Gil Nickel, who built two of Napa Valley's most elaborate showcase estates, Far Niente and the newly opened Nickel & Nickel winery, died this morning of cancer. He was 64.
Nickel brought a freewheeling spirit to the Napa Valley wine scene when he started Far Niente in 1979. Though he poked fun at himself as an "Okie" from Muskogee (his birthplace), he was proud of his roots and passionate not only about wine, but about travel, race car driving and life in general.
At one time a rocket scientist and an Oklahoma nurseryman, Nickel left those careers to pursue what he once described as an even higher calling -- making wine in Napa Valley. His wife, Beth, and his partners, Dirk Hampson and Larry McGuire, will carry on running the three wineries he established.
Ren Harris, a friend and fellow vintner who owns Paradigm, recalled that Nickel set high standards for his wines. "From a point of view as a grapegrower, which was our first relationship, he always went after the best fruit," Harris said. "He never argued about [grape] prices and always tried to make a world-class product."
Nickel succumbed to cancer after an on-and-off battle that started five years ago with melanoma. Few people knew he was ill until late this past summer. In July, he had dedicated his new $25 million Napa winery, Nickel & Nickel, in Oakville, and was happy and relieved to have seen that six-year project reach fruition.
In a winemaking career that spanned 25 years, Nickel built a reputation for setting ambitious goals and then surpassing them. Once during an interview in the 1980s, he explained why he was pouring millions into refurbishing a run-down, abandoned stone winery named Far Niente, which loosely translated from Italian means "without a care."
"Well," he said in his folksy Oklahoma drawl, "I started out late in this business and had a lot of catching up to do, and frankly I wanted to do it right because that's the way I am and the only way I know how."
He carried that attitude through his other passions. Since he loved driving race cars, he amassed a stable of fancy vehicles, which he kept behind the winery. In 1995, he won the European Historic Sports Car Championship in France. He also logged 250,000 miles on his BMW motorcycle.
A popular figure among Napa vintners and race car drivers alike, Nickel was a great raconteur, quick with clever remarks and especially good at making jokes about himself and his life experiences. "No one could tell a better joke than Gil," said vintner Randy Lewis of Lewis Cellars, a former Indy 500 driver. During the height of the wine-cooler boom of the 1980s, Nickel bottled a six-pack of Napa Valley Chardonnay wine coolers, put a picture of him and his wife, Beth, on the label, and named it Dos Okies.
Even as he faced a final round of cancer treatments, he kept his humor. "I'm tougher than a buggy whip, but I don't know if I can whip this," he told me.
Born Harold Gilliland Nickel in 1939, Nickel studied physics and math at Oklahoma State University and then served in the Oklahoma Air National Guard, which included a tour of duty in Vietnam. He then relocated to Southern California where he worked as a guided missile analyst for the U.S. Navy.
Nickel later returned to Oklahoma to join his father and brother John in their family business, Greenleaf Nursery Co., which is now the nation's second-largest wholesale nursery.
But California left a lasting impression on Nickel and he moved back in 1976, with the vision of starting a winery. He hadn't been introduced to wine until the age of 30, but once he caught the bug, he pursued his new passion with vigor and studied winemaking at the University of California, Davis.
His first Chardonnay, from the 1979 vintage, was made in a warehouse in Sausalito. That same year, Nickel dicovered the old Far Niente winery in Oakville, which was built in 1885 but had been abandoned for 60 years and was in disrepair. He began an extensive remodeling of the building, eventually adding underground caves and a cellar. With its elaborate gardens, Far Niente is now one of Napa's most picturesque estates.
When Nickel started making wine, it wasn't good enough for him to be the best in Napa; he wanted Far Niente's Chardonnays and Cabernets to compete with Burgundy and Bordeaux, and he priced his wines at comparable levels. When he set out to make a dessert-style wine in the mid-1980s, his inspiration was none other than the great Sauternes Château d'Yquem; he introduced Dolce with the 1989 vintage, and it remains one of California's greatest dessert wines.
When the craze for single-vineyard wines caught fire in the 1990s, he and his partners began plans for another intricate winery, Nickel & Nickel, which is dedicated to producing two dozen vineyard-designated wines. He caught the attention of Napa by paying a then-record price of $100,000 per acre for the property, prompting him to quip that he was paying "tomorrow's price today." An enormous undertaking, the project included the restoration of an 1880s farmhouse and the creation of 30,000-square-foot underground barrel cave. His nephew, Erik Nickel, came on board the venture to help out, and by the time it opened in July, Gil's son Jeremy had also joined the company.
"For all his success, he was one of the most enjoyable people I've been around," said Lewis. "For all his accomplishments, he remained a down-to-earth guy. He was always up, he loved life more than anyone else I've ever met and loved sharing all that with all his friends."
A memorial service will be held on Monday, Nov. 3, at 1:00 p.m., at Nickel & Nickel winery.
Read more about Gil Nickel and his wineries: