Far Niente Winery is without question one of the most stunningly beautiful estates in the Napa Valley. It is also one of the more difficult to visit as they require reservations and are often booked weeks in advance. But it is an absolute “must visit” winery, one that has been on my list for a long time.
History and Founders
Due to the consequences of the Prohibition (1920-1933), the Great Depression (1929), and two World Wars (1914-1918, 1939-1945) the California wine culture that began in the 1800’s was devastated and it has taken decades to recover. One of the effects of these events is a forgotten history of the world of wine that existed in the United States, particularly in California. In addition, during the time of California’s wine industry’s dormancy many of the monumental Châteaus, wineries and vineyards fell into disuse and disrepair for decades until the wine renaissance of 1960s-70s came along and these estates began to be restored.
One such magnificent estate is Far Niente. It was founded by John Benson in 1885, a forty-niner of the California gold rush era and uncle of the American impressionist painter, Winslow Homer. The winery was designed by architect Hamden McIntyre who also designed other Napa Valley historical monuments such as Greystone Cellars which later became the Christian Brothers Winery and is now home to the Culinary Institute of America. He also designed the Gustav Niebaum Winery which was later purchased and restored by Francis Ford Coppola which was named Rubicon and then renamed Inglenook Winery. The building of Far Niente was constructed against a hillside in western Oakville with a gravity flow winery which provided a gentler process of moving the grapes through each stage of production. Far Niente is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
It then became the property of his niece Virginia Johnson who inherited Far Niente in the early 1900s and it prospered until the Prohibition at which time the winery ceased to operate and the vineyards were abandoned. More than half a century passed during which time the estate lay fallow and the buildings fell into serious disrepair. But then in 1979, Gil and Beth Nickel purchased the old stone winery. Gil was a physicist with a background in agriculture through his family’s nursery business, relocated to California with a quest to create a world-class Napa Valley wine estate. After discovering the abandoned and crumbling Far Niente winery he purchased the winery and spent 3 years restoring the estate while studying enology and viticulture at the U.C. Davis. During this time the Italian name “Far Niente” (“without a care”) was found embedded in stone on the front of the building which became the name of the winery.
In 1982 Far Niente had their first the harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon and they produced their first Chardonnay. However, their sister winery Nickel and Nickel which made Far Niente Chardonnay in 1979, 1980 and 1981 at a warehouse in Sausalito. These two varietals have become Far Niente’s primary focus.
Dolce - The Sweeter Side of Far Niente
In 1998, a fully intact bottle of the 1886 Far Niente Sweet Muscat was found in a privately owned wine cellar in Marin County and it was reunited with the winery. The bottle still has its the original label, cork and capsule, and is believed to be the oldest intact bottle of California wine in existence today. The label is believed to have been designed by Benson’s nephew, artist Winslow Homer.
In keeping with the history of Far Niente’s sweeter side, they developed a separate winery named Dolce Winery. It is the only winery in North America that is devoted solely to producing a single, Sauterne-style late harvest wine made from Sémillon Sauvignon Blanc, that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. This causes the grapes to become partially raisined, resulting in concentrated and distinctively flavored wines. The very first vintage was made in 1989 and released in 1992 and the wine is available for sampling and purchase at Far Niente.
The most common source for Chardonnays in the Napa Valley is from the Los Carneros AVA (also known as Carneros AVA). Its proximity to the San Pablo Bay provides cool fog and breezes that make the region attractive for the cultivation of cooler climate varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
However, Far Niente derives its Chardonnay not from Carneros, but from Oakville and the Coombsville AVA. Coombsville is one of the newest regions in the Napa Valley which was designated an American Viticultural Area on December 14, 2011. The appellation varies from near sea level at the Napa River on the west to 1,900 feet at the ridge of the Vaca Mountain Range. Like Carneros its proximity to the San Pablo Bay contributes to a temperate climate but it has deeper, well-drained, soils and less wind. The soils are dominated by the volcanic rhyolitic tuff sedimentary rock and lava flows of the Vaca Range on the eastern side of the Napa Valley. It also has wide alluvial deposits of abundant rock, gravel and layers of volcanic ash deposits from Mount George.
Far Niente has five estate vineyards, the largest is The Martin Stelling Vineyard which comprises 100 acres located behind the winery against the western hills of Oakville and borders Martha’s Vineyard, the Mondavi Reserve blocks, and Harlan Estate. The vineyard is planted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petite Verdot on gravelly loam soil. The second is the John C. Sullenger Vineyard in Oakville which consists of 42 acres located on the east side of Highway 29, directly north of Opus One, and across the road from the Robert Mondavi To-Kalon vineyard and it is the home of the Nickel and Nickel winery.
The third vineyard is the 18-acres of the Barrow Lane Vineyard located in Coombsville. Not far away is their fourth source for Chardonnay, the John's Creek Vineyard which consists of 50 acres planted on the slope of the eastern hills. The deep, gravelly loam soil and the vineyard’s southwestern exposure, account for the fruit ripening a full two weeks earlier than Barrow Lane. The fifth vineyard, also in Coombsville, is the 25 acres of the Carpenter Vineyard which is adjacent to John’s Creek and situated at the base of the Vaca mountain range.
After taking a guided tour of the estate and winery I sampled the following wines:
The first wine was the 2011 Estate Bottled Chardonnay. This wine is clear golden-yellow with subtle aromas of lemon blossoms, apples, almond slivers, caramel and a hint of popcorn. On the palate it is medium bodied with mouth-watering acidity and lingering notes of hazelnut on a medium+ length finish. A well-balanced wine that isn’t too oaky or buttery, but not competitively priced at $63 per bottle.
The second pour was the 2010 Cave Collection Chardonnay. This wine is clear golden yellow with just a shimmer of green tint. On the nose it has subtle aromas of yellow apples, honey and just a touch of butter. On the palate it is very delicate, medium bodied with ample acidity and additional notes of hazelnut and pistachio on a lingering finish. Another really well balanced Chardonnay, it sells for a whopping $70 a bottle.
The third wine was the 2005 Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with a small amount of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. This wine is from the library collection and it is clear dark ruby at the core with no obvious signs of aging. On the nose it displays aromas of black currants, old leather, a hint of black pepper, cedar and tobacco. On the palate it is dry with supple tannins, medium body and medium acidity. It is well balanced with good structure and very complex. If anyone believes that Napa Cabs can’t age well this one is sure to dispel the myth. A very nice wine but extremely expensive at $175 per bottle.
The fourth wine was the 2010 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. On the nose it displays aromas of black currants, blackberries, chocolate with hints of black pepper and herbs. On the palate it is fruit forward, very soft on entry with refined tannins, medium body, good structure and hints of sour cherries on a medium length finish. This wine sells for $135 per bottle.
The final wine was 2007 Dolce, a Sauterne-style dessert wine made from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is GOLD in color, clear with thick legs when swirled. On the nose it has seductive aromas of honey, apricots, orange marmalade and graham crackers. On the palate it has medium viscosity, very crisp acidity and is silky on entry with a prolonged finish with hints of hazelnuts on the return. This wine sells for $85 per 375 ml. bottle.
To see more photos, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:
To visit or for more information:
1350 Acacia Drive
Oakville, CA 94562