A journalist hunts a family legend in food, wine, beer, tequila and history.
BY ED MURRIETA
From colonial Mexico to Canadian oil prairies, a legend of California’s Gold Rush history lives on — in wine, beer, tequila, restaurants and landmark properties on the West Coast.
His name is Joaquin Murrieta, aka The Mexican Robin Hood, celebrated in literature, song and cinema, reportedly terminated by order of the governor 165 years ago this summer.
My name is Ed Murrieta. I’m a journalist who grew up in the desperado’s cloak. Mine is a tale of history and marketing, of family and food.
Serve Me the Head of Joaquin Murrieta begins at Murrieta’s Well, a winery in Livermore, Calif., where Joaquin Murrieta is said to have watered his horses while hiding from the law.
Murrieta’s Well produces Los Tesoros de Joaquin –the treasures of Joaquin: Tempranillo, Muscat Canelli, Mourvedre, Chardonnay and other grapes fed by the vineyard’s artesian well. The limited-edition wines are vintner Philip Wente’s tribute to Joaquin Murrieta’s legend as the avenging bandit of the gold fields, itself a source of the Zorro legend.
The story continues at Murrieta’s West Coast Bar and Grill in Calgary, Alberta, one of two western Canadian white-tablecloth restaurants named in honor of Joaquin Murrieta. There is no historical evidence that Joaquin Murrieta ventured to Canada, but Murrieta’s West Coast Bar and Grill in Calgary and Canmore nonetheless honor the “infamous gentleman bandit” whose “heroic passion and outlaw honor became legend in a land of cruelty and lawlessness.”
Returning south, we pick up family history in Reno, where Murrieta’s Cantina carries on the restaurant my dad started in Reno after launching other restaurants elsewhere. In Fresno, we stop for a beer that bears Joaquin’s name, fortifying us for the drive farther south toward San Diego for another meal at another “family” Mexican restaurant. Our expense account won’t cover a trip to central Mexico so on-site tastes of Joaquin Murrieta tequila will wait. Still, there’s the Joaquin Murrieta cocktail at Comal, a hip Berkeley restaurant.
Along the way, we’ll visit historic properties where Joaquin Murrieta reportedly hid out and look for what locals say is Joaquin Murrieta’s ghost at railroad canyon crossroads east of San Francisco.
Joaquin Murrieta is controversial. Was he even real? Did white men jump his gold claim and rape his wife? Did Harry Love’s Rangers really kill him and cut off his head? Whose head did the governor pay a bounty for? Did a mystical Indian poet/newspaperman make the whole thing up?
Growing up on junk food and TV jingles, my Chicano contemporaries and I choked down the Frito Bandito. Aye-aye-aye-aye — talk about stereotypes. Me? I didn’t need no stinkin’ corn-chip-shilling caricature. I had a real desperado –- or at least a legendary one –- in my family tree: Joaquin Murrieta, the Mexican Robin Hood who took revenge on the men who raped his wife, jumped his claim and left him for dead.
A charcoal portrait of Joaquin Murrieta graced the menus at my parents’ restaurant, The Murrieta Mexican Restaurant, in suburban Sacramento. The “Joaquin” — one cheese enchilada, one chile verde tamal, one shredded beef taco — was the most popular combination plate.
If the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins can be turned into a brand of whiskey and Jimi Hendrix can be distilled in an electric-blue vodka bottle, why should I, perhaps a descendant of Joaquin Murrieta, object Joaquin Murrieta wine, beer, tequila or restaurants, the usurping of the Robin Hood of El Dorado?
Armed with bottles of Los Tesoros de Joaquin, Joaquin Murrieta Wanted chili pepper beer, Joaquin Murrieta Wanted tequila and reservations at Murrieta restaurants from Calgary to Reno to San Diego, I hope to find out what I’m missing.
Joaquin Murrieta, our tables are ready.