Food & Wine
Spring Mountain Vineyard

Drink in the Fragrant History of Napa Valley--Three New Winery Tours to Savor

NAPA VALLEY, Calif. -- As tourism shifts into high gear this month in the country's best-known wine-producing region, visitors will be able to add three distinctive stops to their tasting room itinerary.

And though each winery offers samples of bottles that are among California's best, the real attraction may turn out to be the properties themselves.

Most prominent is the 13-acre Far Niente estate in Oakville, founded in 1885 and now open to public tours and tasting for the first time in the modern era. Though it boasted one of the valley's most technologically advance wineries and a spectacular setting at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains, the winery closed in 1919 at the beginning of Prohibition and sat abandoned for 60 years.

Gil Nickel bought the estate in 1979, spent three years restoring it and created what would become one of the country's most prestigious wineries. Nickel died last fall, and the winery partners agreed to open Far Niente to the public by appointment. Tours take visitors to the gardens, which are said to include the largest planting of Southern azaleas in California, a 40,000-square-foot wine cave, a tri-level winery and a carriage house containing Nickel's collection of classic automobiles. The winery charges $40 for a tour and a tasting of the estate's wines., which include Dolce, a small-production dessert wine that has achieved cult status.

"There are so many wineries and so many products that the marketplace has become extremely crowded and confused," says winemaking director Dirk Hampson. "By keeping it small and personal, the visit becomes more than just a little junket in wine country." (Far Niente, 1350 Acacia Dr., Oakville; 800-363-6523;

Across Highway 29 from Far Niente is a sister property, Nickel & Nickel, which was founded in 1997 and opened for appointment-only tours late last summer. The winery has become famous for its distinctive winemaking philosophy: All wines are made from a single grape variety, and all of the grapes for each of the dozen different bottlings come from a single vineyard.

But even if the flavor nuances in the $30 tasting are lost on you, the accompanying tour offers plenty of architectural fireworks. The centerpiece is the Sullenger House, a restored 1884 Queen Anne that serves as a tasting room and office. Elsewhere on the farmstead are a restored 18th-century barn, a post-and-beam fermentation barn and an underground cellar. (Nickel & Nickel, Highway 29, Oakville; 707-967-9600;

he third new must-see winery tour takes place at Spring Mountain Vineyard in the northern part of the valley on a mountain above St. Helena. The original estate dates to 1885 and has expanded over the years to include three more properties, each of which had its own winery and vineyard.

Today's 845-acre version is becoming known for high-quality cabernet sauvignons and Rieslings, but it used to be famous in a different context as the setting for the CBS Falcon Crest television series. The property's standout structure, an 8,000-square-foot, 1885 Victorian mansion called Miravalle, was often featured in the series and now houses the tasting room and offices. When Falcon Crest ended, the property was sold and closed to the public, though wine continued to be made there.

During the past decade, new owners replanted and expanded the vineyards and Eden-like gardens, dug wine caves for storage and slowly readied the property for appointment-only visits, which began late last year. The $25 cost of the 90-minute tour can be applied to wine purchases and include tours of the gardens, caves, vineyards and mansion.

"It's a little paradise; there's something here for everyone," says Valli Ferrell, who oversees hospitality operations and is the wife of general manager Tom Ferrell. (Spring Mountain Vineyard, 2805 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena; 707-967-4188; .)


GRAPHIC, B/W, Suzy Parker, USA TODAY (MAP); PHOTO, B/W, Daniel D'Agostini, Far Niente; PHOTO, B/W, Tom Ferrell, Spring Mountain; Caption: Where heaven is made: The Far Niente caves in Oakville, totaling 4,000 square feet beneath the winery and nearby hillsides, provide optimum temperatures for storing and aging. Vintage Hollywood: The mansion at Spring Mountain Vineyard near St. Helena was a backdrop for the 1980s TV series Falcon Crest.