California Wine With a Portuguese Flair

Resting unobtrusively on a back road in California’s Madera County is the home of Ficklin Vineyards and its acclaimed and coveted Tinta Port, a California wine created in the Portuguese tradition.

Walter C. Ficklin and his wife Mame purchased the present acreage in 1918, initially growing fruit and raisin grapes. Not until after World War II did the transition from raisins and fruit to wine production begin.

During the 1930s and ’40s, the University of California at Davis was testing grape varieties used in the production of Portugal’s premium red dessert wines. The San Joaquin Valley showed promise for the propagation of Portuguese varietals, and Walter Ficklin Sr. became interested in growing winegrapes.

In 1946, Walter and his sons, Walter Jr. and David, decided to move into wine production, making two decisions that would greatly affect the winery’s future success. They decided that the winery would produce only Port, in the tradition of the great vineyards of Portugal’s Douro Valley, and use the finest Portuguese grape varieties.

They also decided to keep the operation small, so each step could receive the personal attention of the family. Ficklin Vineyards was incorporated on September 30, 1946.

When the long process of establishing a quality winery began, Walter Jr. became the vineyardist. In the spring of 1944, he obtained 20 cuttings from U.C. Davis and grafted them to the family’s established nematode-resistant rootstock. That fall, buds were taken from the growth of those first 20 cuttings and budded to the existing rootstalks that were planted in 1945. This marked the beginning of what would become the what many consider the finest Portuguese grape varietal vineyards in America.

Over the next three years, about 15 acres of Souzao, Tinta Cao, Tinta Madeira, Alvarelhao and Touriga were planted. While Walter Jr. tended the young vines, his brother David was studying fermentation science at U.C. Davis.

David’s first responsibility as vintner was to build the winery. Forty years ago, temperature control in a winery’s cellar was a matter of construction. Large adobe bricks were handmade and dried in the scorching sun. These bricks formed thick walls and, with the heavily insulated roof, shut out the summer heat, providing a relatively uniform temperature in the cellar.

Casks and puncheons were accumulated. A used crusher was purchased. Bottling equipment and racks for bottle aging were acquired. All the while, the vines were maturing.

At the first crush, the grapes, fully ripened and heavy on vines, were carefully hand cut into 50-pound lug boxes. The family and crew gathered for this moment of high drama.

The heavy box was lifted from the field wagon, and the deep purple-hued grapes were dumped into the crusher. Instantly, the mangled fruit flew back in the face of the worker. There was a moment of shocked silence… and then laughter. The necessary adjustments were made so the crusher no longer ran backwards, and the initial crush of Ficklin Tinta Port continued.

Marketing those first few hundred cases in the early 1950s was largely a matter of capturing a buyer’s interest. Walter Sr. took over the sales and marketing of the new wine, his task made easier by early critical acclaim.

In the mid-1960s, David added a second building to expand cellar space, bringing the aging capacity from 43,000 to 51,000 gallons. A third building was added in 1978. The winery slowly added vineyard acreage over the years.

In the early 1970s, the third generation of Ficklins joined the family business. Steven took over as vineyardist when his father, Walter Jr., retired. In 1984, Peter, David’s son, became the master vintner, and in 1991, he became the President as well. David remained active as a consultant until his death in 1998.

The Ficklins use an age-old “solera” process to produce a blend that is consistent in character from year to year. They never bottle all of a single year’s crush. In theory, there is some of the first wine ever produced in each bottle of Ficklin Tinta Port sold.

Today, Ficklin Vineyards covers some 35 acres planted to the same varietals that were planted in the 1940s. Annual production is just under 10,000 cases of the non-vintage Tinta Port. In very exceptional years, Ficklin bottles a vintage-dated Port in limited quantities of about 1,000 cases.

A relatively new addition to the Ficklin family of wines is the Aged 10 Year Tawny Port. Winemaker Peter Ficklin also has set aside a group of special barrels for a 20 Year Old Tawny Port.

Ficklin wines are available to be tasted free of charge. Winery tours include a guided walk through the processes and history of Port production. Tour participants can see wine production methods such as the solera blending system, and then taste Port from the processes they observe.

Tours are available by appointment (559-674-4598), preferably made five to 10 days in advance.

Posted in Wineries of Distinction
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