and for dessert is the almond panna cotta, which uses almonds harvested nearby. I tried everything on the menu, exchanging bites with the neighbors, to make sure I experienced everything. It was delicious, but the bread – something in the bread is special.
Saturday morning, as I prepare for the distillery tasting, I shop in downtown Merced. At the Antique Mall, I find a shelf full of 60’s Sharon Tate nightdresses. I buy two for $ 50 and go along the strip. There is a second-hand bookshop that the cashier tells me has been around “since before I was born!” And there’s Bobby’s Market where I come across and find Smoker’s Blend Tea, with CBD and THC collected by the Sisters of the Valley: activists, healers and self-proclaimed weed nuns. I’m back just in time to catch the shuttle to Corbin Cash Distillery in nearby Atwater.
If anyone eats, breathes and sleeps sweet potatoes, it’s David Souza, the frontman of Corbin Cash Distillery. He not only shows us how he packs and ships them, but he explains in compelling details how he turns them into spirits. We taste all alcohol, including vodka made with sweet potatoes that go down like caramel candy and sweet potato liqueur, which sounds questionable but tastes like a holiday alcoholic spiced cider. Again, I’m thinking, who knew, Merced?
My last night in Merced, I have an idea of the nightlife. I look at Mainzer and bang my head at 80s hair metal. I peek at the Portuguese tapas bar. I have a cocktail at Native Son. Just as I’m ready to call it night, I ask a local passing by on the street if there are any karaoke bars nearby. She smiles and says, “Not yet!”
If you go
Hotel El Capitan: Rooms start at $ 162 per night. 609 W. Main St. in Merced; www.hyatt.com
Rainbird: The restaurant of the Hotel El Capitan is open from 17:00 to 21:00 from Thursday to Saturday for dinner and from 9:00 to 14:00 for Sunday brunch; www.rainbirdrestaurant.com.
Mainzer: This hot spot adjacent to the hotel for food, cocktails, movies, and games – both board game and foosball – opens at 11:30 am on weekdays and 9:00 am on weekends at 655 W. Main St. in Merced ; www.themainzer.com.
Ranch view: The tasting room is open daily from 9am to 6pm – plus 6pm to 9pm on Thursdays and Fridays during the summer – at 7326 E. Highway 140 in Merced; https://vistaranch.com
Merced Antique Mall: Open 10am to 6pm Monday to Saturday and 11am to 5pm Sunday at 320 W. Main St. in Merced; https://mercedantiquemall.com.
Corbin Cash Distillery: Distillery tours and tastings are available upon reservation ($ 30). 3241 Hull Road; http://corbincash.com