When moving into a posh Napa neighborhood such as Oakville, a winery just can't erect any old shack. Yet how can anyone compete with neighbors such as Opus One and Robert Mondavi Winery, which set the architectural standards for modern California wine country?
In the case of Nickel & Nickel, which opened this week, the idea was to make more look like less and to make new look like old. If you just catch a glimpse while driving along busy Highway 29, you might think the facility dates back to the 19th century. But take a closer look and you'll realize the winery's aspirations. The $25 million Nickel & Nickel project, by the same partners behind Far Niente, is an ambitious undertaking, its homespun facade belying a modern, sophisticated winery below the surface.
"Opus One certainly has the corner on modern monuments," said Dirk Hampson, partner and director of winemaking at Nickel & Nickel and Far Niente, as he led a tour of the winery this past week. "This was a winery that was designed for making wine. We just happened to be able to make it look cool at the same time."
The project's design not only allowed it to pass Napa's rigorous development restrictions -- where low impact and historical preservation are de rigueur -- but also gave the winery a way to stand apart from its glossier neighbors. And the project is consistent with the partners' commitment to the past, which dates to founder Gil Nickel's 1979 purchase and subsequent renovation of the circa-1885 Far Niente property just down the road.
The 42-acre Nickel & Nickel ranch was originally the Sullenger farmstead, developed by successful prospector John Sullenger in the 1880s. Nickel & Nickel acquired the property in 1998 after releasing its debut wines, from the 1997 vintage.
The partners restored the Queen Anne-style Sullenger House, built in 1884, into a hospitality center, going so far as to temporarily move the house during construction to build a wine cellar and tasting room underneath. A tour of the property includes the Gleason Barn, a 1770 New Hampshire hay barn that Nickel & Nickel had dismantled and shipped west to serve as the winery's offices and lab.
The fermentation barn, with its tin roof and dormers, is the heart of the winery, built with reclaimed, century-old fir beams joined by wooden pegs. Beneath is a 30,000-square-foot barrel cave, dug from the Oakville flatlands. The facility is designed to accommodate Nickel & Nickel's focus on single-vineyard, single-variety wines, with 17 separate bottlings produced in 2002. Although the emphasis is on Napa Valley Cabernet, the line-up also includes Chardonnay, Merlot and a Russian River Valley Zinfandel.
Hampson believes that when visitors to the winery taste a cross-section of the wines, they will begin to have an understanding of terroir. "We're not trying to make a statement about finding the best place," Hampson said. "We are really trying to put single vineyards in front of you to show the personality of a place."
With a goal of eventually producing 25 different wines (there are four Oakville Cabernets alone from 1999), Hampson concedes that Nickel & Nickel has its work cut out for it in this tough economy. "It's a very complicated concept, but we're devoted to it," he said. "It's going to take time."
As harvest season begins, one thing won't take much time. Nickel & Nickel is set to become Napa's latest tourist destination.
Nickel & Nickel
8164 St. Helena Hwy./Hwy. 29
Oakville, CA 94562
Telephone: (707) 967-9600
Web site: www.nickelandnickel.com
Open: Daily for tours and tasting by appointment
Fee: $25 for tour and guided tasting of five wines
Check our recent ratings of Nickel & Nickel wines.
Read more about Nickel & Nickel and owner Gil Nickel: