By James Knight
Among the reported pleasures of touring Italy and its sundry rustic, Old World locales is discovering some picturesque, undisturbed artisan winery tucked away in the mountains, where the same family has patiently trodden grapes for generations. Take note: among the little-known pleasures of joyriding in the hills above Napa Valley is discovering picturesque, undisturbed little Nichelini Winery, where the same family has patiently grown wine for generations.
Family patriarch Anton, from the Swiss canton Ticino, homesteaded this property in the 1880s. Perched right on the edge of Highway 128, the historic house and winery nearly careen off the hillside. It wouldn't be hard to get a barrel rolling around here, so new winemaker Aimee Sunseri keeps a close eye on her new French oak. Over in the original, hand-hewn stone cellar, cousin Kenny Wainright mans the bar while trading jests with cousin Joe Nichelini, the vineyard guy. It's all cousins here, the latest regime of them to take the reigns of Napa's oldest continuously family-owned winery. With upwards of 12 children, patriarch Anton left behind enough interested parties to keep the concern going. Inside, he's pictured as the epitome of the mustached immigrant winegrower, a "Greetings from California Wine Country" postcard circa 1910, stoically beaming aside a prodigiously fruitful grapevine.
Fronting the cellar door is Anton's original Roman wine press. Something like a cross between a crude catapult and a low picket fence, it's typical to historic Swiss winemaking and said to be the only such example in the Western Hemisphere. Throw in a veteran old cellar cat yowling amiably among the guests on the patio, and we've got a fine mix of quaint times and good quaffing for the afternoon.
Nichelini holds the sole stateside rights to the name Sauvignon Vert ($19), known as Muscadelle or Tocai Friulano elsewhere. With Gewürztraminer-like tropical aromatics and clean, pear juice flavors, it's the perfect salve, or so my brother-in-law reports, when enjoyed in a hot tub by the half-case after a long day playing baseball. Medium-bodied, floral and fruity, Nichelini's reds are easy to like, yet also show a distinctiveness of style. The Chiles Valley Red ($22) is a Merlot, lively and fruity; the 2007 Zinfandel ($22) has wild grape character and gentle tannins; the 2006 Primitivo ($30), an Italian iteration of Zinfandel, has a lingering Chianti-like finish. With plum sauce astringency bookending fresh, raspberry aromas, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) is the kind of unaffected, table-friendly Napa Cab that is a pleasure to discover.
Nichelini Winery, 2950 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena. Open Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 5pm. No fee. 707.963.0717.
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