The history of Far Niente dates back to 1885 with John Benson, an original forty-niner of the California gold rush and uncle of the artist Winslow Homer. For the design of the winery, Benson hired architect Hamden McIntyre, who made a name for himself with projects such as the former Christian Brothers Winery (now the Culinary Institute of America) and the Gustav Niebaum Winery (today’s Inglenook Winery). The building was constructed against a hillside in western Oakville, setting the stage for McIntyre’s gravity flow winery—a new, gentler process of moving the grapes through each stage of production. Benson named the winery “Far Niente,” taken from the Italian phrase “Dolce Far Niente,” meaning “sweet to do nothing.”
Far Niente prospered until the onset of Prohibition in 1919, when it was left abandoned and untouched for sixty years. Rebirth began in 1979 when Gil Nickel purchased the property and adjacent vineyard. Nickel, a physicist by education with a background in agriculture through his family’s nursery business, relocated to California with a quest to create a world-class Napa Valley wine estate. He found his charge in the then-fragile Far Niente and, soon afterwards, Nickel undertook a three-year restoration of the winery while simultaneously taking courses in enology and viticulture at the University of California at Davis.
The year 1982 marked the return of winemaking to Far Niente with the harvest of the winery’s first Cabernet Sauvignon. Chardonnay was also produced at the winery for the first time that year, though Nickel made Far Niente Chardonnay in 1979, 1980 and 1981 at a warehouse in Sausalito. Today, the winery continues to focus on producing only the two varietal wines.