The wrought-iron gates of the Far Niente Napa Valley Wine Estate open to welcome visitors into a magical setting that feels miles removed from the busy St. Helena Highway 29. Far Niente, from the Italian “without a care,” was named for those words found carved in stone on the front of the building. And really, what better way to spend an afternoon touring this luxe winery than “without a care” – ?! This tour marked the second of our six stops in Napa Valley.
The winery looks like a French country house and gardens or a manor home a Jane Austen character might inhabit. The Far Niente winery produces around 37,000 cases annually of estate-bottled Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The related Dolce Winery produces 800-3,500 cases annually, depending on Mother Nature. At fewer than 50,000 cases, the winery is considered to be small by Napa Valley’s standards. Far Niente was established as a winery in 1885 by John Benson, a Forty-Niner of the California Gold Rush, and uncle of American painter Winslow Homer. The winery closed in 1919 due to Prohibition and sat vacant for 60 years.
In 1979, Gil and Beth Nickel, then working in the family’s Greenleaf Nursery business in Oklahoma, purchased what had become a stone shell of the old winery and spent three years restoring the property. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Using mining equipment from Wales, they dug the first North American wine caves in the 20th century, and set about creating an exquisite wine estate that produces Old World-style wines.
Far Niente Chardonnay is a premium American wine. Years ago I purchased a bottle as a gift for a Chardonnay-loving friend at the suggestion of the staff at Argonaut Wine & Liquor in Denver. While in the checkout line, passersby commented on how good Far Niente is. Since that time I have come to appreciate that a taste of Far Niente is always a treat.
We entered the house and were welcomed by a board listing by name all of the people who would be touring that day. The level of detail in having a staff member pin every letter of every name to the board was carried throughout the winery, from the impeccable dining/tasting rooms, to the tank room and barrel cellar, aging caves, wine library, and antique car collection. Yes, a small car collection of shiny cars from Europe and America! The family continues to drive them, so the garage is an active storage space rather than a museum.
Our group headed to the cellar where the stainless steel tanks and oak barrels were stored. The wine is fermented in steel tanks, then transferred to oak barrels to age. The 40,000 acres of wine caves hold 3,500 barrels.
The winery’s sustainable farming practices include using pheromones to trap wasps and yellow jackets. Pests are especially challenging when the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (blended in Dolce) are still on the vine, concentrating their fruit and acquiring the Botrytis mold. This “noble rot” insulates the fruit from the late-season elements. Keeping the pests away without damaging or altering the delicate fruit is crucial.
The winery is a net-zero user of electricity because their floating solar farm produces more power than the winery needs to function. The winery is farmed organically. Water used in the vineyards for irrigation and frost protection is recycled.
Our tasting included:
* 2012 Estate Bottled Chardonnay – bright and elegant, with citrus, pear, and vanilla. All elements were present: a balance of fruit, acid, and oak. The wine does not undergo malolactic fermentation, leaving it crisp and clean. The pale straw-colored wine was balanced and would pair well with a number of foods.
* 2011 Cave Collection Chardonnay – an excellent example of how time can blend the elements of a wine. This wine was smooth and creamy, and integrated the fruit, acid, and oak. A classic. The Chardonnay wines were paired with Abbaye de Belloc sheep’s milk cheese. This cheese comes from the Pyrenees region of France.
* 2011 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville – this wine was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, and 1% Cabernet Franc. The weather that year was cool, so the fruit and its corresponding wine were more subtle and nuanced.
* 2009 Cave Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville – age can work wonders! This wine offered blackberry, boysenberry, and licorice on the nose. It was velvety on the palate, with good tannins and deep spice. The Cabernet Sauvignon wines were paired with Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold, a cow’s milk cheese that smelled of toasted nuts.
* 2007 Dolce – Heaven. This Sauternes-style dessert nectar has been called America’s answer to Chateau d’Yquem. It can be produced only when the weather has not been too hot or too rainy, or the Botrytis mold – “noble rot”– may not develop. The clusters of Semillon and Sauvignon grapes are picked and sorted by hand, then sniffed for any hints of vinegar or other spoilage. A wasp or yellowjacket could have taken a bite and the whole cluster would be unusable. Dolce is crafted using this labor-intensive winemaking process, and the care shows in the “liquid gold” in the glass. We sampled Dolce with Bleu d’Auvergne, which offered a rich complement to the pungent cheese. Delicious!
Dolce was introduced in 1989. It was a quick hit and developed a devoted following. Made from 90% Semillon and 10% Sauvignon Blanc, it was aged for 2 years in French Oak. As the wine has been described: “perfection in a bottle.”
Until our next adventure in wine and food…
1350 Acacia Drive
Oakville, CA 94562