Friday, August 29, 2008

Third, fourth and fifth generation keeps Nichelini Winery alive

Third, fourth and fifth generation keeps Nichelini Winery alive

Paul Franson - Napa Life [originally published in the St. Helena Star]

Though tourists flock to Napa’s old Beringer and Charles Krug Wineries, another historic treasure lies so far off the beaten path that only the determined – or lucky – stumble onto it.

In 1884, Swiss-Italian immigrant Anton Nichelini homesteaded property high up in Sage Canyon that probably reminded him of his home in the Ticino canton of Switzerland.The French-trained stone mason built Nichelini Winery in 1890 and it still hangs on the side of the hill, close to the road like those found back home.

The rustic winery remains in family hands after more than 100 years, the oldest winery still operating by the original family in Napa County, and one of very few with that pedigree in California.

The present owners of the winery are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Anton and Caterina Nichelini, for while three generations isn’t many to span 116 years, Anton and Caterina had 12 children, and they stretched the equivalent of a generation among themselves.

Recollections of history

Anton actually met Caterina in San Francisco, even though she was also from Ticino in Switzerland. She largely ran the vineyard and winery as Anton worked as a stonemason.

Like most wine-making families—they didn’t call them vintners then—they made wine and sold it during Prohibition, making regular deliveries to Oakland and other places with wine hidden under the floorboards of a ’24 Lincoln that once belonged to the mayor of San Francisco.

Caterina also served meals to rare passers by; the steep and rough road was only paved in the early ‘40’s and electricity came in 1947.

Family legend says Caterina accidentally sold wine to treasury agents during Prohibition, but since they didn’t then jail women, Anton had to serve her sentence, though only on weekends so he could work.

All the Nichelini cousins lived or visited regularly, though the old homestead in now occupied only when they visit. The original tiny cabin where four children were born has been moved down the hill to a site near the winery and awaits restoration.

It would take a genealogical chart to clarify the family’s relationships, but the present owners are Marie “Toni” Nichelini-Irwin, Greg Boeger, Dick Wainright and Joe, Jr. and Mike, the sons of Joe Nichelini, who died three years ago.

Other cousins from the fourth and fifth generation are also involved and help at the winery.

And just to confuse things, one branch of the family owns the vineyards used to source grapes and a family corporation owns the property.

To try to clarify the present ownership, Anton's oldest son Bill acquired the winery business in 1934 at the end of Prohibition and he handed it down to his son, Jim, in 1959.

Jim updated the winery after the years of neglect during Prohibition and ran it until he died in 1985.

Three of Jim's cousins and his sister formed a partnership and acquired the winery from Jim's estate in 1990.

Jim’s sister, Marie "Toni" Nichelini-Irwin, is the daughter of Bill and acts as director of the tasting room and outside sales and marketing.

Dick Wainright, son of the eighth child, helped Jim in the winery and is now secretary/treasurer and in charge of operations.

The winemakers are Greg Boeger, son of the youngest child (a daughter) and his son Justin who bring over 30 years of experience as the owner-winemakers of Boeger Winery in El Dorado County.

In addition to the 500-acre winery property, Anton Nichelini's two eldest sons, Bill and Joe F., acquired property in nearby Lower Chiles Valley in the late l920s. With their father, they planted the vineyards.

Although planting has expanded over the years to about 80 acres, about 20 acres of zinfandel planted by Anton in the late 1920s remain in production, as do 3 acres planted by Bill & Joe F. in 1946.

Joe A. Nichelini, son of Joe F., also served as president of the winery as well as grape supplier. He passed away in March 2003 and the vineyards are now farmed by his sons, Joseph C. & Michael Nichelini.

None of the original plantings on the original winery property remain, though a level spot suitable for grapes may be replanted in the future.

A new era

The first crush under the new management was the 1990 old-vine centennial zinfandel, which has been produced at Nichelini since 1890, now partly from vines planted in 1929.

The winery makes about 3000 cases per year, and is also focusing on cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petite sirah and expects to add other Italian varietals besides primitivo, the Italian cousin of zinfandel it already makes.

It also produces sauvignon vert, also called muscadelle, a rare Bordeaux white from the 1946 planting.

This third and fourth generation of Nichelini's continue to carry on the 100 + year-old traditions of their historic Napa Valley winery.

Nichelini also produces a sweet muscat dessert wine.

All are reasonably pricesd particularly for Napa Valley mountain wines from historic vines.

The winery building is a historic site that demonstrates Anton's stonework. Though the winery equipment has been modernized, the old Roman press he once used highlight’s the visitor center, a rustic tasting room and family museum they extends outside in benign weather.

For the future, the clan is considering some capital improvements including additional planting. In addition to fourth generation family members like Justin Boeger, Joe Jr and Michael Nichelini and Robert Oswald (Dick Wainright’s daughter), a fifth generation is now involved as well: Aimée Sunceri, who like the Boegers has a degree in enology from UC Davis, also helps out with winemaking.

Tasting at Nichelini Winery is free, a rare treat in Napa Valley these days. The winery is open on weekends and by appointment (963-0717). It is on Hwy. 128 about 11 miles east of Rutherford on the way to Lake Berryessa. Be sure to bring a picnic if you visit, for it’s one of the best places nearby to enjoy dining outside.


Nichelini Winery website

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