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Summer Food & Wine Getaways

Summer Food & Wine Getaways

Sorry, but it’s hard not to lapse into agri-tour wonkiness while visiting this storied growing region, which – if you include the entire Central Valley of California – astoundingly produces 25 percent of the nation’s annual food supply. Greater Fresno, which also includes the wine hot spot of Madera, is obviously not as well-known as Napa or Sonoma, but its 10 wineries have a special history of their own, a fact I discover later in the day at Ficklin Vineyards (ficklin.com) in Madera. Located at the end of dirt road within the region’s vast, gridded patchwork of farms, the 76-year-old family-owned winery is famously known for its Port, that fortified favorite of after-dinner drinking lists and British smoking rooms.

In fact, Ficklin has been around so long that it can still legally use the term “Port” – grandfather-protected when Portugal’s Douro Valley, where Port was invented, placed ownership over the designation after World War II. (Much in the same way Mexico “owns” tequila.)

The upshot: Ficklin produces arguably the finest Ports in the United States, a fact evicted both by the sundry awards amassed by the winery and the quiet pride of third-generation vintner Peter Ficklin. “It’s a really beautiful form of art, Port,” Ficklin says as he pours a taste of the winery’s deliciously nutty, burnt-orange-toned 10-year-old Tawny Port. “Grape-growing and fermentation are part of it, but also blending, when and how you fortify it [with the sherry], and aging. Many, many choices to make.”

Walking the winery grounds with Ficklin and his partner, Denise England, and touring the adobe root cellar his father hand-built in 1946 – each brick bristling with fibers of straw older than my parents – it’s impossible not to get swept up in the grandeur of all. Particularly after the second glass. My recommendation: Take a bottle of Ficklin port with you on your Yosemite excursion, as a hedge against the nighttime nippiness.

Like any great wine region, Fresno also has its resident tortured-genius iconoclast: winemaker Ray Krause, whose Westbrook Wine Farm (westbrookwinefarm.com) sits in the forested foothills between Fresno and Yosemite, excitingly tucked into a private valley that’s completely invisible from the highway. Every person with wine knowledge I spoke to in Madera County agreed that Krause is one of the most skilled winemakers in the region, if not its preeminent talent.

Be warned: Visits are by-appointment only and Krause will insist on a two-hour commitment, so he can properly pay you in the nuances of his operation. If you’re late for the appointment – ​​either due to the lack of signage, or the absence of cellular coverage to guide you onto the primitive mountain road that leads you to the winery – he’ll lock the gate and cancel your visit.

Were it true I knew this from second-hand information. Oh well. The day is young, and wineries here are plentiful.

—Craig Outhier

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