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by Fred McMillin
for June 12, 2000

 

Quite a...
Few Good Men


Prologue

1873—Far Niente founder Captain John Benson complained to a friend that his winery was a "costly plaything." He had spent $10,000 for the land and $21,000 for improvements.

1979—Reviving the dormant Far Niente winery, nurseryman Gil Nickel also found he had an expensive plaything. He had spent $500,000 for the property, including the Stalling vineyard, and $2 million for improvements.

However, it worked out well. Since then, Wine & Spirits magazine selected Far Niente as the Top Estate Winery of the Year. It took quite a few good men to accomplish all of that, and here they are.


The Rest of the Story

"Distillers who have brandy hidden away [in their cellars that should contain only wine] are quaking in their boots," reported the St. Helena Star newspaper in 1887. Wine prices were so low that much of it was being distilled illegally to make brandy. Capt. Benson's winery was caught by the Feds! The plaything was getting even more expensive.

Capt. Benson's "home" burned down. He lived in San Francisco, not the Napa Valley. "Home" was the Pacific Union Club on Nob Hill, and it was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. The Captain moved to the Napa Valley. (The Club had served his wines nearly exclusively.)

Like Benson, Martin Stelling was a successful S.F. business man and member of a prestigious club, the Bohemian. At age 47, he was reviving Far Niente and planting Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyard that today bears his name. I was living in San Francisco when in May 1950 near Yountville he was killed in an auto accident. His son, Doug, a Canadian mining engineer, remains as co-owner of part of the vineyards.

Dirk Hampson, Larry Maguire and Gil Nickel

Dirk Hampson, Larry Maguire
and Gil Nickel (right)

Dirk Hampson, with experience at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Joseph Phelps, was hired as the winemaker in 1982. He likes those old Stelling Cabernet vines. When I last checked, six of his vintages had hit 90 plus (outstanding) in the Wine Spectator.

And finally, Larry Maguire was hired the same year as Dirk to handle marketing. (Each now owns 5% of Far Niente.) Dirk's wines are so good, I think Larry's stealing (kidding!). For example, a Taiwan collector wanted 300 cases of the 1994 Cab and Larry had to limit him to 30. Luckily, the '97 is still available and it's...


Our Wine of the Day

1997 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Appellation—Napa Valley
Price—$100 (Great gift for newlyweds)


Postscript

The Name: Remember, the wealthy Capt. Benson regarded his winery as a plaything. There's an Italian phrase, in dolce far niente, loosely, "it's sweet doing nothing." He had Far Niente carved into the stone structure and Gil Nickel found the words still there a century later.

A Lost Opportunity - If Capt. Benson had requested help from a relative, he might have had the best label in the Valley. His nephew was one of the best-known illustrators in America, Homer Winslow.

Credits:
William Heintz, Wine Country
James Lapsley, Bottled Poetry
Jeff Morgan, Wine Spectator, 3/30/98
Diane Bulzomi, Research Assistant

 
About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

 
 


This page created June 2000

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