AWG Correspondent

Mark and Sonja

Far Niente Winery Photos

Far Niente Winery Review

Regions: Napa Valley AVA, Oakville AVA, California

Reviewed: March 7, 2016 by Mark and Sonja
Published: July 12, 2016

The “noble experiment” that was Prohibition, the result of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, lasted from 1919 to 1933 and did irreparable damage on multiple fronts. To the economy as well as to the personal welfare of many early vintners and distillers, Prohibition shut down all but a couple of select wineries that managed to find a loophole in the law by producing communion wines for sacramental purposes. And to the American wine drinker, who rather than go without wine began producing his own wines in his bathtub using whatever grapes he could scrounge up and pounds upon pounds of sugar, the 18th Amendment destroyed his palate, as over the course of fourteen years he became accustomed to his own swill until he could no longer tell the difference.

Today, Far Niente, which had been founded in 1885 and three and a half decades later fell victim to Prohibition, has been gloriously reopened and seeks to correct both of those issues, producing nothing but some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in the Valley. Gil Nickel and his wife Beth came to the Valley in 1976. Gil, a rocket scientist, the term here used literally rather than as a euphemism for genius, grew tired of his work and began producing wine in his San Francisco apartment. He audited courses at UC Davis and was the first American ever to apprentice at the famed Chateau Mouton Rothschild in France’s Bordeaux region. Having studied at length, he entered his wines into local competitions, and people immediately began to take note of his skill and aptitude for winemaking.

Shortly thereafter, in 1979, he purchased the Far Niente winery, then a dilapidated ruin, and went to work reestablishing it. He did a remarkable job, and the evidence can be viewed by any and all who visit the establishment today. Though Gil succumbed to cancer in 2003, his wife still lives on the premises, and his fingerprints are all over the incredible winery that he resurrected with only gumption and his two bare hands.

A tour of the winery begins the moment you approach the immaculately-kept estate, and are “buzzed through” the large, swinging metal gates. The estate itself sits on a hillside, almost directly behind the iconic “Welcome to the world famous winegrowing region: Napa Valley” sign on Highway 29, which once bore the names of prominent vintners, and today displays a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson who, like my wife and I, honeymooned there. (To be fair, he did it first.)

Once on the grounds, one can stroll beautiful gardens, take a look at Gil’s impressive collection of antique cars, and traverse the vast, winding caves dug into the side of the mountain on which Far Niente sits. The caves are immaculate, beginning with a staggering barrel room full of stacked French oak that all serves but one purpose. Deep down, the tour leads to a library of dusty old bottles dating back to some of the winery’s earliest vintages. In a quiet little alcove, our hostess removed a bottle of white wine with an unfamiliar label and set it on the table in the middle of the rather gothic-looking, round library room. It was a bottle of Gil’s apartment-crafted Chardonnay that had scored highly in local competitions, a wine that one might argue started it all.

Further still in the elaborate system of tunnels is a side room with its own ornate iron gate. This, we were told, was Dolce, itself by law an independent winery and an operation autonomous of Far Niente. For that reason, we could not tour it, though the view of bottle after bottle of late-harvest manna resting behind the gate was indeed a serious temptation.

Back upstairs, we began our tasting. Tastings are intimate at Far Niente, a winery that sees so few people on a daily basis that our names and those of other guests appeared upon a chalkboard sentry that greets visitors inside the front doors. In a quaint, elegantly decorated side room, our tasting was conducted. There, we tasted through a couple different vintages of creamy, delicate Chardonnay, a couple more of rich, bold Cabernet Sauvignon, and finally, Dolce, each paired with exquisite cheeses that truly helped to bring about the best in every wine. While tasting, we conversed at length with out hostess, and were enthralled by her stories of the Nickel Family and the estate they had inhabited. It was an enjoyable visit, and we wound up staying longer than we had intended.

“Far Niente” translates loosely into “without a care” in the native Italian of those viticultural pioneers who founded the winery well over a hundred years ago. In one sense, it’s a rather unbefitting expression for a place in which only the greatest care is taken in producing but two extraordinary wines, yet in another way, it’s the perfect mantra for a place of serene beauty in which a person may relax and imbibe on wonderful Cabernet with some of the best views in the entire valley. For the armchair historian of the Napa Valley, few places have more to offer in terms of heritage and intrigue, making Far Niente a must-visit winery for the connoisseur of Napa Valley’s two best–loved varietals.

By Mark Gudgel, Photographs by Sonja Gudgel

Address & Contact Information: 1350 Acacia Drive Napa, California 94558. Telephone: 707-944-2861, email:, website: Tasting Hours: By appt. Mon-Sun 10:00-3:00.

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