Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Far Niente Winery: Fast Cars and Fine Wine

My father has been racing cars since the early Sixties. His first race car was a Fiat Abarth Zagato 750, which is affectionately known as a "Double Bubble." An example of the Double Bubble can be seen to the right. Since then he has seemingly had more race cars than I could list on this page. He still races to this day. In fact, as I write this he is at Mid-Ohio Raceway in Lexington, Ohio, racing his latest and perhaps his greatest car - Jo Bonnier's 1970 Lola T210, which can be seen below the Fiat. What does this have to do with wine, you ask? For me everything, because it was through his racing that I was introduced to Far Niente.

In spite of my obvious lack of mechanical ability and interest, I was my father's pit crew through most of my teenage years. It's not that I don't like racing or watching him race, but I don't enjoy working on cars, and I'm not very good at it either. I can remember at one race really doing a number on his Lotus 23B by severely over tightening the bolts securing the
intake manifold thereby cracking it. Oops. That same weekend I met Gil Nickel, who was the owner of Far Niente Winery. To the left, Gil can be seen racing his own Lotus 23B.

If my dad was bent because I trashed his engine he really didn't show it. He knew I wasn't very mechanically inclined, so I guess he figured he probably should not have had me anywhere near a rare, vintage race car in the first place. The intake manifold would need to be replaced, but it would survive the weekend. At the end of the day my dad said that one of his friends from California was pitted close by and we should stop in for a visit. That friend was Gil Nickel, and it didn't take long for him to become my new hero. He had shown up with a semi full of exotic race cars and a reefer truck full of Far Niente wines.


When we returned from the race I called The Wine Merchant outside of Baltimore, MD to see if they carried Far Niente wines. They said they did, so fake I.D. in hand I drove the few miles to the store intent on buying a half case. Upon seeing the price, my elation turned to dismay as I realized it would be many years before I could afford to buy a single bottle of Far Niente, let alone six.

I was fairly obsessed with Far Niente for quite some time after that, but my experience was mostly limited to the few times I could convince my father to order a bottle at a restaurant. Through racing, my father and Gil kept in touch over the years, and that connection has made Far Niente somewhat of a family favorite. A few years ago, however, we called Far Niente to schedule a tasting with Gil, and were shocked and saddened to learn that Gil had passed away after a battle with cancer. His passing is a great loss to the Napa Valley, but his passion for producing great wine lives on through his family.

Year after year Far Niente's commitment to excellence is on display in their current releases. I
tasted both the 2005 Chardonnay and the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon this week, and was not disappointed. It seems, however, that starting with the 2002 vintage Far Niente's Cabernets have been made in a more fruit driven, soft and oaky style, where in the past they shared more characteristics with their counterparts in Bordeaux. The recent vintages of Cabernet have all been very good, but it's not really the style I prefer.

Their recent Chardonnays have been outstanding, and 2005 is probably the best of the past five vintages. The '05 was aged on the lees for about nine months and it did not go through malolactic fermentation (ML). Far Niente was one of the first Napa Valley wineries to forgo ML when making chards, and it has helped in making their Chardonnay program a tremendous success.

I recommend scheduling a tour and tasting at Far Niente whenever visiting the area. Although the fee is now up to $50, they taste visitors on five different wines including their current releases and a couple of library wines as well. It's a beautiful winery, and the grounds and the caves are fantastic. Furthermore, the tour ends with a visit to the barn where some of Gil's cars are garaged. If you are into classic cars and great wine, Far Niente is not to be missed.

Winery: Far Niente
Wine: 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaker: Stepahnie Putnam
Estimated Cost: $95

Tasting Notes: Dark ruby/purple to the rim. Notes of butterscotch, vanilla, blueberry, blackberry and blackcurrant. The oak is a bit too prominent for me at this stage of its development, and it seems to overwhelm some of the fruit. This should not be a long term problem for the wine, and probably is not a problem for most tasters. Although I like the flavors oak imparts on wine, I am sensitive to it and think that many wineries are a bit heavy handed with oak. The finish on this wine is nice and long, and the wine is seamless from front to back. 90 points.

Winery: Far Niente
Wine: 2005 Chardonnay
Winemaker: Stephanie Putnam
Estimated Cost: $42

Tasting Notes: Very Burgundian in style. Rich and mouthfilling, but not at all flabby. Notes of pears, apple, vanilla and beeswax. Oak is toasty and nicely integrated. Nice minerality as well. Although I am generally not a fan of California Chardonnay, Far Niente's 2005 is an exception to the rule. 93 points.

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