Gil Nickel, a self-described "Okie from Muskogee" who didn't have his first glass of wine until he was 30 but who within a decade turned the dilapidated Far Niente winery into one of the most esteemed in the Napa Valley, has died. He was 64.
Nickel, a champion vintage race car driver and a onetime guided missile analyst who made his fortune helping build his family's wholesale nursery business in Oklahoma into one of the biggest in the nation, died of skin cancer Thursday at his home at the winery in Oakville.
Nickel purchased the stone shell of the long-abandoned Far Niente winery in 1979. The winery had operated from 1885 until it was closed in 1919 with the start of Prohibition.
The same year he bought the winery, Nickel bought into a partnership of the 100-acre Stelling Vineyard behind the winery, and over the years he purchased the entire vineyard, which became the cornerstone of Far Niente cabernet sauvignon.
Over the next three years, Nickel restored the three-story building, one of the Napa Valley's first stone wineries. He also excavated wine-aging caves, making Far Niente the first winery in North America in the 20th century to develop new such caves.
In 1982, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Nickel was on his way to becoming a legendary Napa Valley figure.
"When he started that project in 1980, people used to joke about the Okie from Muskogee who moved to Napa Valley and bought this old abandoned winery," Larry Maguire, president of Far Niente and one of Nickel's two partners, recalled Friday. "People were amazed he actually was trying to restore it rather than tear it down and build a new one."
And, Maguire said, there were those Napa Valley vintners who laughed when Nickel began excavating his first wine cave.
"They thought all he was trying to do was create an adult Disneyland here," Maguire said. "It wasn't very long after Gil dug the first cave that people realized this is a pretty neat deal. Not only is it romantic, but it made sense because the wines like to be aged in a setting with a constant cool temperature, and the caves provided that. The wines like to be aged in an environment with relatively high humidity, and the caves presented that as well.
"Shortly thereafter, people started digging caves all over the valley."
In addition to Far Niente, which makes only chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, Nickel created Dolce Winery (in 1992), which produces a late-harvest dessert wine; and Nickel & Nickel Winery (in 1997), producer of single-vineyard, single-varietal wines.
Nickel was one of the first Napa Valley vintners to price wines higher than his competitors -- $16 for a top chardonnay instead of the going rate of $12 when his first wines were released in 1980 -- to show that his product was comparable to those from more established winemaking regions.
At the time the $4 price difference "was a big deal," Maguire said . "It got a lot of people to shake their heads. Then they started drinking it, and people started realizing if you made a really good wine, the customer was willing to pay for it."
A self-effacing man who retained his Oklahoma drawl and down-home quality, Nickel was known as a fun-loving, larger-than-life character with a tremendous sense of humor and a passion not only for winemaking but for everything he did -- from driving his motorcycle across country to sailing his 1939 yacht to racing vintage cars.
In 1995, he became the first American to win the European Federation Internationale de L'Automobile Historic Sports Car championship.
But winemaking remained an enduring passion.
"He absolutely loved the business," Maguire said. "In fact, he lived in the top floor of the winery building for years, and it created a real family atmosphere, because we came to work in his home."
Only within the last half-dozen years did he move out and build a separate home on the property, Maguire said.
"Gil will also be remembered for his friendship with other vintners," he added, "for throwing open the doors for vintner friends to join us in spontaneous luncheons."
Indeed, Nickel was known for entertaining in grand style.
The elaborate black-tie hospitality dinners for auction bidders that Nickel hosted at Far Niente before the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction became legendary events chronicled in Town and Country and other magazines.
"Gil just had an incredibly welcoming spirit," said Maguire.
Harold Gilliland Nickel was born in 1939 in Muskogee. He studied physics and math at Oklahoma State University and graduated in 1961.
After service with the Oklahoma Air National Guard, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, he came to California, working as a reservist providing guided missile analysis at the U.S. Navy Laboratory in Corona.
But he returned to Oklahoma to join his father, Harold, and older brother, John, in managing the family's Greenleaf Nursery Co. in Talequah, which Harold Nickel had begun as a small retail operation in 1945. They turned the small business into the second-largest family-owned wholesale nursery in the country, a position it still holds.
But Nickel had dreams of being a vintner. In 1976, after turning over the day-to-day management of the nursery to his brother, Nickel moved to San Francisco.
For the next three years, he audited winemaking classes at UC Davis and traveled to France to study winemaking techniques.
Nickel is survived by his wife, Beth; a son, Jeremy Nickel of Napa; and his brother, of Welling, Okla.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at Nickel & Nickel Winery, 8164 St. Helena Highway, Oakville.