When it came to quality, Gil Nickel liked plenty of it.
Nickel was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1939. His family ran a nursery business, which grew to be the second-largest garden supply company in America. After graduating from his state university in 1961 with a degree in physics and mathematics, Nickel worked as a guided missile analyst at the Navy’s Corona, California base. That assignment left an indelible impression of the Golden State.
In 1976, Nickel’s new-found love for wine caused him to leave the family nursery business and return to California, where three years later, he purchased Far Niente winery in Napa Valley. Abandoned for 60 years, the landmark 1885 stone building required extensive renovations.
Nickel rebuilt Far Niente (which means “without a care” or “do nothing” in Italian) into a showcase winery with extensive gardens and a museum for his collection of vintage race cars (one of which he drove to the championship of the European Historic Car race in 1995). In 1982, Far Niente was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Nickel made his own history when he excavated wine storage caves at Far Niente—the first in 20th-century America. From those dark, cool and damp rooms came the winery’s signature chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
Early this summer, Bruce Mooers, president of Nickel & Nickel, presented the most recent vintages of Far Niente and sister winery, Nickel & Nickel. We began with the 2015 Far Niente Estate Chardonnay Napa Valley.
In a world with too many oaky, buttery chardonnays, winemaker Nicole Marchesi produced a gold-tinted, mild oak, melon and apple-scented wine. With no malolactic fermentation the process of changing the grape’s natural acidity (think Granny Smith apple), to the softer lactic acid (think milk), the wine retains a pleasing minerality that highlights the honeydew melon and apple-flavored fruit. The only distraction is a noticeable alcohol aftertaste. 88 points. Retail pricing ranges from a normal $45 to an over-the-top $85.
Far Niente’s cabernet sauvignon is from its Martin Stelling vineyard, named for the former owner of the gravelly soil vineyard behind the winery that Nickel purchased and replanted in 1978.
The 2014 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Napa Valley has an opaque black-cherry hue and aromas of vanilla and blackberry. A noticeable tannin backbone supports the blackberry-flavored fruit that carries a dry, stony accent. This wine needs two or three years cellaring to meld all its parts. 90 points. As with the chardonnay, the price range of the cabernet sauvignon is expansive: from $115 to a non-competitive $200.
Dolce is Gil Nickel’s tribute to Bordeaux’s Chateau d’Yquem. In 1985, Nickel and his winemaker-partner Dirk Hampson, decided to produce a world-class dessert wine—something no one was attempted in Napa Valley. They established a separate winemaking facility in Far Niente for Dolce (Italian meaning: “It is sweet to do nothing”).
They purchased 20 acres at the base of the Vaca Mountains, at the eastern border of Napa Valley, planting 17 with semillon and sauvignon blanc. In autumn, damp fog covers the vineyard until late morning, then afternoon sun provides warmth, creating the condition for the fungus Botrytis cinerea to infect the grapes. Over the course of five to six weeks, the noble rot shrivels the grapes, concentrating the fruit’s sugar, flavors and acidity. If the conditions are not ideal, however, the year’s entire crop is lost.
Each grape is inspected for perfection: In a normal year 80% are rejected because the botrytis has turned to the destructive grey rot, or the grape was attacked by yellow jackets—who leave a bitter liquid after piercing the grape’s skin and extracting their fill of its nectar.
From its November harvest to bottling, the ambrosial 2010 Dolce Napa Valley was coddled for 30 months in new French oak barrels. It seemed to me that I spent a proportionate time inhaling the waves of apricot, honey, peach, melon and mango aromas rising from my glass. As captivating as they were, the intense flavors of orange, honey and crème brulee flowed across my palate with an undercurrent of acidity that eliminated any cloying aftertaste. The 2010 Dolce is a remarkable wine. 94 points. Bottled only in 375ml, Dolce also has a wine price range: from $50 to $100, shop accordingly.
As the concept of single-vineyard wines took hold of American wine consumers’ consciousness in the 1990s, Nickel decided to create a new winery for that purpose, while retaining Far Niente’s chateau concept of making only an estate wine. Joined by Gil’s 22-year-old son Jeremy, Nickel & Nickel winery was created and released its first wine in 1997.
Nickel & Nickel produces a plethora of single-vineyard wines from its Oakville vineyard, and vineyards it leases, then staffs with its team that farms and manages each. This complete hands-on approach (instead of buying grapes from growers) gives Nickel & Nickel total quality control.
The 2015 Nickel & Nickel Chardonnay High-Line Vineyard Russian River Valley is from an 8-acre plot that the winery farms in the 50-acre vineyard. There is a sea-salt aspect to the aroma and flavor of this very well-made chardonnay. It has less oak and alcohol presence than the Far Niente version; the white flower and fruit aromas are immediately appealing, and the apple flavor is balanced with a mild citrus accent and acidity. It is a delightful wine. 92 points. Retail pricing is $42 to $45.
Ever since the comic movie Sideways, merlot has been a punchline. But the 2014 Nickel & Nickel Merlot Bear Flat Vineyard Oak Knoll District is no joke.
The opaque black-cherry hue, and pronounced cherry and white pepper aromas are pleasing introductions to this black cherry- and blueberry-flavored wine. The soft tannins and a mild acidity give the Bear Flat vineyard merlot a juicy texture and instant pleasure. 89 points. Price ranges from $46 to $69; consider buying below $60.
Decades ago, Bella Oaks gained its fame from the excellent Heitz Cellars Bella Oaks cabernet sauvignon. Nickel & Nickel’s 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Quicksilver Vineyard Rutherford Napa Valley is upholding that reputation with its wine from the Quicksilver vineyard on Bella Oaks Lane.
Its black-fruit aroma and flavor is accented with a Darjeeling tea character and a dusty, soil undercurrent typical of Bella Oaks and Rutherford cabernets. The Bordeaux-style medium body was a pleasant surprise and recalled the winemaking style of Joe Heitz (Heitz Wine Cellars). This very pleasing wine is ideal for your next dinner with grilled lamb chops or steaks. 90 points. Retail prices range from $85 to $115; consider buying at under $100.
2014 Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Sauvignon Sullenger Vineyard Oakville Napa Valley hails from a 1865 farm established in Oakville by John C. Sullenger. It is now the home vineyard for Nickel & Nickel.
This impressive wine from the 28-acre vineyard delivers black-cherry and black-olive aromas and flavors, embellished with dried-oregano and mineral scents and tastes. With the mouthfeel of a St. Julien wine and a granite, stony backbone, the 2014 Sullenger vineyard cabernet is cellar quality. I suggest putting it there for a year or two, then enjoying it over the next decade. 92 points. Prices range from $80 to $129. Consider buying at under $110.
Nickel lived long enough to see the completion of his eponymous winery. Today it and Far Niente are run by his original partners Dirk Hampson, Larry Maguire, and his widow Beth Nickel; along with his nephew Erik Nickel. Since 2016, investment company GI Partners owns a controlling share. Fortunately, this new team has maintained Nickel’s standards.
Photos by John Foy