One in an occasional series profiling the great gardens of Wine Country.
Beth Nickel recalls the wonderment expressed by an old friend who was visiting her from their native Oklahoma. The two women were strolling the grounds of Nickel's Far Niente Winery in Oakville, spreading out with a tantalizing display of horticultural eye candy near the base of the Mayacmas Mountains.
With its shimmering ponds and effervescent masses of azaleas, dogwood and rhododendrons, radiating out from a gabled stone winery building built in the 1880s, the scene was like a page from a storybook.
"She was looking at the vineyards and the gardens and said, &‘Beth, if you had just fantasized this, you couldn't fantasize it this good.'"
When Nickel and her late husband Gill first arrived in the Napa Valley from Oklahoma in 1979, "chasing a dream," as Nickel calls it, the couple easily recognized the beauty in the rubble and ruins of an old winery near the base of the Oakville Grade. The winery had been designed by the architect Hamden McIntyre, who also created similar old-world wineries for Christian Brothers at Greystone, Trefethen and Chateau Montelena.
The Nickels first planted the vineyards of cabernet and chardonnay. Then they immediately set about restoring the magnificent wreck of a winery.
It was a costly, three-year process that required architect Ron Nunn to recreate the distinctive cupola lost sometime in the 60 years that the building sat empty after Prohibition. During the restoration they uncovered the original name — Far Niente — still etched in stone beneath the eaves. Loosely translated from the Italian it means, "without a care." It has since been placed on The National Register of Historic Places.
No sooner had the Nickels completed the restoration than they embarked on another pet project — creating a fairytale landscape evocative of the great estate gardens of the East Coast and the south.
"We had both grown up in the business and loved gardens," says Nickel.
Her parents had a small family nursery about an hour north of Tulsa, and she often accompanied them on buying trips to the big wholesale Greenleaf Nursery Co. in Muskogee, owned by Gil's family. Greenleaf is one of the largest wholesale nurseries in the U.S., specializing in major statement shrubs and trees, including the azaleas that have become a distinctive mark of the Far Niente gardens.
The gardens are the shared vision of the couple, who embarked on a long partnership of creative business and adventure that ended with Gil's death from melanoma seven years ago. They're inspired by their visits to some of the great Eastern estates like Longwood in Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley and Bellingrath in Mobile, Ala.
That means large masses of flowering shrubs, carpets of cool lawn, a pond with a spray fountain, meandering paths, riots of spring bulbs, spreading shade trees and showy specimens like saucer magnolias.
"Gil used to say more more more would be better better better," Nickel said with a laugh. "We knew we wanted a real gracious Southern-type garden with a lot of big open lawn and huge masses of azaleas everywhere and tulips as well. So we planted thousands and thousands of azaleas, doing mainly red and pink and a few white because the white look real pretty with the dogwood."