There was a lot of excitement in the 1970s in Napa Valley as the outside wine world started to whisper about this seemingly rugged place filled with farms and people of the earth that started to get international attention for the wines they were growing and making. Some believed that Napa Valley wouldn’t be able to deliver on the great potential that the winning Napa wines in the Judgment of Paris alluded to in 1976 while others were filled with euphoric joy about the future of Napa Valley wines. Napa may not have had the long historical reverence that European wine regions held yet it was filled with a diverse group of people that had no rules, tons of untapped potential and passionate dreamers who were willing to share everything they learned along the way with their neighbors. At the time it became the place where the winemaking door was opened to anyone who was willing to put in the work and make the fierce commitment, no matter their background or family lineage, and so in 1979 Beth and Gil Nickel left their home in Oklahoma with the dream of making the best Chardonnay in the U.S..
When Beth Nickel looks back at that time, when she came out to Napa with her late husband Gil, she speaks about the sleepy little place it was with none of the fabulous restaurants or high-end resorts Napa has nowadays but nevertheless Beth and Gil both immediately fell in love with the natural beauty of Napa Valley as well as with the dream that they could make some of the greatest wines in the world. And in her mind, there was no other person more ready for such an enormous challenge than Gil Nickel who, from a very early age, seemed like he could accomplish anything he wanted to achieve.
And so these two Oklahomans, both from non-wine agricultural families that owned nurseries, traveled West to fulfill Gil’s plan of having a world class wine estate; not only would that achievement come to fruition but Far Niente Chardonnay would sometimes go against convention in its quest to retain the quality of overall finesse and freshness while also having one of the most unforgettable wine labels in the world.
The Nickels had searched several properties back in ‘79, some with vineyards and wineries on them and others that only had the land, and through time they realized what they didn’t want as well as realized what they did and their search finally led them to a stone building that had been abandoned for six decades and Beth noted that it looked as such. “There wasn’t a window or door in the place,” Beth described the dilapidated building as it was a winery called Far Niente, established in 1885, with its name carved into the stone building, and it closed down once Prohibition started in January 1920. It would take a few years to restore the stone building as well as complete the new winery, and so until that time, Beth and Gil bought Chardonnay Napa grapes and had them custom crushed at a nearby Napa winery and then had the juice trucked 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 U.C. Davis but he was also wise enough to hire people who were smarter than him such as seeking help from André Tchelistcheff (the most influential post-Prohibition winemaker) and Chuck Ortman (one of the first winemakers to demonstrate the benefits of barrel fermenting Chardonnay in California) and she said that they were key in keeping her and her husband focused “on the right path” when it came to making their first vintage of the 1979 Chardonnay.
A Wine Label That Got Attention
When the wine was in the tanks it was time to start envisioning the label and Gil wanted something that would live up to some of the top wines of France yet it also had to stand out as the unknown name of Far Niente was too difficult to pronounce and so he wanted people to see it across the room in a retail store as well as evoke the feeling that this wine was shooting for the stars in regards to being one of the best. And so Beth and Gil had a contest among local artists to create the label; a few came in with big presentations and then Tom Rodrigues, an artist known for stained glass designs, finally came in and he had only created one previous label and that was for a friend’s marijuana enterprise. Tom pulled out a piece of paper and unfolded it a couple of times and held it up and said, ‘I thought it would look like this’ and lo and behold, with the exception of some font changes and updates to the building design throughout the years by Tom himself, that is the design that is still on the bottle today. And in regards to practical purposes it was no picnic to print as it went through 13 different printing passes in the early days of Far Niente although it did get a lot of attention right off the bat.
Beth noted that they knew they had gotten off on the right foot as from their first vintage, Far Niente Chardonnay was already getting media coverage by gracing the cover of a wine magazine as well as being singled out as one of the finest Chardonnay wines of the vintage. Although the label was within itself an incredible feat to pull off, it was still only just one aspect of the excellence that Gil would constantly push for.
Finesse, Freshness and Texture
Dirk Hampson, chairman and director of winemaking emeritus for Far Niente, and Larry Maguire, president emeritus and vice chairman of Far Niente, who both started at the newly renovated Far Niente estate almost 40 years ago, could testify to Gil’s leadership in always striving for the ideal Chardonnay and then eventually bringing that to their Cabernet Sauvignon. When the Far Niente Chardonnay was first being made, it was only part of a few handful of barrel fermented Chardonnay wines being made in Napa and the idea that Far Niente Chardonnay was aged on its lees (yeast particles leftover after fermentation that can add complexity and body) was considered in the early ‘80s to be “radical and dangerous” in California according to Dirk.
And Dirk added that although they certainly have taken advantage, through the years, to find more precision with their techniques in the winery as well as sourcing more ideal fruit for their Chardonnay from Napa Valley vineyards located in Coombsville, a cooler growing area in Napa, that their philosophy to find a beautiful balance that was initially motivated by some of the greatest Chardonnay wines from Burgundy has never wavered. But he explained that they were not going to just do the exact techniques as some of the top Burgundy producers, such as allowing malolactic fermentation (bacteria conversion that lessens the amount of the tart malic acid by converting it into softer lactic acid, potentially adding weight and dairy-like flavors) but Dirk noted that in their minds malolatic fermentation (MLF) didn’t make sense for Chardonnay grapes coming from warmer Napa vineyards. The team at Far Niente had no issue achieving enough ripeness, unlike Burgundy back then, and they wanted to keep the fresh acidity that they already had so they blocked MLF. Even when trends of big, buttery Napa Chardonnay dominated the markets, Far Niente kept true to always blocking MLF for their Chardonnay as Gil and his team were adamantly committed to keeping a Chardonnay with finesse and freshness that was a great food wine.
Challenges of the Label
Besides the practical challenges that the label presented, there were certainly perception issues as some thought it was “garish back in the ‘80s” as Dirk noted and Larry chimed in that his friends used to tease him that it was “operated by batteries.” Larry also continued that since Far Niente Chardonnay was known as a “big name Chardonnay” that it sometimes translated into it being literally “a big Chardonnay” which, in reality, was the opposite of what the wine was in the bottle. So it is a wine that can catch some people off guard as some who have already tried it in the past will remark that they remember it being a bigger wine and forget that it was always “beautifully balanced” enough to enjoy with a meal according to Larry.
But Dirk did say that once people realized that they were not just about the label and they were truly about manically striving every year to coming closer to making one of the greatest Chardonnay wines, that is when respect grew among their colleagues. And Dirk, who used to be the winemaker at Far Niente, feels that they get closer and closer to Beth’s and Gil’s original goal with each decade that passes and that the best wines they have made are right now, under the guidance of Nicole Marchesi, the current winemaker at Far Niente. “Nicole and her crew are doing experiments that are more sophisticated, much more controlled to give them a lot more precision,” said Dirk.
The things that Nicole appreciates at Far Niente is the consistency of people as many members of the team have been there for a long time as when she first arrived as an enologist back in 2005 and rose up to the position of winemaker in 2009, she was fortunate to have a cellar master who had already been there for 20 years, even back then. And for her, the consistency of people is interwoven with the consistency of curiosity that constantly drives all of them and on any given day it can manifest itself into trials for 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 sharpie that were questions about the clonal material of the grapes, where to plant them and so on and so on.
“I can still sit there and get high blood pressure from seeing those notes in brown sharpie,” Dirk said with a laugh and Larry chimed in, “If there was something in your inbox written in brown sharpie you better damn well pay attention to it.”
The Far Niente Chardonnay label 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 of unrelenting curiosity and excellence. Cancer may have taken Gil’s body back in 2003 but his spirit was just too big to ever diminish and it thrives in every facet connected to Far Niente that is a fierce reminder to all that they are continuing the mission, the mission to make the greatest Chardonnay.
2016 Far Niente, Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Coombsville, Napa Valley: Stony, crushed rock, 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, spiced toast and a chalky minerality with a good mid-palate weight with grilled melon flavors and a lasting note of roasted hazelnuts.
2018 Far Niente Estate Bottled 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 racy acidity.
2019 Far Niente Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Coombsville, Napa Valley: Honeycomb with crumbled vanilla wafers with vibrancy of bright acidity and a slight tightness with a real wet stone quality that left notes of citrus rind and lemon blossom wafting in one’s head.
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