Do you want an unexpected weekend? Try Merced. Yes, Merced. – East Bay Times

“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.

Rainbird Sauterne Poached Cod with Stuffed Morels, Shiso Glazed White Peas, Walnuts and Tapenade Aliums Matsutake. (Photo by Emily St. Martin)

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.