Creating a legendary wine year after year is no easy task. Yet Nicole Marchesi, the winemaker for Napa Valley’s Far Niente, has been doing exactly that since her first vintage at the helm in 2009.
“I think it’s both a blessing and a curse to have such an iconic wine, with a really recognizable wine style that people really love and appreciate and want to have every year,” she says. “There’s the pressure to make something that absolutely tastes like Far Niente and reminds you of itself each vintage.” And yet, she strives to make wines that also remain “true to what a vintage has to offer.”
Threading that needle is both challenging and deeply rewarding. Indeed, with a history that stretches back to 1885, and the status as one of the region’s classic producers of Cabernet Sauvignon, Marchesi has found a way to express the style that Far Niente’s fans have come to expect, all while channeling the unique character of that particular vintage. “We have a really firm North Star on what Far Niente is, what it should taste like, and what it should make you feel when you have it,” she says. “But then you want to find creativity within that every year.”
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An Impressive Tenure
Marchesi arrived at Far Niente in 2005 after having worked harvests from Sonoma to New Zealand. Her first vintage as head winemaker was 2009, and over the nearly 15 years since, she has learned to hone each step of the process, both in the vineyard and in the winery.
“My winemaking approaches have changed and evolved,” she says. “When I first started, I was very nervous that I would make the wrong picking decision and wait until the last minute—not a great way to endear yourself to the vineyard team! Now, I’m able to taste grapes, look at the vines, look at the analysis, consider the weather, and make a pick decision with plenty of advance notice.”
Those years of experience—not just in wine, but in making Far Niente specifically—have allowed Marchesi to finely tune how long she pumps over, how much she extracts, and so on, all of which combine to create the final character of the wines. The Far Niente Chardonnay is generous and age-worthy, and the Cabernet Sauvignon, whether from a climatically challenging or a more forgiving year, remains one of the most reliably delicious, collectable reds in the region: triumphant testaments to how Marchesi has continued to shape and define a Napa Valley icon.
Adapting to Challenges in the Vineyard
Collectors and sommeliers respect Far Niente for its ability to balance expressive fruit, anchoring terroir, and serious longevity without sacrificing pleasure early on either. Given the realities of today’s changing climate, however, Marchesi relies on her experience at the winery to maintain that consistency. From crop thinning to canopy management and shade cloth that’s used to protect the grapes from the scorching sun, Marchesi and her team have a laser-like focus on what happens in both their estate vineyards and with the growers they work with. “Every block is different,” she explains, “so we’ll walk together and discuss what the best approach is, taking into consideration what has worked in the past and what the growing season is like.”
Every decision is based on achieving that beloved Far Niente style: The deep, rich fruit flavors and the generosity of the ripeness. For Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, that often means green thinning, a technique that entails inspecting each grape cluster at around 85 to 90 percent ripeness, and dropping entire bunches or even individual berries that are still green or notably behind in development. But the specifics of how she and her team carry out their work in the vineyard can vary dramatically.
“Given that every vintage seems to be completely different with what Mother Nature throws at us, we’re getting lots of opportunities for creativity on how we maintain house style from year to year,” she says. “2022 was so hot, and we had this crazy heat spike. We were dealing with really high sugars and everything being really early. It’s completely opposite this year [in 2023], when everything is really late.”
This season has been cool with some rain, all resulting in lower sugars than last year. The aim, then, is “trying to make good decisions with the information that you have at the time to still make Far Niente,” she says. “And that’s where I find a lot of enjoyment and creativity. It’s like, ‘Okay, what curveball are we getting thrown this year, and how do we adapt to that and still make something that is true to us?’”
A Collaborative Approach to Winemaking
Every great wine is the product of a team of people both in the vineyards and the winery. Cellar master Javier Munoz, for example, has been at Far Niente for more than 30 years. That wealth of experience and knowledge is an invaluable resource as he and Marchesi work together to make the most out of each block, each barrel, and each blend. “He is a great problem solver in the cellar and is always thinking and planning ahead,” Marchesi notes. “We have this great relationship where I can say ‘Okay, this is what I want to do. What do you think?’ And then we work together to figure out how to put it into action in the cellar.”
Her assistant winemaker, Sarah Jablow, is fairly new, but she worked at Far Niente’s sister winery Nickel & Nickel for years, so the culture of uncompromising quality is baked into her work ethic, too. “She is in charge of everything in our lab and supports me with vineyard visits, sampling, checking fermentations, tasting together, as well as supporting the needs of the cellar team,” Marchesi explains.
She also leans on the director of vineyard operations John McCarthy, as well as vice president of winemaking Andrew Delos. They blind taste together and work through any issues that come up throughout the winemaking process, relying on his two decades of experience as the original winemaker for EnRoute, which was founded in 2007 by Far Niente Wine Estates with a dedication to capturing the essence of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Marchesi is keen to point out that her tenure is just a snapshot of a much larger story, and that she still relies on the lessons she learned from her predecessors, winemakers Stephanie Putna and Ashley Heisey.
That kind of longevity, that consistency in the team behind the wines, as well as the intimate understanding of the vineyards and what they’re capable of producing, are inextricably tied to Far Niente’s continued status. “To me, Far Niente is timeless,” Marchesi says. “We are focused and committed. I know my team and I take great pride in the work we do, and I think that is reflected in the quality of the wines we produce. Having a clear North Star that we are all committed to, not just in terms of wine flavor, texture, and aroma, but in terms of the standards we uphold in our vineyards and cellar, make it much easier to do our best work.”
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