There was a lot of excitement in the 1970s in the Napa Valley, when the outside wine world began to whisper about this seemingly harsh place filled with farms and people on earth, who began to gain international attention for the wines they grew and made. Some felt that Napa Valley would not be able to exploit the great potential that the winning Napa wines in the Paris judgment referred to in 1976, while others were filled with euphoric joy over the future of Napa Valley wines. Napa may not have had the long historical reverence held by European wine regions, but it was filled with a diverse group of people who had no rules, lots of untapped potential, and passionate dreamers willing to share everything they learned along the way. with their neighbors. At that time, it became the place where the winery door was opened to anyone willing to put in the work and make the hard commitment, regardless of their background or family, and so in 1979 Beth and Gil Nickel left their home in Oklahoma in 1979 with the dream of to make the best Chardonnay in the United States.
When Beth Nickel looks back on the time she came out to Napa with her late husband Gil, she talks about the sleepy little place it was with none of the amazing restaurants or luxury resorts Napa has today, but still Beth and Gil both immediately fell in love with the natural beauty of the Napa Valley as well as the dream that they could produce some of the greatest wines in the world. And in her mind, there was no other person who was more ready for such an enormous challenge than Gil Nickel, who from a very early age seemed to be able to accomplish everything he wanted to achieve.
And then these two Oklahomans, both from non-wine-farming families who owned nurseries, traveled west to fulfill Gil’s plan to have a world-class winery; not only would this achievement become a reality, but Father Niente Chardonnay would sometimes go against the convention in his quest to preserve the quality of the overall finesse and freshness while having one of the most unforgettable wine brands in the world.
Nickels had searched several properties back in ’79, some with vineyards and vineyards on them, and others that only had the land, and over time they realized what they did not want, as well as realized what they were doing, and their search led them eventually to a stone building that had been abandoned for six decades, and Beth noticed that it looked like that. “There was no window or door on the site,” Beth described the dilapidated building, as it was a winery called Far Niente, created in 1885, with the name carved into the stone building, and it closed when the ban began in January 1920. It would take a few years to restore the stone building as well as complete the new winery, and so until then Beth and Gil Chardonnay bought Napa grapes and had them tailored at a nearby Napa winery and then had the juice transported in refrigerated tanks to a garage winery, they used in Sausalito, California (across the Golden Gate Strait from San Francisco).
Beth noted that her husband had studied winemaking at UC Davis, but he was also smart enough to hire people who were smarter than him, such as seeking help from André Tchelistcheff (the most influential wine producer by ban) and Chuck Ortman (a of the first winemakers to demonstrate the benefits of fermenting Chardonnay in California) and she said they were the key to keeping her and her husband focused “on the right track” when it comes to making their first vintage of Chardonnay in 1979.
A wine brand that got attention
With the wine in mind, it was time to start imagining the label, and Gil wanted something that would live up to some of France’s top wines, but it also had to stand out as the unknown name Far Niente was too difficult. to pronounce and then he would have people to see it across the room in a retail store as well as evoke the feeling that this wine shot after the stars with regard to being one of the best. And so Beth and Gil had a competition among local artists to create the label; a couple came in with great presentations, and then Tom Rodrigues, an artist known for stained glass design, finally came in, and he had only created a previous brand, and that was for a friend’s marijuana business. Tom pulled out a piece of paper and folded it out a few times and held it up, saying, ‘I thought it would look like this’ and look, with the exception of some font changes and updates to the building design throughout the year by Tom himself, it is the design still found on the bottle today. And in terms of practical purposes, it was no picnic to print as it underwent 13 different pressure passes in the early days of Far Niente, though it got a lot of attention right outside the bat.
Beth noted that they knew they had come off on the right foot when Far Niente Chardonnay from their first vintage already got media coverage by boasting the cover of a wine magazine as well as being named one of the finest Chardonnay wines from vintage. Although the label itself was an incredible feat to pull off, it was still only one aspect of the expertise that Gil would constantly push for.
Fineness, freshness and structure
Dirk Hampson, chairman and director of the emeritus for winemaking for Far Niente, and Larry Maguire, emeritus president and vice president of Far Niente, who both started on the newly renovated Far Niente property nearly 40 years ago, could testify to Gil’s leadership in always striving after the ideal Chardonnay and then finally bring it to their Cabernet Sauvignon. When Far Niente Chardonnay was first made, only a handful of barrels of fermented Chardonnay wines were made in Napa, and the idea that Far Niente Chardonnay was aged on its carrier (yeast particles left over after fermentation) can adding complexity and in the early 80s was considered “radical and dangerous” in California according to Dirk.
And Dirk added that although they have certainly taken advantage over the years to find more precision with their techniques in the vineyard as well as to buy more ideal fruit for their Chardonnay from Napa Valley Vineyards in Coombsville, a cooler growing area in Napa, that their philosophy of finding a beautiful balance that was originally motivated by some of the greatest Chardonnay wines from Burgundy has never wavered. But he explained that they would not just do the exact techniques as some of the best Burgundy producers, such as allowing malolactic fermentation (bacterial conversion that reduces the amount of the acidic malic acid by converting it to softer lactic acid, potentially adding weight and dairy-like flavors), but Dirk noted that malolatic fermentation (MLF) in their minds did not make sense for Chardonnay grapes sourced from warmer Napa vineyards. The team at Far Niente had no problem achieving sufficient maturity unlike Burgundy at the time and they wanted to keep the fresh acid they already had so they blocked MLF. Even when trends with big, buttery Napa Chardonnay dominated the markets, Father Niente kept true to always blocking MLF for their Chardonnay, as Gil and his team were determined to keep a Chardonnay with finesse and freshness that was a good food wine.
The brand’s challenges
In addition to the practical challenges that the sticker presented, there were certainly perception issues, as some felt it was “garish back in the ’80s,” as Dirk noted, and Larry chimed in that his friends used to tease him that it ” was powered by batteries. ” Larry also went on to say that when Far Niente Chardonnay was known as a “big name Chardonnay”, it sometimes translated to it being literally “a big Chardonnay”, which was in fact the opposite of what the wine was in the bottle. So it’s a wine that can catch some people on guard, as some who have already tried it before will notice that they remember it was a larger wine and forget that it was always “beautifully balanced” enough to to enjoy a meal according to Larry.
But Dirk said that when people first realized that they were not just about the brand, and they were really about manically striving each year to get closer to producing one of the greatest Chardonnay wines, that was when respect grew among their colleagues. And Dirk, a former winemaker at Far Niente, feels that they are getting closer and closer to Beth’s and Gil’s original goals with each passing decade, and that the best wines they have made are right now under the guidance of Nicole Marchesi. the current winemaker in Far Niente. “Nicole and her crew do experiments that are more sophisticated, much more controlled to give them much more precision,” Dirk said.
The thing that Nicole appreciates at Far Niente is the consistency of people, as many members of the team have been there for a long time, when she first came as an oenologist back in 2005 and rose to the position of winemaker in 2009, she was lucky to have a basement master who had already been there for 20 years, even then. And for her, people’s consistency is intertwined with the consistency of curiosity that constantly drives them all, and on any given day it can manifest itself in attempts at new yeasts or tank fermentations or skin contact versus no skin contact. And even though she had never worked with Gil, she knows it started with him, as she has found pages and pages of notes written in brown acumen, there were questions about the grapes’ clone material, where to plant them, and so on. .
“I can still sit there and get high blood pressure by watching these notes in brown acumen,” Dirk said with a laugh and Larry chimed in, “If there was anything in your inbox written in brown acumen, you better be aware of it . ”
The Father Niente Chardonnay brand is not only one that demands attention, but it is so much more as it represents a man who never compromised and who surrounded himself with people who were willing to go on that journey with relentless curiosity and expertise. Cancer may have taken Gil’s body back in 2003, but his spirit was just too great to ever diminish, and it thrives in every aspect associated with Far Niente, which is a harsh reminder to everyone that they are continuing the mission, the mission to make the greatest Chardonnay.
2016 Far Niente, Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Coombsville, Napa Valley: Stony, crushed stone, white flowers with lemon blossom and juicy nectarine flesh with a touch of nectarine skin and a salty almond note on the expressive finish.
2017 Far Niente, Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Coombsville, Napa Valley: Lemon drop, spicy toast and a calcareous minerality with a good medium-weight with grilled melon flavor and a lasting tone of roasted hazelnuts.
2018 Far Niente Estate Bottle Chardonnay, Coombsville, Napa Valley: Grilled figs with lots of smoky minerality with a touch of nutmeg and cloves with candied ginger and baked apples with a nice richness on the body, balanced by sour acid.
2019 Far Niente Estate bottle Chardonnay, Coombsville, Napa Valley: Honeycomb with crumbled vanilla slices with lively light acidity and a light density with a real wet stone quality that left notes of citrus peel and lemon blossom floating in one’s head.