Far Niente Winery. The roots of Far Niente date back to 1871 when former gold miner in California’s Gold Rush of 1849, John Benson turned farmer, acquired 300+ acres in what is now Napa’s Valley’s Oakville sub appellation. Incidentally John was an uncle of the famous American impressionist painter, Winslow Homer. He raised hay and grain crops as well as grew Muscat grapes (making a sweet Muscat wine) – and records show he made his first wine in 1876 produced at his ranch and small wooden winery about 1.5 miles south from Far Niente’s current location.
In the early 1880’s John decided to build a winery – he hired noted architect, Hamden McIntyre, perhaps the Howard Backen of the times (Howard is a well-respected contemporary architect responsible for some of Napa’s most creative and innovative wineries). Hamden had already designed a number of prominent wineries including the wooden Eschol Winery (now Trefethen Vineyards), Inglenook and the Greystone building housing what is now the Culinary Institute of America. The stone winery was completed in 1885 and in a somewhat unusual feature for the times, had a concrete rather then dirt floor. Benson named it “In Dolce Far Niente” or in Italian roughly meaning “sweet nothing” or “without a care” and his wine label featured a girl sleeping in a hammock.
What has to be one of the earliest still existing California wines was brought to Far Niente’s attention in 1998 – an 1886 Far Niente Sweet Muscat (from a collection housed in Marin County).
After Benson died in 1910 the property remained in his family until it was sold right before Prohibition. In the decades following the property transitioned through many owners and the winery building became highly neglected. One of the owners, Martin Stelling had acquired some 600 acres in Oakville and was in the process of restoring the old Far Niente building when he was tragically killed in an auto accident just north of Yountville in 1947. However, his namesake, the Martin Stelling Vineyard still produces fruit for both Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel.
In 1979, Gilliland “Gil” Nickel, his wife Beth and partners including Robert Lieff purchased the winery and property and spent significant time restoring it. At the time, the historical winery building was covered in ivy and the property needed much work. Robert Lieff remembers Robert Mondavi pulling ivy off the building to expose the sign and using cables hooked to their jeeps one weekend to pull off the rest. A day later a building inspector from the city of Napa called confused by the recently exposed exterior of the winery building. He was wondering why a new building had gone up on the property “without” a building permit!
Ultimately the winery was impeccably restored along with becoming a showcase property for azaleas and other flowers. Prior to producing Far Niente wines, Gil made a home-wine called Nob Hill Cellars – named in honor of Nob Hill San Francisco where he lived at the time (a bottle of 1977 Nob Hill Cellars Chardonnay is kept in the Far Niente wine cave and is presented to visitors during tours).
The first modern day vintage of Far Niente was from 1979 and was crushed at Markham Vineyards near St. Helena; this vintage and also the 1980 and 1981 vintages were produced at a warehouse in Sausalito – until the 1982 vintage which was produced on site. The first wine made was a Chardonnay from 1979 – the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon from the property was from 1982. Gil produced these early wines himself with the help of consulting winemaker, Charles Ortman. Today Far Niente continues to focus exclusively on these two varieties using only French oak.
Gil was born and raised in Oklahoma – he worked for his family business, Greenleaf Nursery (its roots date from 1945 when his parents Harold and Rebecca Nickel founded a retail nursery in Muskogee, OK) – and eventually he became president of the company for 8 years before he moved to the Napa Valley. Incidentally, Greenleaf has since become the nation’s second largest, family owned wholesale nursery employing over 1,000 employees and maintaining four major nursery sites, two in Texas, one in Oklahoma and one in North Carolina. The original Greenleaf Nursery was named after Greenleaf State Park in Braggs Oklahoma – one of their nurserys is located only about a 30 minute drive away.
Gil attended (UC Davis) to learn more about wine making after becoming smitten with wine when he was already in his 30’s. He passed on far to young (at age 64) in 2003.
In mid 2008 solar cells were installed on the property (including both land based and floating panels) to power much of the winery operations. This is the only Napa Valley based winery with solar cells installed on top of a pond. The Far Niente property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The winery is located on 13 acres with landscaping that is styled after part of the Southern USA. Over 9,000 azalea plants grow on the property; April is an especially nice time of year to visit the property because the gardens are ablaze in a sea of pink and red.
Far Niente is located at the end of a long ginkgo-tree lined driveway, perched on top of a small hill not far from the Oakville Grade (which eventually leads into Sonoma County). This well-regarded neighborhood contains several nearby premium wineries including Harlan Estate, BOND, Futo Estate and Gil and Beth Nickel’s son Jeremy Nickel’s winery, The Vineyard House.
Tours and tastings begin in the main hall; when guests arrive they will see their name on a plaque among the names of other guests. After a welcome wine, guests taking a tour will descend to the fermentation area and into part of the wine caves.
When Gil and his partners acquired the property they noticed a stone archway at the west end of the cellar (backing up into the hillsides). They surmised that Benson had plans to eventually drill a cave into the side of the hill. In 1980 they hired Napa Valley wine cave pioneer Alf Burtelson (a general engineering contractor who began founded his company in 1964). In the right circles, he is referred to as the Godfather of the modern day Napa wine cave. Alf is well into his 80’s now and long since retired although is still living in the northern part of Napa Valley. He oversaw the drilling of a 60 foot tunnel into the hillside – one of the first caves for commercial wine use to be drilled in the Napa Valley since Prohibition. During their initial blasting, a cache of silver dollar coins was uncovered – one of which was later embedded into the concrete floor near the exit of the cave – an 1889 coin.
Incidentally, Alf’s first cave job in the Napa Valley was in 1972, to repair the original Beringer caves which his company did successfully; this eventually led to more work for Beringer – drilling new caves for them.
Over a span of 20+ years two more cave expansion projects took place using equipment from the UK originally used for digging coal mines. By the time the caves were ultimately completed they were over 40,000 square feet – this is still one of the Napa Valley’s largest wine caves. The caves were built with incredible acoustics – in certain places when one speaks it sounds exactly like using a microphone. And the wine making operations are visually appealing – each barrel is perfectly stained; workers even run a string along the wine barrels to make sure they are all arranged in a straight line.
The tour and tasting used to continue into a separate building housing a classic car collection (the car collection is no longer part of the tour however, visitors can see the car collection from behind a metal chain); if one is a classic car enthusiast, one will certainly be highly intrigued by visit here. This is one of the two best collections of old, expensive and rare antique cars that we know of in Napa (the other being at Palmaz Winery which is not included on a tour). Gil Nickel used to race cars – his son Jeremy has his own racing team and one of Jeremy’s cars is on display along with expensive one of a kind Ferrari’s, Porche racing vehicles, and other premium automobiles.
Following the tour seated tastings are hosted in the Founder’s Room or weather permitting outdoors down by one of ponds on site. The tiny Founder’s Room accommodates about 10 people at a long table. Led by the expertise of a wine educator, guests will taste through both Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (and a Pinot Noir from their sister winery) and then finish with a current release of a Dolce dessert wine.
Dolce is a proprietary wine produced by Far Niente – a separate winery if you will, housed within its own wine cave. The focus of Dolce is on one wine each year, a Sautern style (Château d’Yquem inspired) late harvest white wine blend often referred to as the “nectar of Far Niente”. For those not familiar with how this wine is produced – one may be surprised to discover that its flavor and character comes from grapes harvested which are covered in various stages of ugly grey and black Botrytis spores. But the proof is in the glass – these are rich, layered wines with significant flavor complemented with great acidity. As a result, Dolce wines can age remarkably well for many years.
The vineyard for the Dolce wines is 20 acres in Coombsville (east of the city of Napa). Unlike some wineries that cultivate and then spray spores on already harvested fruit, the Dolce wines are created each year through natural occurring botrytis spores which grow on the grapes later in the season (usually in November). Sorting and selecting the right fruit for Dolce is an extremely important part of making this wine as not every grape or bunch is covered with the necessary botrytis spores. The blend makeup of Dolce is heavily weighted towards Sémillon – usually around 90% Sémillon and 10% Sauvignon Blanc.
The first Dolce wine was produced in 1989 and has been produced every year since. The 1990 Dolce (which we tasted at Far Niente from a magnum bottle nearly 30 years after its vintage) shows dark amber in the bottle. The bouquet showcases a diversity of fruit and dessert driven spices. Offers aromas of honeycomb, nutty almond, toffee, caramel and a ripe apricot nectarine influence. Shows a bold intensity of flavor carried by a somewhat viscous and creamy mouth feel. Feels like liquid velvet on the palate. The finish is extremely long – with a secondary finish that comes slightly after the primary fruit finish – lingering with additional notes of almond, tangerine peel and apricot. The Dolce holds up incredible well after decades and this particular wine is living proof of that.
The 2013 Dolce initially offers a bouquet with aromas of an orange peel zest but as it opens aromas of honeysuckle and apricot show along with a noticeable nutty nuance including both hazelnut and almond. Features a lovely mouth feel – a softness that extends across the palate from start to finish – with a simultaneous brightness showing from the acidity. The mouth feel is supple in nature but not heavy or viscous. This wine is very sweet (perhaps sweeter then we recall from other vintages) although it is slightly tempered by the acidity. Shows flavors of apricot and a number of baking spices including clove and a hint of vanilla that lingers on the long sweet finish.
Incidentally the 1999 Dolce vintage earned a special nickname of St. Nicholas – out of all the vintages to date, this one was harvested the latest – on December 6, 1999.
Select Far Niente Wines
The 2018 Far Niente Estate Bottled Chardonnay offers a bouquet with a diversity of aromatic intrigue. Aromas of citrus blossom, popcorn, apricot, pear and grapefruit. On the palate offers flavors of mandarin orange, granny smith apple – a nice balance between acid and sweetness of fruit (no residual sugar). The mouth feel is supple and soft. Lingers with a brightness of acidity on the finish – but no tartness along with an orange peel zest, hints of popcorn and a touch of baking spice. This is a wonderful wine to enjoy by itself.
Far Niente is one of only several Napa Valley based wineries to age still wines in bottle inside their cave (the other being White Rock Vineyards). While Far Niente produces one Cabernet Sauvignon each year, they set aside about 20% of the vintage and age it in bottle inside their cave for two more years before releasing this wine again. This longer aged Cabernet Sauvignon is referred to as their Cave Collection and is generally not distributed. The 2015 Far Niente Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignon features a pretty bouquet with notes of dark cherry, chocolate, old cedar box, dried rose petal along with a ripe plum-like sweetness. Offers an intensity of fruit on the palate with both red and darker cherry complemented by mouth watering acidity. Lingers with broadly distributed somewhat earthy tannins – not course in their feel and are nicely integrated.
2011 is an excellent glimpse into a vintage that was more challenging then normal due to late rains into June and early rains during September as well as cooler growing conditions. As a result, vineyards in parts of the valley had a hard time ripening to optimum maturity. It was a vintage in the Napa Valley that was generally panned by critics but a vintage where individual sites played an extremely important role along with winemaker skill including their ability to carefully sort the fruit prior to fermentation.
The 2011 Far Niente Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignon features a bouquet with character – more aromatic layers then perhaps a ‘riper’ year. Shows earth notes, dust, cigar smoke, hints of jalapeno pepper and red licorice. Lighter in style then a typical Napa Valley vintage offers more red fruit notes then darker fruit on the palate including cranberry, currant and red cherry. Very balanced, 8 years after vintage still shows a firm tight grip of tannins although their feel is fairly fine-grained.
The 2017 Far Niente Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon features aromas of plum along with cigar smoke with a slight herbal note and hints of cedar and dust. As it breathes hints of mocha show. Shows red fruits on the palate including cranberry and red currant – real nice acidity, mouth watering. The tannins are still a bit tight at the time of our tasting – with a firm grip but are not course. This wine shows all the hallmarks of being very age-worthy – plenty of fruit, great acidity and tannins that will need time to fully integrate.
Several other ‘sister’ wineries are part of their overall ‘collection’ including Nickel & Nickel (also in Oakville focusing on single vineyard single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon), Enroute (Russian River Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from neighboring Sonoma County with the winery located in Sebastopol but not open to the public) and Bella Union, a Napa Valley based producer of a single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon based wine each year. Bella Union produces this wine at a winery (the Del Bondio Winery) on Bella Oaks Lane in Rutherford. The name Bella Union is a tribute to Bella Oaks Lane (the site of their 25-acre vineyard) and to the Bella Union Roadway once located along Bella Oaks Lane and also to the nearby Bella Union Mining Company located in the Mayacamas mountains.
Far Niente offers several premium experiences including their most popular offering, a 90 minute tour and tasting, a Private Cave Collection Tasting featuring current and library wines, a Private Estate Tasting featuring current Far Niente release wines plus hand selected wines from their sister wineries and a Chef’s Table Tasting, pairing current release wines with small bites prepared by their in-house chef. It is best to make a reservation as far in advance as possible (1-2 months ideally), especially during busy summer and fall weekends.
Older vintages of wine are available for sale on site. For more information, to book a reservation or to join one of their wine clubs, visit: www.farniente.com
Far Niente Cave/Winemaking
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