The Cabernet Sauvignons of Far Niente

When one thinks of the classic wineries of Napa Valley, Far Niente comes to mind. Known for its Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvigon, Far Niente has been making wine since 1979. Recently they relaunched the Napa Valley Cabernet, a wine that represents the beauty of the valley. This new wine, along with their Napa Valley Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, offer two elegant options, as I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and share here.

There is an Italian saying, “E dolce fare niente,” which means “It’s sweet to do nothing.” These are the words that were carved into stone in 1885 on the front of the building at Far Niente, the historic Napa Valley winery. And while this phrase is the inspiration behind the name of the winery, Far Niente has actually done more than “nothing.”

Far Niente was established in 1885 by John Benson who had arrived in California in 1849 for the Gold Rush. The winery is in Oakville, the center of Napa Valley pre-20th century. It was designed by Hamden McIntyre who created the former Christian Brothers Winery, which is now the home of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Far Niente wines were part of the fabric of Napa Valley. Sadly, in 1919 when Prohibition hit, Far Niente fell into disrepair.

In 1979, 60 years later, Gil Nickel purchased the winery and adjacent vineyard. Over the next three years, the winery was restored and today it is in the National Register of Historic Places.

The first harvest of Chardonnay took place in 1979, while the winery was being restored. In 1982, the first wine was made on the Far Niente property and that was also the year of their first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Far Niente has focused on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay for four decades. The estate vineyard, Martin Stelling Vineyard, is 57 acres in Oakville.

Oakville is located at the transitional point between the cooler southern regions and the warmer northern regions. The days are hot, but the nights are cool and foggy, offering the best of both worlds to produce wines of freshness and structure. Far Niente also owns the 18-acre Barrow Lane Vineyard and the 50-acre John’s Creek Vineyard, both in Coombsville.

From 1982 until 2000, Far Niente made a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. But in 2001, they decided to make an Oakville appellation Cabernet Sauvignon that exclusively expressed the beauty of their home vineyard. This year, as they released their 2017 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Oakville, sourced from their estate vineyard, Far Niente also relaunched the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

I had the pleasure to taste the newly released wines of Far Niente over a virtual tasting with Far Niente winemaker Nicole Marchesi, who has been at Far Niente for 15 years. Originally from Vacaville, she went to UC Davis and started as an assistant winemaker at Far Niente in 2005. She was promoted to winemaker in 2009.

By bringing back the Napa Valley Cabernet, Marchesi was able to explore how Cabernet Sauvignon grows in other areas. This wine opened the entire valley to her and satisfied her curiosity. The Napa Valley Cabernet is a blend of fruit sourced from the home estate in Oakville, as well as from vineyards in Stags Leap, Oak Knoll, Calistoga, Diamond Mountain, and St. Helena.

She described how she approaches making the wine. She explained that the “heart and soul of the wine is the Oakville fruit” but added that the fruit from the other vineyards adds different layers and nuances. The fruit from Oak Knoll, which is south of Oakville, offers a lot of color.

The fruit is big in style and is used as “a glue that holds it all together.” The fruit from Calistoga offers fruit and floral notes while the St. Helena fruit provides dry herbal notes that layer in nicely. The Diamond Mountain fruit is tiny intense berries that increase the intensity of the structure of the wine. The resulting Far Niente 2018 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($145) is a pretty wine with notes of black raspberry, dried flowers, and dusted cocoa. It has mouthwatering acidity and soft sandy tannins. This wine is very drinkable.

The Far Niente 2017 Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville ($200) has notes of dark black fruit, dried flowers, herbs, and earth. It has elegant but drying tannins and a velvety texture that lingers on the palate.

In comparison, both wines are layered with texture and acidity. They both have a sense of progression. They start with a silkiness that expands on the palate and then ends with acidity for freshness. The Napa Valley Cabernet has more red fruit notes and the Oakville Cabernet is velvety and plusher. Both are delicious but the new Napa Valley Cabernet offers accessibility, both in availability and in price.

“E dolce fare niente” — but it is even sweeter now that Far Niente offers two Cabernet Sauvignons that demonstrate elegance, restraint, and nuance.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.