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FUD From physicist to fine-wine maker

By Fred Tasker

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Gil Nickel's motto always seemed to be: "If it ain't broke, fix it anyway."

A university-trained physicist, he worked as a guided-missile analyst for the U.S. Navy but then returned to Oklahoma to join his family's plant nursery. By 1976, he had moved to California to carry out his lifelong dream of founding a world-class winery.

In fewer than 10 years, he founded not one winery but two -- the second named "Dolce," the first "Far Niente." Together they form the traditional Italian phrase for "The sweetness of doing nothing." An odd saying for a man as busy as Nickel was.

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Far Niente today is putting out 35,000 cases of top-rated $100-a-bottle cabernet sauvignon (blended with merlot and cabernet franc) and a $50-a-bottle chardonnay from the vineyards surrounding its Oakville Estate.

Dolce, just outside the nearby town of Napa, has become the only winery in North America solely devoted to producing a single, late-harvest dessert wine. It's made of semillon and sauvignon blanc grapes left on the vine until they develop "botrytis cinerea," the "noble rot" that desicates the grape, concentrating its sugars and acids. Dolce's $150-a-bottle wine is often compared to France's Chateau d'Yquem sauternes.

Still not enough for Gil Nickel. In 1997, he joined with his winery partners, Dirk Hampson and Larry Maguire, to found a Nickel &; Nickel on 42 acres near Oakville neighboring the respected Robert Mondavi and Opus One wineries. The second Nickel is his son, Jeremy, who is joining the business. They've turned an 1880s Queen Anne-style farmhouse into a hospitality center and a series of old barns into state-of-the-art wine-making facilities.

It's a different concept: 100 percent varietal wines -- cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay and others -- each from a single vineyard, as opposed to the multiple-vineyard blends used by most wineries.

In concept, it lets winemaker Darice Spinelli make a single cab from each of six vineyards, bringing out the flavor differences created by locations and soils. In marketing terms, it creates new complexities for restaurant patrons to argue over in ordering the wines -- something crucial in wines retailing for $35 to $125 a bottle.

Eventually, Nickel &; Nickel plans to offer as many as 25 wines from 25 vineyards. It's a fine tribute to the sweetness of doing much and doing it well for Gil Nickel, who died in October at 64.

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