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|| News Item: Posted 2003-06-30

California Ports: A Spirited Debate
By Eric Risberg, The Associated Press

Photo by Eric Risberg / AP

Photo by Eric Risberg / AP

From left, Peter Prager, winemaker, John Prager, Richard Lenney, cellarmaster and vineyard manager, and Jeff Prager, general manager, all of Prager Winery and PortWorks, enjoy their wine at the end of the day inside their winery in St. Helena, Calif.
MADERA, CA.: There are no terraced vineyards nearby, no volcanic Madeira island off the coast. But in this Central Valley town, a quiet - and literally spirited --debate is fermenting about a centuries-old winemaking tradition.

Just off dusty Highway 99 south of Madera is Ficklin Vineyards, home of the oldest family-run, premium port-style wine producer in the state. Ficklin makes it port-style wine exclusively from Portuguese varietals, unlike many other California winemakers who have followed suit by producing fortified wines from California varietals such as zinfandel, petite syrah and cabernet sauvignon.

While the varietal issue is a hot topic among winemakers, other industry experts are concerned with a larger question: can any California port-style wine, made with Portuguese varietals or not, legitimately bear the name "port."

Port wine has its origins in the Oporto region of the Douro River Valley in northeast Portugal, where it is without exception made with traditional Portuguese grape varieties. Port is fortified with a high-proof brandy and has an alcohol content of about 20 percent, compared to about 14 percent of regular wine.

The happy discovery of adding brandy dates back to 1678, when an abbot in the Portuguese town of Lamego handed two British merchants glasses of a hearty red that had been spiked with brandy. A trade war with France broke out and to replace the French clarets, the Brits returned to Portugal for more fortified wine, and a winemaking tradition was born.

That tradition, however, isn't necessarily limited to Portugal, at least in name. Chris Barefoot, the marketing manager of Premium Port Wines, the U.S. distributor of Grahams and Dow wine from Portugal, says that while the Portuguese have protection for the name "porto"- much like the French registration of the word "champagne" -- they were not quick enough to register protection in the U.S. for the English name "port." While use of the name "port" isn't a bother, Barefoot says, "Any attempt to say it [a California port] is authentic would be a problem."

But it's still acceptable for California winemakers such as Ficklin and some four dozen others to call their wine "port," according to Gladys Horiuchi of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute "Use of the term 'port' on California products is and has been a very legal term, as long as California or other geographic source is listed in conjunction," says Horiuchi.

The port winemaking tradition was adopted by Ficklin Vineyards in1946, when it began producing exclusively port-style wine - a bold move for a California winemaker, but nonetheless as successful one, as the winery had its 55th harvest last year. Its 40 acres of vineyards primarily produce the Portuguese varietals Touriga and Tinta Madera, from which 8,000 to 9,000 cases of port-style wine are made a year.

Photo by Eric Risberg / AP

Photo by Eric Risberg / AP

A window known as the web site has sat undisturbed for the past 18 years at the Prager Winery and PortWorks in St. Helena, Calif. Prager is known for making a California port style wine from petite syrah and cabernet sauvignon.
Ficklin's most popular port-style wine is the Ficklin Tinta Port (about $14.99 per bottle), produced using a solera - a fractional blending system similar to the production of sherries in Spain or like the making of sourdough bread. In fact, Ficklin's solera uses barrels that have never been emptied since originally filled in 1948.

Winemaker Peter Ficklin says that what makes his wine unique is that he has many more choices than a winemaker would probably have in Portugal. In California, he can use a custom-distilled brandy, versus a government-issued brandy in Portugal. Ficklin feels he grows his Portuguese varietals in one of the best parts of the state and that these premium grapes give his port-style wines a proper balance and consistency.

"What would people think of producers making a Rhone wine with non-Rhone varieties?" says Ficklin. "In the '70s and '80s, many made port as an afterthought -- it was a solution to use overripe grapes. …Sometimes they got lucky and sometimes they failed."

Several hours north in the tonier Napa Valley just off Highway 29 near St. Helena is Prager Portworks, which started in 1979 and produces about 3,600 cases a year ranging from $28.50 to $125. Prager is known for the port-style wine made from petite syrah and cabernet sauvignon.

"The grapes are what make the California port style wine unique," says Richard Lenney, cellarmaster and vineyard manager at Prager. "It is the last wine to be rediscovered by the U.S. population."

Prager has experimented with growing Portuguese varietals since 1992. "There are many purists in restaurants who want a port made with traditional grapes. Some shun California port because they expect a certain flavor," said John Prager, vice president of sales at Prager. The first release of a Prager port made with a Portuguese varietal is expected in 5 years.

On the central California coast in Paso Robles, Justin Vineyards has been making their popular cabernet-based Obtuse port-style wine since 1992. Two years ago, Justin started making an Obtuse with Portuguese varietals. Debbie Baldwin, co-owner of Justin, says the original cabernet-based Obtuse is the more popular of the two and describes it as "cab on steroids." It sells for $22.50 a bottle of which some 1200 cases are made a year.

Photo by Eric Risberg / AP

Photo by Eric Risberg / AP

Winemaker Peter Ficklin stands inside his adobe winery that was built in 1946 at Ficklin Vineyards in Madera, Calif. Ficklin is home to the oldest family-run premium port style wine producer in California.
So which wins by a nose - the Portuguese ports or the California port-style wines? Wilfred Wong, the e-commerce cellarmaster of Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Beverages and More, says, "The California ports are getting better, but they're not there yet." Wong particularly likes the California style ports made with Portuguese varietals, but adds, "The zinfandel-based ports are coming along."

Interest in port remains very high. Imports from Portugal into the U.S. have nearly tripled since 1995, according to Barefoot. Figures are not known for the sale of California port-style wine, but John Prager says sales have increased dramatically in the last 8 years. "I could easily sell two to three times what we make each year," says John Storey, winemaker of Eric Ross Winery in the Russian River, who makes 80 cases of port a year from old-vine zinfandel.

People drink dry wines all the time, says Prager's Linney, but they wait for the dessert. "Port makes your palate feel good. We talk dry, but think sweet."

(Eric Risberg is a staff photographer based in San Francisco. He regularly writes about fine dining, cigars and adult beverages for the Sports Shooter Newsletter. Eric will conduct a breakout session at the Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau 2003.)

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