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Il dolce far niente . . . "It's sweet to do nothing," is the translation from Italian, and one of the founders of Far Niente Winery's favorite sayings. The winery's placid air reeks of money (it was originally a country home for a millionaire gold miner who invested in the "little boom town" of San Francisco), and the beautiful fieldstone building has been standing since 1880.

Far Niente, one of the Napa Valley's oldest wineries, only makes Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, like the estate-style wineries in Bordeaux after which it is styled. For two years, the winery has been leading tours and tastings by appointment only, and we were lucky enough to be invited as guests to one of these grand events. Our group of nine gathered in the foyer of the estate, our names spelled out on a welcome board as we were warmly greeted by the hospitality manager. The tour commenced with a lengthy and interesting history of the building and its owners. Down a winding spiral staircase we were shown the fermentation level, and below that, the cellaring room, which has the original 19th-century stone walls, now reinforced by thick wooden beams.

While many wineries in Napa boast caves for cellaring and feting, Far Niente had the first. And they are impressive, the length of three football fields laid end to end. Down here in the cool depths, the Dolce ferments. Dolce, a sister winery, is made at Far Niente. A direct impersonation of the legendary Chateau d'Yquem, the sweet golden Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend takes two and a half years to ferment, providing a meager 2,000 cases annually, if lucky.

The library is down here, too, made from Texas limestone and housing a few bottles from each vintage Far Niente has ever made. Lastly, we see the carriage house, a surprising collection of old and new custom race cars like a one-of-a-kind 1951 Ferrari and a 1992 Rolls Royce/Bentley (with a Marin dealership license plate). The winery's founder, the late Gil Nickel, was a lauded racecar driver in his time.

Upstairs, we taste a few wines: a library vintage and a new release of both the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Chardonnay. I take home a bottle of the 1996 Chardonnay, a Burgundy-style pleaser, reminiscent of a Montrachet, the balanced acid evoking green apple with just a touch of caramel. No malalactic fermentation is used, so it has aged well. A bottle of the Dolce comes home as well. With its high sugar content, it will last, opened, in the fridge for three weeks, but it will surely disappear well before then.

Far Niente Winery, 1350 Acacia Drive, Oakville. Open daily, 10am to 4pm. Tours are by appointment only and include wine and cheese tastings; $40. 707.944.2861.


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