Far Niente: A Vintage Love Story
by Marla Norman, Publisher
Hundreds of vineyards are based in the California Wine Country, with many producing quite remarkable wines. Only a handful, however, have reached true iconic status. Far Niente is a towering presence within that exclusive group. But even beyond the technical and artistic excellence that has been achieved with the wines, is the unforgettable beauty of the place itself. Visitors to Far Niente describe the property as one of the loveliest, most romantic vineyards they’ve seen. Knowing something about the founding couple helps explain some of the magic that is Far Niente.
A significant part of the Far Niente story begins hundreds of miles outside of the Wine Country. It was in eastern Oklahoma that Gil and Beth Nickel, future owners of Far Niente, first mastered the art of cultivation. In Talequah, Oklahoma, Gil and his family managed Greenleaf Nursery, a wholesale operation that became, and remains still today, the second largest privately owned nursery in the U.S.
And, fatefully, while helping to manage Greenleaf, Gil Nickel met his future wife. Beth Nickel’s father owned a small retail nursery near Bartlesville, Oklahoma and would make a couple of buying trips each year with their entire family of eight. At the time of their first encounter, Beth was only eleven and Gil was twenty-one. So there were no romantic sparks, but their destinies, as it turned out, were set.
Prior to managing the family’s nursery business, Gil graduated from Oklahoma State University with degrees in physics and math. His first job out of college was as a guided missile analyst at a lab in Corona, California. By 1971, Gil had returned to Oklahoma and Greenleaf, but California was still much on his mind. More importantly, he had sampled his first glass of wine. Growing up in a tea-totaling Southern Baptist family, Gil had never had alcohol. At age 30, he finally drank his first glass of wine. No one is sure if it was a Grand Cru or Beaujolais or even whether it was red or white. But whatever the vintage, that glass of wine was an epiphany for Gil.
Meanwhile, Beth received degrees from both St. Gregory’s College, in Shawnee, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. After spending a year working in London with her sister, she returned to the states and began working in New York City. On a visit back home to Oklahoma, she attended a Tulsa artist’s reception one evening and bumped into an old family friend, Gil Nickel. By now, Beth was 22, Gil was 32. The two began dating and traveling together. Napa became a frequent destination, and it was during this time that Gil and Beth began to seriously consider redirecting their experiences with gardening and nurseries to winemaking.
ON TO NAPA
In the late ‘70‘s, the Nickels moved out to the San Francisco Bay area with the dream of creating a world class, Napa Valley wine estate. After a three year search of every backroad in the county, they discovered a beautiful old stone winery with the name “Far Niente” carved on the front. Even though it had been abandoned for 60 years and was in utter disrepair, it sat on a promising tract of land and they knew that they had finally found the treasure they were looking for.
It turned out that “Far Niente” (from the Italian phrase “Il dolce far niente” meaning “It’s sweet to do nothing.”) had once been a successful operation. It was founded in 1885 by John Benson, an original Forty-Niner of the California Gold Rush. Interestingly, Benson was also the uncle of the artist, Winslow Homer. The winery prospered until Prohibition in 1919, when most U.S. wineries were forced to close down. Sixty years later, two dreamers arrived to rescue the neglected vineyard.
Gil and Beth began a meticulous, three-year restoration of the property. While the work progressed, they visited a number of the great French wineries: from Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Latour in Bordeaux to the Burgundy Auxey-Duresses cellar of Madame Lalou Bize-LeRoy and the incomparable Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Gil took hundreds of photographs of architectural details, terraced vineyards, storage rooms, and caves. He made endless notes on the wines they sampled, the blending, and the harvesting techniques.
When Far Niente opened officially, in 1982, visitors were stunned by the beautifully executed renovation. Gil and Beth’s efforts were doubly rewarded when the winery was placed on the National Registrar of Historic Places. During the opening, a newly released Chardonnay was also presented. The Far Niente bottle was wrapped in an impressive, gold embossed label. Even more astounding was the price — $16.00! $4.00 higher than any other wine in its class. Although the ornate label and “high” price of the wine raised eyebrows at the time, Far Niente Chardonnay became and instant success, and remains one of the most successful and recognizable labels today.
Soon after the opening, the Nickels hired two young men to help them carry out their vision of world-class winemaking. Dirk Hampson came on in 1982 to help with the winemaking and Larry Maguire was hired in early 1983 for sales. The two soon became partners with the Nickels. Today, they continue to manage the day-to-day business of Far Niente and her sister wineries.
The Nickels decided early on to produce only Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon at Far Niente. They believed that in the interest of achieving the highest quality wines possible, it was essential to focus on just the two blended wines. They also opted to avoid malolactic fermentation — so typical of buttery-tasting California Chardonnays — to ensure that the wines would age gracefully and develop subtle layers of flavor.
The seemingly unorthodox strategies worked. Far Niente was establishing a name for quality wines and the operation was growing. Storage was becoming an issue for the winery’s burgeoning production. The restoration of the winery had included a small 60-foot cave dug into the side of the hill, which was the first to be constructed in Napa Valley since the late 1800‘s. Knowing that caves offered the ideal environment to age wine in barrels, the Nickels expanded the caves into a network of tunnels throughout the hill. Napa and Sonoma are now filled with caves, but in the early 1980‘s none existed. Today, the property’s caves total more than a linear mile.
Along with collecting and racing cars, Gil also loved motorcycles. Beth frequently accompanied him on long treks. During one particularly memorable trip, Gil suddenly parked the bike, dropped to his knees, and asked Beth to marry him. The unique proposal was emblematic of Gil and Beth’s zest for life. Another anecdote illustrates their lively sense of humor: For an annual black-tie Napa Valley Wine auction one year, they bottled a six-pack of Chardonnay and designed labels featuring their profiles. They called the spoof on wine coolers “Dos Okies.”
A SWEET LEGACY
The Nickels wanted to create a tribute to their Oklahoma heritage and families. They converted thirteen acres surrounding the refurbished stone building into extraordinary landscaped gardens, bringing in thousands of southern azaleas from their Greenleaf companies in Oklahoma and Texas. The Far Niente gardens are composed of the largest single planting of azaleas in California. When in full bloom, the dazzling patches of azaleas are visible from nearly a mile away.
Gil and Beth’s next enterprise was particularly risky. Their partner, Dirk Hampson, who made wine in Bordeaux before joining them at Far Niente, wanted to produce a late harvest, sweet wine — an incredibly difficult undertaking that requires painstaking, costly oversight at every level of production. The key to late harvest wines is noble rot, an age-old term for botrytis cinerea, or mold, that if managed properly gives the wine an unequaled richness and complexity. Harvesting the grapes requires rigorous attention to separate the individual grapes that have just the right level of botrytis cinerea. Frequently, 80% of the entire crop must be discarded. Dolce was introduced in 1992, the only winery in North America devoted solely to producing a single, late harvest wine.
Another great venture, Nickel & Nickel, was the result of an outstanding Merlot that, at the time, was being blended into Far Niente’s Cabernet Sauvignon. Sensing an opportunity to produce single-vineyard wines, the partners established Nickel & Nickel to produce 100-percent varietal, single-vineyard wines from the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Nickel & Nickel now offers single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, and Zinfandel. The vineyard property on which Nickel & Nickel was established also had a run-down building, a 19th century farmhouse. As with the old stone building at Far Niente, the home was restored to its original glory and a new 30,000 square-foot underground cellar was added.
While constructing Nickel & Nickel, Gil was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. He battled the disease courageously for five years. And although he never lost his sense of humor, he did acknowledge the extent of his disease, saying: “I’m tougher than a buggy whip, but I don’t know if I can whip this.” Harold Gilliland Nickel passed away in October 2003. He was 64.
Beth remains the proprietress of the Nickel operations, along with her partners Erik Nickel, Jeremy Nickel, Dirk Hampson and Larry Maguire. Far Niente, Dolce, Nickel & Nickel, and a new vineyard, EnRoute, require much of her time and attention. Beth refers to the wines as her “children,” saying: “When they’re young they charm you with their freshness and naiveté. When they get a little older they can occasionally act up and embarrass you in front of company. Then finally, as they reach maturity, they amaze you with their sophistication.”
When pressed to name her personal favorites, Beth chuckles, insisting: “I’m fond of ALL my children. But a few are a bit special,” she admits, and lists these Far Niente offspring:
1979 Chardonnay – The first vintage
1982 Cabernet Sauvignon – The first Cabernet blend produced
1985 Cabernet Sauvignon – A wine critics’ choice that demonstrated how well Far Niente wines age.
1990 Chardonnay – An especially superb vintage and another critics’ choice.
2007 Cabernet Sauvignon – Highly regarded for its rich berry and smoke flavors
2009 Chardonnay – A beautiful blend of stone fruit and butterscotch flavors
When she’s not dealing with her many vineyards, Beth enjoys camping and backpacking. Favorite destinations include Yosemite National Park, which is a few hours drive from Napa.
Beth also continues to visit Europe. Italy is high on her list of destinations, since she and Gil had a home off Lake Como. Many of Beth’s overseas travels involve her humanitarian projects in India, Nepal, and Tibet. Children’s charities, both abroad and at home, are of special interest. Additionally, she works to support the Gil Nickel Foundation for Melanoma Research at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
For more information and appointments, contact Far Niente or call: (707) 944-2861.