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Family legacy thrives for seven decades

Nestled in the midst of grapevines is a company that has brought national attention to Madera County.

Ficklin Vineyards, maker of award-winning port from its winery in Madera, is nearly 70 years old. The family-owned business is steeped in history that is visible throughout the grounds of the winery. On Sept. 30, 1946, Walter Ficklin with his sons Walter Jr. and David founded what is today the oldest port winery in America.

When founding the winery, the Ficklins made a couple of decisions that have shaped the company’s history. They decided to only make port wine and to keep the operation small enough to maintain complete control by the family.

The handmade adobe building where Ficklin houses its library of bottled port and the oak barrels where they age the wine is the same one built for the first crush in 1948.

Today, the third generation of the Ficklin family to operate the winery is David’s son Peter and Walter Jr.’s son Steve Ficklin. Steve serves as the vineyardist and Peter as the winemaker.

The property where the winery sits was acquired in 1918 by Walter and his wife Mame.

Using a pamphlet pick-up from the University California Extension Services, the men learned to make adobe bricks. They built the first building using steel supports and a heavily insulated roof. The same soil that grows the grapes was used to make those bricks.

“The building was engineered with concrete bond beams that make it safe in an earthquake,” Peter said. “The design was ahead of it time.”

A huge antique block and tackle with rope used during construction hangs on the wall near the barrel room.

“When my father finished using it to build the winery he hung it on the wall and it is still here,” he said.

During harvest and crush, the presser used to extract the juice from the stems, seeds and skins is the same one they have used throughout its history.

“The day they brought the used crusher home, it was celebrated by the Ficklin family much the way other families of the era welcomed home the new sedan dad bought,” said Denise England, general manager for the winery.

“We continue to use an old world system that I believe it brings a higher level of quality to our wine,” Peter said.

Under Peter and Steve’s management Ficklin Vineyards became a founding member of the Madera Vintners Association and introduced its products to a whole new generation of wine lovers. Wine Trail weekends bring hundreds of patrons to the winery to sample their products and enjoy food pairings and live music.

Each bottle of Ficklin Port is made by infusing the wine with grape brandy.

Grown on the winery property are the vines planted in 1945 by Walter Jr. The grapes used to make the port are exclusively from Portuguese varietals of Tinta Madeira, Touriga, Tinta Cao and Souzao. The winery grows some of the grapes used but also buys Portuguese varietals from other California growers too, the best they can find, said Peter.

Again this year during harvest the grapes will be handpicked to include Touriga, Tinta Cào, Tempranillo, Vinha Velha, Verdelho and Branco Doce.

The winery has special events like its Cigars under the Stars, which bring out cigar aficionados to enjoy with the special handmade cigars from Payne Mason Inc. The company offers a special cigar made exclusively to pair with Ficklin Port.

Their newest product in development is a port with the flavor of s’mores. They are awaiting the federal government approval of the label.

“We are in a heavily regulated industry under the control of the California Alcohol Beverage Control and the federal Alcohol Tobacco Trade Bureau,” said Peter.

When to add the brandy to the wine is as much an art as it is a science. Making port for 40 years, Peter can tell when it is time to add the brandy by the wine aroma and sounds of bubbles generated by added yeast. These additions quite often occur in the middle of the night or in the early morning hours as necessary.

When the winery enters its port in the California State Fair, they usually win an award. The state fair bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award to Ficklin Vineyards for its contribution to the industry in 2015.

The Portfolio Society, the original Ficklin wine club, gives members a box set of three bottles from its collection twice a year. Each release is preceded by a catered party where members and guests can taste and sample the world class ports with a variety of cheeses, chocolates and other delectable pairings.

Portfolio Society members also receive a 20 percent discount on all wine purchased at the winery. Bottles of Ficklin Port are available for sale at the tasting room ranging in price from $18 to $500 for the oldest vintage.

The winery has other special clubs to enjoy its 10, 20 year and older Ports.

“It is always a pleasure to share our product during these winery events,” he said. “I enjoy talking about our port with people.”

Ficklin Vineyards, 30246 Ave. 7 1/2, opens its tasting room 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. For information on joining the Ficklin Portfolio Society and other wine clubs call 661-0075 during tasting room hours.

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