Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Far Niente Winery

Far Niente is an amazing winery in a beautiful, romantic setting with lovely gardens and fountains and fantastic wines. The land constituting Far Niente was originally part of Rancho Caymus, the land grant owned by George Yount.  John Benson, an uncle of the famous artist Winslow Homer, had come to California during the 49er gold rush and in 1871 purchased 306 acres around Far Niente. By 1876 he produced 15,000 gallons of wine.  In the early 1880s he decided he wanted a modern state of the art winery, however, and began to build a native stone, three story winery on the site that is now Far Niente.  This included the new concept of concrete floors instead of dirt and a new type of double roof with wood inside the exterior metal roof with an air space in between to provide insulation and to afford relief from the dripping condensation of metal roofs. He hired the architect Hamden McIntyre who had designed the Christian Brothers Winery (now the Culinary Institute) and Gustav Niebaum Winery (now Inglenook Winery) and the building was completed in 1885. On October 4 1889 the Napa Register issued an article about Far Niente mentioning that they did not "sell in quantities"  but made "wines only of the first quality." That comment certainly remains valid today.  Benson died in 1910 and the winery was run by his nieces until 1918 when it was sold.  It quit producing wine in 1919 with the arrival of Prohibition and would not produce wines again for another sixty years. After having numerous owners between 1918 and 1943, it was purchased by Martin Stelling Jr. in 1943 when he also acquired the now famous To Kalon vineyard.  His son eventually sold the abandoned vineyard and what remained of the dilapidated old winery to Gil and Beth Nickel in 1979 and they moved out here from Oklahoma to pursue their dream of having a winery after having developed a very successful family wholesale nursery business. Gil Nichols, who had a degree in physics and math and had also worked as a guided missile analyst, died in 2003. His wife, Beth Nickel, remains actively involved with the wineries.

Entry to tasting room
In 1979 the Nickel family also purchased 100 acres of vineyard, known as Estate Martin Stelling Vineyard (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot). Other vineyards added over the years were the 42 acre John Cl Sullenger Vineyard near Opus One (Cabernet Sauvignon) and some vineyards in the Coombsville AVA including the 25 acre Carpenter Vineyard (Chardonnay), the 18 acre Barrow Lane Vineyard (Chardonnay) and the 50 acre Johns Creek Vineyard (Chardonnay). The winery now owns a total of approximately 250 vineyard acres.  About thirty to thirty-five thousand cases are produced yearly with two thirds of this being Chardonnay.

Tasting room

Instead of tearing the old winery building down in 1979, as most locals thought would be done, the Nichols rebuilt it. Over a three year period, from 1979 to 1982, the three story historical building was completely restored and gradually thirteen acres of the property were beautifully landscaped with ponds, fountains, walking paths and gardens, including over 8,000 azaleas that, when in bloom in May, can be seen from Highway 29 nearly a mile away.  Far Niente was also the first U.S. winery in the the twentieth century to construct new wine caves.  The initial 60 foot long cave created in 1980 was eventually expanded in 1991, 1995 and 2001 to 40,000 square feet of wine caves.  The winery building is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  All the power for the winery comes from solar panels, about three acres of them.


Far Niente first release of a Cabernet Sauvignon was the 1982 vintage, although a warehouse in Sausalito had been used for release of a Chardonnay under the Far Niente label for vintages 1979, 1980 and 1981.  They continue to focus primarily on these two varietals.  Far Niente opened to the public in 2004.  Visits, tastings and tours are by appointment only and sometimes require several weeks to a month or more advance notice.  The Nickel family and their partners also own the wineries Dolce, Nickel & Nickel and En Route. Dolce (created in 1992) offers a late harvest white desert wine.  Nickel & Nickel (opened in 1997) specializes in single vineyard wines.  En Route focuses on  Russian River Pinot Noirs.  Of the three, only Nickel & Nickel is open to the public.

Wine caves

Far Niente is in the Oakville AVA on the west side, near the famous cult winery Harlan Estate.  This is prime property in one of the most prestigious wine AVAs in the world, noted especially for superb Cabernet Sauvignon.  The name "Far Niente" is Italian for "without care."  The words were found carved in stone on the front of the building when it was purchased by the Nickels and had been part of the original name of the winery which was "In Dolce Far Niente" or "sweet doing nothing."  In 1998 a bottle of Far Niente Sweet Muscat from 1886 was located in a private cellar in Marin County.  It is considered to be the oldest bottle of intact California wine in existence.  The label on this bottle was designed by Benson's nephew, Winslow Homer.  The current Far Niente wine label is a lovely, detailed art nouveau like design that was designed by the artist Tom Rodrigues in 1979.

Lovely labels

Far Niente is also well known for its vintage car collection which is located in the old stone carriage house referred to as "Gil's Place." Gil Nickel use to race cars and actually won the FIA European Championship in 1995 racing a 1962 Lotus 23B.  The collection features his 1951 Ferrari 340 American roadster with its Vignale spider body that he use to race at Sears Point.  Also included are a 1966 Ferrari 500 Superfast, a 1961 Corvette roadster, a 1994 Bentley Continental R, a 1935 Bentley 3.5 liter Sports Saloon, a 1972 Ferrari Daytona, a 1990 Ferrari Testarossa, a London taxi cab, etc.

Auto collection

The interesting and animated tour lasts about 60+ minutes and includes a walk through the tri-level historic winery, a viewing of some of the 40,000 square feet of wine caves and a visit to the Carriage House with its exhibit of classic automobiles.  Bring a camera because there are many photo opportunities and the tour guide will offer to take photos of couples or groups at strategic places along the way.  The tour is followed by a tasting at the table where glasses are already poured and each person has his or her own cheese plate.  The extensive tour and tasting is $50 but well worth it.  One tasting fee is waived with every six bottles purchase. It is all very impressive, well coordinated, friendly and basically the ultimate in a tasting tour.  Your name is even listed on a welcoming board when you arrive. It is all really quite amazing.  Much thanks to Vincent for a very informative, enthusiastic and highly professional tour.

Barrel room

The wine tasting is conducted at a table in the historic building where one sits comfortably in front of a plate of seasonal cheeses that are paired to five wines that have been just previously been poured into sparkling glasses.  One may compare and contrast the two Chardonnays and the two Cabernet Sauvignons, going back and forth, sampling with and without cheese.  There is plenty of room at the table to take notes and look through brochures while relaxing, and ample time to ask as many questions as you like.  Staff at Far Niente obviously care deeply about their wines and do everything they can to afford a perfect setting for tasting them.  The setting and hospitality could spoil a person or make one reluctant to return to stand up tasting bars, crowded or noisy tasting rooms or wines that don't quite make the grade.  It is no surprise that Far Niente uses only their finest grapes each year and sells off the rest to other producers.  Everything about the winery, tour and wines is about perfection. 

Our tasting began with a pair of Chardonnays, the Far Niente 2011 Napa Valley Estate Bottled Chardonnay at $63 and the Far Niente 2010 Napa Valley Cave Collection Chardonnay at $70.  These were paired with one of my very favorite cheeses, Abbaye de Belloc.  The 2011 saw nine months sur lie in 66% new French oak.  It was a sparkling light gold in color.  The aroma of medium intensity was heavenly.  I got some flinty minerality, something I usually only find in high end white French Burgundies.  There was also pear and white peach on the complex nose.  On the palate it was lush, complex and intense with great body and structure, while being extremely well balanced, with pear, green apple, orange blossom, toasted oak and nuanced minerality.  The finish was medium to long in length and very clean and fresh.  This Chard saw no malolatic conversion and certainly needed none.  The oak is there but not excessive.  This is a great wine; it should be receiving scores from wine critics in the mid 90s.  In my tasting notes I rated it 95 points. As great as it is right now, it would be perfect to cellar, allowing it to become even more complex in years to come.  The 2010 is quite good but less exalted.  I got light lemon on the nose and soft lemon and citrus on the palate with some honeysuckle and almonds.  It had a good medium length finish.  It is a very good Chard but does not have the minerality and complexity of the 2011. The Far Niente 2011 Napa Valley Estate Chardonnay is a fabulous wine and one of the finest California Chardonnays I've had the pleasure of tasting  in the past forty years. 

Tasting table

The two Cabs were up next and were paired with Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold cheese.  The first was the Far Niente 2010 Oakville Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon at $135.  A lovely deep purplish in color, it had a great nose of mostly blackberry, black currant and vanilla.  On the palate it was fairly full bodied but still smooth and balanced with black cherry, black currant and toasted oak. The chalky tannins were amazing and reminded me of the tannins in the Oakville Ranch 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon I had tasted two weeks prior.  The finish was medium length and pleasantly fresh and fruity.  This is still a young wine, although it is quite drinkable now.  It is a very nice Cab. The Far Niente 2005 Oakville Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignon ($175), however, is in another league.  This is a great Cabernet in every respect!  I must confess that I am very fond of many 2005 Napa Valley Cabernets.  Many people raved about 2007, and that was a very good year, but the 2005s have taken time to come around, with many of the bigger, more tannic ones developing more complexity and subtlety with age. Of course this is a generality with many exceptions.  Again we had a great aroma but this time it was more complex and layered, the aroma of a more mature wine with some cedar, leather, cigarbox, black currant and blackberry.  It had great body, texture and structure with black cherry, black currant, forest floor, dark chocolate and fabulous, chalky tannins that were perfectly balanced in a complex presentation that epitomizes greatness.  The finish is very long and lovely.  I suspect this is a wine that has taken a time to develop and was quite different a few years or even a few months ago.  I think that most wine critics drinking this today would be rating it in the high nineties.  In my tasting notes I rated it 97 points. There is so much going on with it; I'd love to sit down with a bottle and do an extensive evaluation and review. The Far Niente 2005 Oakville Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignon  is a great Cabernet and is easily worth the price tag.  Cabs of this quality are what have made Napa Valley so famous. 

Fountains and garden

The final pour was the Dolce 2007 Napa Valley Late Harvest Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc  ($85 a half bottle.)  This is 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc and is in the style of a great French Sauterne.  (Such as the famous Chateau d'Yquem.)  The grapes that are used with this wine are allowed to over ripen and to develop botrytis, a mold that can be highly desirable in grapes.  Grapes with botrytis are often used in French Sauternes and some German and Austrian Rieslings.  Botrytis is frequently referred to as the "noble rot" and gives the wine an earthy complexity that is loved by many wine lovers, including myself.  Wines such as Dolce may be cellared for dozens of years and usually keep getting better, developing into more subtle, complex and interesting wines.  I've tasted and enjoyed many Premier Cru French Sauternes and love a great Trockenbeernauslese, but I generally avoid American sweet wines, finding most of them to be too simplistic and cloyingly sweet without the necessary acid, structure, balance or complexity.  This Far Niente 2007 Dolce is in another league, even another world, compared to most American desert or late harvest wines and is the finest American late harvest white wine I've ever tasted.  It reminded me of some of the great French Sauternes I've had in the past.  Dolce is like an American version of Chateau d'Yquem.  This wine is still youthful and fruity but it has the body and structure to allow it to age to be even more complex and interesting.  With sweet peach, pineapple and a hint of orange peel on the palate, it is silky, intense, beautifully balanced and layered to make a complex, fascinating wine.  Even if you do not ordinarily like late harvest white wines, you should try some Dolce just to experience how good they can be.  It paired beautifully with the blue cheese called Bleu d'Auvergne.  Wine Enthusiast, by the way, rated this 2007 Dolce at 96 points and the 2006 at 98.  In my tasting notes I rated it 97 points. Dolce makes an amazing wine.

We especially recommend the Far Niente 2011 Napa Valley Estate Bottled Chardonnay, the Far Niente 2005 Oakville Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignon and the Far Niente Dolce 2007, although all five of the wines we tasted were very good.  Far Niente produces wines that will cellar really well, and I suspect some of their older, library wines are incredible; it would be the ideal winery for a vertical tasting.  Far Niente is a winery you should definitely visit even if you are only able to visit one or two wineries in all of Napa Valley.  Yes, it really is that special!  Much thanks to Rachelle Newbold, Donna Blevins and Vincent for their wonderful hospitality.

1350 Acacia Drive
Oakville, CA 94562
(707) 944-2861
Date of visit: July 10, 2013
Please call or check the Far Niente webpage for the most current information.  As of July 10, 2013 their webpage indicated:
"Wine Tasting & Tour Visitors
Far Niente is open to the public, by appointment
Wine Tasting & Tour Hours
Business Hours: Monday - Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Tour and Tastings by Appointment: Monday - Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Tour and tasting of five wines, including current release and library vintages, with a seasonal cheese pairing: $65 per person.
Wine club members receive complimentary tours and tastings for up to a party of four. Guests may sign up for the club at the winery, or online."

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