The most leisurely and scenic drive from Sacramento to Napa Valley is Highway 128 west from Davis. The meandering route takes you past vineyards and orchards, under oak trees bearded with moss, along Putah Creek and Lake Berryessa. You can stop at Putah Creek Café in Winters for the sort of hearty breakfast best to start a day of wine tasting.
Better yet, tasting can commence well before you get into congested and dear Napa Valley itself. About 90 minutes west of Sacramento, in narrow and steeply sloped Sage Canyon, is a winery so deceivingly laid back you are apt to breeze right by with no more than a glance.
Big mistake. That spot, Nichelini Family Winery, is one of the more historic and reliable wineries within the sprawling Napa Valley appellation.
This year it is recognizing its 125th anniversary. “It’s the only remaining winery in Napa Valley with the same family to make wine since before Prohibition,” says Doug Patterson, the resident historian, one of several descendants of the founding couple, Anton and Caterina Nichelini.
A Swiss immigrant, Anton Nichelini filed for a homestead just uphill from the current winery site in 1884 and began to sell wine in 1890, in large part to miners in and about Chiles Valley, a sub-appellation of Napa Valley.
By 1895, five years after they married, the couple had built the hand-hewn stone winery and seven-bedroom house above it. That’s believed to be the same year they moved their 1884 cabin downhill to its present location just behind the winery, where the weathered and shaky structure is being dismantled and rebuilt in accord with its standing on the National Register of Historic Places. “It’s the last remaining homestead cabin in Napa County,” Patterson says.
The Nichelinis reared 12 children on the site. Of their 270 or so descendants, several remain in the wine business, including the Greg Boegers of Boeger Winery at Placerville.
Another is Aimee Sunseri, who not only is the Nichelini winemaker but also winemaker for the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux at Vina in Tehama County.
At Nichelini, she makes around 2,000 cases annually, though production is ramping up to 3,000. There, her wines are dry, lean and direct, respecting the clarity of juice from the family’s 75 acres of vines in Chiles Valley. Oak, when it is used at all, provides more quiet support than barking imposition.
“With my type-A personality I focus on clean, genuine, straight-forward fruit (in the wines). I want them to be an expression of the vineyard and of me – clean, neat, orderly,” Sunseri says.
“I think younger people like that,” she says of her stylistic goals. “Older people are used to more cellar influence in wines. To them, a little brett (brettanomyces, a spoilage microbe that can leave a suggestion of barnyard in a wine, which some people like but others abhor) or a little vinegar is OK, but to me that’s not OK,” Sunseri adds.
Her Nichelini lineup is extensive and varied, reflecting the unusual mix of grape varieties in the vineyard. While cabernet sauvignon is the variety most closely identified with Napa Valley, Sunseri also releases sauvignon blanc, petite sirah, primitivo, zinfandel and merlot.
Her most unusual wine, however, is an exceptionally rare varietal – muscadelle. The current version is the Nichelini Family Winery 2013 Napa Valley Old Vine Muscadelle ($25), a light- to medium-bodied dry white wine rich with suggestions of tropical and citric fruit. The wine, which has no oak aging, is mellow but alluring, in large part for its current of minerality.
Fewer than 60 acres of muscadelle – also known as sauvignon vert – are planted in all of California. Nichelini’s stand of thick-trunked and towering muscadelle was planted in 1946.
Sunseri also eschews oak in making the Nichelini sauvignon blanc, the 2014 version of which is unusually husky and complex for the varietal, in part because the vineyard is planted to the variety’s “musque” mutation, credited with bringing more floral aromatics and more texture to wines squeezed from the grapes ($22).
She isn’t crazy about the herbal threads coursing through the Nichelini 2010 cabernet sauvignon ($48), saying she is working to extract more cherry flavor from the grapes, but I’m a sap for suggestions of eucalyptus and mint in cabernets and find those suggestions more welcome complication than distraction.
Anton Nichelini may have been tending primitivo as early as 1890, and the winery continues that heritage with its latest release of the varietal, the frisky and smooth 2012, its juicy raspberry fruit lilting and lasting, not at all muddled by the American oak in which it was aged ($37).
Two other Nichelini red wines of note are the smoky and plummy 2011 merlot ($31), for people who miss the obvious presence of oak in Sunseri’s other wines, and the dark, solidly built and brightly fruity 2010 “reserve” zinfandel ($35), about as definitive a take on the varietal as you are apt to find, particularly in Napa Valley, where it’s virtually an endangered species.
While members of the Nichelini family are proud of the winery’s history, they aren’t capitalizing on it alone to keep their place in the Napa Valley wine scene. They’re expanding their vineyard and introducing new products, including a bright and composed Nichelini 2014 Caterina Reserve Semillon ($28), launched specifically to honor the wedding of Anton and Caterina on July 7, 1890.
What’s more, in December they will introduce Nichelini’s first sparkling wine, just in time to welcome the new year while bringing down the curtain on the winery’s 125th anniversary.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne
Nichelini Family Winery
The winery, 2950 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, other days by appointment. 707-963-0717, www.nicheliniwinery.com