If your image of San Joaquin Valley wines is of inexpensive "jug" wines, you may be surprised to learn that the Madera, California, appellation is home to nearly a dozen boutique wineries you can visit to taste many best-of-class wines.
The Madera Wine Trail is a 30-mile driving tour of tasting rooms and vineyards off State 99. Following trail signs through the Madera countryside, 30 minutes north of Fresno, has become a popular afternoon outing for area wine lovers.
Madera's reputation is growing in part thanks to the awards won by wineries including Ficklin Vineyards, Quady Winery, and Chateau Lasgoity. John Lasgoity owes his success in the business to trial and error as a hobbyist. "I learned what not to do in the 12 years I was a home winemaker. That has paid off, because now my wines can't be just average," he says.
Far from it. The 2002 Merlot from Lasgoity took top honors at this year's San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Though the San Joaquin Valley was once regarded as the stepchild of the wine industry, the Madera appellation is proudly displayed on labels today.
Hit the trail
Get started with a map from the Madera Vintners Association ( www.maderavintners.org or 800/733-8068). You can begin the tour at any point.
Chateau Lasgoity Winery. 1-5 Sat-Sun (free tasting), by appointment Mon-Fri (two-bottle minimum purchase required). 11219 Road 26; www.chateaulasgoity. com or 559/674-8291.
Ficklin Vineyards. 11-5 Sat-Sun (free tasting), by appointment Mon-Fri. 30246 Avenue 7 1/2, 7 miles south of Madera; www.ficklin.com or 559/674-4598.
Quady Winery. 9-4:30 Mon-Fri, 12-4:30 Sat (free tasting). 13181 Road 24; www.quadywinery.com, 800/733-8068, or 559/673-8068.