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Varietal Grandeur

Peter Ficklin, Ficklin Vineyard’s president,  winemaker, and (his words) “chief bottle washer.”

Add Madera to your list of weekend wine trip destinations. Yes, I can visualize your raised eyebrows. Madera?

Why would you want to go up the San Joaquin Valley to Madera to taste wine?

Well, perhaps to try something different. Bakersfield folks have just about worn out Highway 46 on their way to Paso Robles for weekend wine tasting. Yes, there are a couple hundred wineries to check out in Paso Robles, and only half a dozen wineries in the immediate vicinity of Madera, but it’s a pleasant change of pace. And unlike other areas with concentrations of wineries all producing their own version of the same varietal, Madera County’s handful of wineries for the most part each offer something unique.

Plus it’s accessible. Like Paso Robles, Madera is only two hours away, so it’s perfect for that weekend day-trip. Most of the Madera tasting rooms open at 11 a.m., so leave Bakersfield at 9, start back at 5, when the tasting rooms close, and you’re home by 7. Easy.

The most important reason to visit Madera is the world-class port that’s made there. Ficklin Vineyards and Quady Winery are simply in a class by themselves when it comes to making sensational dessert wines.

Their commitment and dedication has rubbed off on the other local vintners, whose table wines taste darn good, too.

Chateau Lasgoity has been growing grapes commercially since 2000.

Take Tony Kirk of Birdstone Winery, for instance. Not long ago I was in his tasting room off Road 36 a quarter mile or so north of Avenue 9 east of Freeway 99. It’s pretty there, surrounded by vineyards, the Sierras rising majestically to the east. Kirk and his wife, Kim, are dedicated to making wines that are among the best anywhere.

But they realized—much like vintners in Paso Robles and other parts of the state—if they were to establish an identity, they would need to have wines that set them apart from the rest of the herd. So they’re making Tempranillo, a Spanish varietal; Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, a deep red wine of French origin; Dolcetto, Barbera, and Sangiovese, all Italian varietals; and Tinta Madeira port. They also have a lovely Muscat Canelli.

Yes, Birdstone also has Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay; they’re the best-known varietals, and customers demand them. But as vintners elsewhere figured out awhile back, Napa and Sonoma are the benchmark for those varietals, so when it came to establishing an identity, they focused on something else. As you can tell from the wines Birdstone makes, Madera vintners are doing the same thing.

Birdstone’s Tempranillo has a voluptuous nose, and a crisp, clean texture, making it a great food wine. The Muscat is off-dry—not too sweet—with a seductive nose; it’s hard to stop drinking it. The port is excellent, certainly worthy of the standards set by Ficklin Vineyards.

Tony Kirk, of Birdstone Winery, is dedicated to making wines that are among the best anywhere.

Walter Ficklin Sr.’s legacy is the world-class wines that merit a pilgrimage to his namesake winery. The Ficklin family, which began farming their property southwest of Madera in 1918, were pioneers of sorts who put Madera on the map as a venue for fine wines. Up until 1945, the Ficklin family was farming fruit and raisins, but Ficklin became interested in University of California research that showed Portuguese varietals should do well in the San Joaquin Valley. So in 1945 and 1946, Ficklin and his sons, Walter Jr., and David, replanted their land to vineyards using only Portuguese varietals: Tinta Madeira, Tinta Cao, Souzao, and Touriga Nacional.

These four varietals are the traditional port varietals, and in the hands of a family that has focused all its attention on the production of port wine, the results are sensational.

I remember the first time I met Peter Ficklin, the president, winemaker and, as he says, “chief bottle washer,” some years ago when we first visited the winery. Peter and his cousin Steve, the vineyard manager, are the winery’s third generation.

There’s a vastness to the valley, and neighbors are a ways off. It’s quiet, peaceful.

Peter was waiting for us with a bottle of his Tinta Port and a bowl of fresh strawberries. He handed my wife, Carol, and I a glass of port and invited us to try the strawberries. I said something like, no chocolate to go with the strawberries? He just smiled and said, “Try them by themselves.”

The pairing was, in a word, sublime. I would not have thought that simple, fresh strawberries could taste so good paired with Ficklin port. To this day that’s how I enjoy them. And every time I do, I recall that first memorable visit to this iconic winery.

Our most recent visit was also memorable. We shared some cheeses, salami, a baguette, and olives with tasting room manager Jeremy Madeiros. Ficklin’s Touriga Rosé was a delightful companion to our food. Interestingly, the Ficklin 10-year Tawny also tasted awfully good with the cheese and salami.

A family with as much history in Madera as the Ficklins is the Lasgoity family, whose forebears settled in the area in 1903 after arriving from the Basque region of southwestern France. John and Alyson Lasgoity live in the house built by John’s great-grandparents in 1906. The gnarled old vines that line the driveway to Chateau Lasgoity bear testament to the family’s roots in the area.

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The family farmed the property and made wine for years for family members and sheepherders in the area. In 2000, John and his sister Michele decided to open a commercial winery, expanding the family’s diversified agricultural business. Their signature Blanc du Val is a white wine made from Madera-area fruit. They also make Rouge du Val and a Merlot.

Another winery relatively new to the emerging Madera wine scene is Cru Wine Co. Founded in 2003 as Mariposa Wine Co., Cru has a beautiful winery building and tasting room just off Freeway 99 north of Madera. I liked the wines, particularly the pinot noir. Pinot noir from Madera? Nope. Cru’s website says the winery is centrally located in Madera to source fruit from California’s diverse wine regions. The winery buys grapes from other regions, then makes them and distributes them from its Madera hub.

Quady Winery specializes in dessert wines, and is on par with Ficklin as a world-class producer. Andrew and Laurel Quady left the hustle and bustle of Southern California to pursue a more rural lifestyle. After Andrew earned a master’s in enology from UC Davis, they settled in Madera, built a small winery on their property, and began making port in 1977.

In 1980 they launched a fortified dessert wine, Essensia, made from the obscure Orange Muscat grape. It was an immediate hit. Serendipitously, four years later they were offered some Black Muscat, which became the fortified Elysium, another delectable dessert wine.

Those two varietals routinely win gold medals at competitions where I judge. Simply put, there’s nothing else like them; they’re in a league of their own. They’ve spawned dessert competitions where chefs compete to come up with desserts that pair with the two wines. (For a collection of award-winning recipes, go to the winery’s website, www.quadywinery.com, and click on “Chef Competition & recipes.)

Mike Blaylock is Quady’s winemaker and general manager, having joined the company in 1984. His personality—sunny and jovial—is part of every bottle produced by Quady.

You’ll find friendly people, excellent wines, and a unique experience at the Madera County wineries. If you’re looking for unpretentious tasting rooms, and wines that express the passion of the winemakers, then the next time you’re planning a wine day-trip, think Madera.

Photo Courtesy of Chateau Lasgoity/Ficklin Vineyards/Birdstone Winery & ©istockphoto.com/astra490

Article appeared in our 28-4 Issue - October 2011