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Bella Union: Another Chapter in the Far Niente Saga
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 10, 2015
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Far Niente Winery, always into innovation and creating new wineries, has recently opened Bella Union Winery in Rutherford, Napa Valley.  Bella Union will specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon.  No surprise there.

Far Niente Winery, located in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains near Oakville, was founded by the late Gil Nickel in 1979.  The original winery on this location was established in 1885 but, like so many other California wineries, it closed during Prohibition.  The winery and vineyards around it lay dormant until Nickel, who was very successful as a wholesale Plant Nurseryman in Oklahoma, decided to get into the booming wine business in Napa Valley.  Gil Nickel had an interesting background, working on guided missiles during World War II.  He later became a collector of antique cars, which he kept in a huge garage near Far Niente Winery

The Italian expression, “far niente,” means “without a care.”  These words were carved in stone in the original building, and Nickel decided to name his winery Far Niente.  In 1982 Far Niente’s first Cabernet Sauvignons were released, followed by Chardonnays.  To this day these two varietal wines are the only ones made at Far Niente.  From the start, Far Niente’s two wines received critical acclaim, and are still both regarded as two of California’s finest wines.

One of Gil Nickel’s many innovations was to dig tunnels into the mountains behind the winery to store his wines at cool, even temperatures.  Many other vintners in California have since dug their own tunnels for their wine storage.

When Gil Nickel decided in 1989 to produce Dolce, a botrytised, late-harvest dessert wine made from Semillon and Sauvignon--similar to French Sauternes-- he opened up a new winery in Oakville, which produces Dolce exclusively, in various sizes, but the Dolce half-bottle became the most popular size.

Gil Nickel had another dream:  To produce single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons, each with its own personality. A beautiful winery, in a restored barn, named Nickel & Nickel (the second Nickel is his son Jeremy), was founded in 1997 in Oakville along Highway 29, with the first wines released in 2000.  At last count there were 16 different single-vineyard Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Sauvignons!  The most renowned single-vineyard Nickel & Nickel Cabs are Martin Stelling Vineyard and John C. Sullenger Vineyard wines.  Nickel & Nickel also makes three single-vineyard Chardonnays, two single-vineyard Merlots, and a single-vineyard Syrah.

Gil Nickel died of skin cancer in 2003, at the age of 64.  But Gil’s vision for innovation continues under the leadership of Larry Maguire, President and Partner, Dirk Hampson, Chairman, and three members of the Nickel family.  The company’s first venture into Sonoma took place with the establishment of En Route Winery in 2007, in the Russian River Valley.  Far Niente/Nickel & Nickel, the ultimate Cabernet
Sauvignon specialists, ventured into the Pinot Noir business, producing a Pinot Noir called Les Pommiers, and a Chardonnay.

When I tasted En Route’s first Pinot, the 2007, I said nothing to Larry Maguire and Mary Grace (in charge of Communications), and gave them a vague smile.  What I was thinking to myself was that they should have stayed in the Cabernet Sauvignon business.  But I am happy to report that, after tasting the 2013 En Route Les Pommiers a few weeks ago, I have changed my opinion. En Route’s 2013 Pinot Noir is excellent, in fact one of the finest California Pinot Noirs that I have tasted.  Several changes were made by the winery, including a selection of favorable vineyard sites.

Bella Union Winery, the latest venture of the Far Niente team, was founded in 2012.  Its winery is located on a 25-acre Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard along Bella Oaks Lane.  The vineyard is in a renowned Cabernet Sauvignon growing area known since the 1880s, in the heart of what is now Rutherford.  Back in the 1880s, Bella Oaks Lane was a dirt road called Bella Union Roadway, which led to the Bella Union Mining Company in the Mayacamas Mountains.  Hence, the name of the winery, Bella Union.

You might be wondering why the Far Niente/Nickel & Nickel Wineries need another Cabernet Sauvignon.  The logic is:  One should never pass up a chance to buy a great Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in Napa Valley.  This area has proven to be one of the finest regions in the world for producing superb Cabernet Sauvignons.   Also, none of the single-vineyard Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Sauvignons offer much quantity, and Far Niente is not a huge winery as well.  More Cabernet Sauvignon will be useful.  After all. this variety clearly makes Napa Valley’s best wines.

In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon, the Bella Union vineyard grows a small amount of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to blend in with Bella Union Cabernet Sauvignon. Up to 5 percent Merlot is also added.  The site has well-drained gravelly loam soil, and cool evenings to counter the warm days.  At present 1250 cases of Bella Union Cabernet Sauvignon is made, but that number is expected to increase with time.

Bella Union’s first Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2012, was a fantastic introduction in a great Napa Valley vintage.  The wine has explosive fruit, combined with minerality.  At this point, it can only be found in a few stores.  A few weeks ago, I tasted 2013 Bella Union and a barrel sample of 2014, which was just too young to evaluate.   2013 Bella Union, which should be coming into stores within the next few months, is a winner.  It will undoubtedly age well for decades, but can be appreciated even now.  Although intense and concentrated, tannins are soft.  And it will be retailing in the $65 to $75 range, a bargain for a wine of this quality.

It looks as if the Far Niente team has done it again with its new Bella Union Winery.  Gil Nickel would have been proud.