Far Niente Winery. The roots of Far Niente date back to 1871 when former gold miner in California’s Gold Rush of 1849, John Benson turned farmer, acquired 300 acres in what is now Napa’s Valley’s Oakville sub appellation. Incidentally John was an uncle of the famous American impressionist painter, Winslow Homer. He raised hay and grain crops as well as grew Muscat grapes (making a sweet Muscat wine) – and records show he made his first wine in 1876 produced at his ranch and small wooden winery about 1.5 miles south from Far Niente’s current location. In the early 1880’s John decided to build a winery – he hired noted architect, Hamden McIntyre, perhaps the Howard Backen of the times (Howard is a well-respected contemporary architect responsible for some of Napa’s most creative and innovative wineries). Hamden had already designed a number of prominent wineries including the wooden Eschol Winery (now Trefethen Vineyards), Inglenook and the Greystone building housing what is now the Culinary Institute of America. The stone winery was completed in 1885 and in a somewhat unusual feature for the times, had a concrete rather then dirt floor. Benson named it “In Dolce Far Niente” or in Italian roughly meaning “sweet nothing” or “without a care” and his wine label featured a girl sleeping in a hammock. What has to be one of the earliest still existing California wines was brought to Far Niente’s attention in 1998 – an 1886 Far Niente Sweet Muscat (from a collection housed in Marin County). After Benson died in 1910 the property remained in his family until it was sold right before Prohibition. In the decades following the property transitioned through many owners and the winery building became highly neglected. One of the owners, Martin Stelling had acquired some 600 acres in Oakville and was in the process of restoring the old Far Niente building when he was tragically killed in an auto accident just north of Yountville in 1947. However, his namesake, the Martin Stelling Vineyard still produces fruit for both Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel. In 1979, Gilliland “Gil” Nickel, his wife Beth and partners including Robert Lieff purchased the winery and property and spent significant time restoring it. At the time, the historical winery building was covered in ivy and the property needed much work. Robert Lieff remembers Robert Mondavi pulling ivy off the building to expose the sign and using cables hooked to their jeeps one weekend to pull off the rest. A day later a building inspector from the city of Napa called confused by the recently exposed exterior of the winery building. He was wondering why a new building had gone up on the property “without” a building permit! Ultimately the winery was impeccably restored along with becoming a showcase property for azaleas and other flowers. Prior to producing Far Niente wines, Gil made a home-wine called Nob Hill Cellars – named in honor of Nob Hill San Francisco where he lived at the time (a bottle of 1977 Nob Hill Cellars Chardonnay is kept in the Far Niente wine cave and is presented to visitors during tours). The first modern day vintage of Far Niente was from 1979 and was crushed at Markham Vineyards near St. Helena; this vintage and also the 1980 and 1981 vintages were produced at a warehouse in Sausalito – until the 1982 vintage which was produced on site. The first wine made was a Chardonnay from 1979 – the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon from the property was from 1982. Gil produced these early wines himself with the help of consulting winemaker, Charles Ortman. Today Far Niente continues to focus exclusively on these two varieties using only French oak.
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