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Meet The Vineyard House


Jeremy Nickel, the son of the late Gil Nickel (Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel and Dolce), invited me and a few others to the little, 19th century vineyard house he owns, on the edge of the Stelling Vineyard, which their other winery, Nickel & Nickel, vineyard designates. The purpose was a series of three blind tastings comparing his new wine, which he calls The Vineyard House, against other Napa Valley Cabernets, all of which cost more than the $175 Jeremy is asking for the retail price.

I think $175 is an awful lot of money to ask for an unproved wine, and I expressed some surprise to Jeremy. He explained that, one, he’s doing this not necessarily because he needs another brand (Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel and Dolce are quite enough for anyone to run), but because he wants to pay hommage to his father, who died 8 years ago. I also had the feeling Jeremy wants to prove that he can accomplish something from the ground up, not just succeed in running something his dad left to him.

Jeremy organized three blind tastings on three consecutive Mondays this month. I sadly missed the first one, last week, because I was down with the flu. Damn flu! But they told me The Vineyard House scored third out of six among the tasters; the other wines included Screaming Eagle, Hundred Acre, Levy & McLellan, Scarecrow and Harlan Estate.

This Monday’s tasting was one I was fortunately able to go to. I’ll also be at next week’s. At this Monday’s, The Vineyard House again came in third in the group ranking, behind Araujo Eisele and Bryant Family (which tied for first) and Schrader Beckstoffer To Kalon, but ahead of Abreu Cappella and Grace Family. (All vintages were 2006.) Those were group rankings, which very closely approximated my own scores. I placed the Araujo first, Grace Family second but just by a hair, with a tie between The Vineyard House and Abreu for third. The Schrader was my #4, while the Bryant was my last choice.

When Jeremy asked for my comments, I began by saying that the difference, in this particular group of wines, between a 1 and a 6 is not as great as would appear. We’re talking about minute distinctions between wines that are all very fine. In a way, it’s too bad that we have these beauty contests that are so subjective in the first place, but that’s the way things are.

Jeremy said he’s unsure how to market The Vineyard House and when I asked him if he was having these blind tastings for the P.R. value, he said no; it was to learn from others what he’s doing right and wrong, with respect to the other brands. I told him that these sorts of tastings can be valuable from a P.R. point of view. Years ago, St. Supery had a big blind tasting with lots of well-known writers and sommeliers (I remember Wilfred Wong, Dan Berger, Larry Stone and Karen MacNeil being there, and I hope my memory is right). As things turned out, St. Supery came in #1, beating the likes of Opus One, and they must have gotten about $1 million in free publicity from that.

I don’t know how Jeremy is going to fare with The Vineyard House, especially in this economy. When I asked him why he doesn’t do what everyone else does–tell his distributors they can’t have Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel and Dolce unless they take a case of The Vineyard House–he shook his head and said No, that wouldn’t be ethical or moral. It’s not often you find morality and business uttered in the same sentence, but I believe Jeremy feels that way. He’s going to have to sell The Vineyard House the old-fashioned way, by hitting the streets and schmoozing.

But even at $175 a bottle, it’s a good buy considering that every one of the other wines at the three tastings costs far more. (The Abreu, I understand, which came in last yesterday, retails for $525.) Which makes The Vineyard House a comparative value. It’s  beautiful wine, made by Bill Ballentine (William Cole), and while the wine now is made from purchased fruit (I believe), Jeremy is planting a vineyard on the hill above the property–remember, this is Harlan and Far Niente country–so the wine should be spectacular.

In general I’m not a fan of over-hyped, ultra-expensive wines that sell the sizzle, not the steak, but Jeremy Nickel has convinced me it’s possible to create a Napa Valley great Cabernet from scratch and to do so with integrity and taste. I wish him luck and am glad to bring The Vineyard House to your attention.

  1. Dear steve,
    i am humbled and honored by your kind sentiments, thank you. see you next Monday!

  2. Raley Roger says:

    Even though these economic times are challenging, I still purchase special bottles for special occasions. I can see paying 175.00 for a bottle of wine for an anniversary or birthday. But, I’m no longer buying these kinds of wines except on very rare occasions. Maybe once a year.

    So, while I might pay 175.00 for a speical Cab, there’s no way in hell I’m paying 525.00 for an Abreu? That just doesn’t pencil out for me at all. I can send myself, and my whole family, to Disneyland for a weekend on that money. And, these days, fun with family trumps one bottle of overhyped wine.

  3. This business of putting your new wine against a prestigious lineup tasted blind in order to promote a wine as old as the hills. Speaking of hills, Bill Hill did it with first growths all around the country thirty years ago.

    There are lots of nice people in the wine business. A particularly nice fellow wrote a long and thoughtful comment on Calistoga the other day in your column. He and his wife have a 5 acre head pruned vineyard in front of their house on Diamond Mountain and make an exceptional, consistent, and distinctive Cabernet from that plot. Together those two know more about grape growing and winemaking than anyone.

    Their wine is a little under $70 a bottle. I would suggest those who are introducing $175 a bottle wines to give old Dyer Straits a call and find out how they manage to sell their wine profitably for a $100 less. Maybe the issue with Vineyard House is that you have to buy several thousand dollars of wine for comparison each time you let someone taste it.

  4. Morton, if you’re talking about the Dyer Cabernet, it’s killer. I just reviewed the 2007. $75 a bottle SRP, but people can probably find it for less. Alcohol a modest 14.2, and case production is 455.

  5. I have been fortunate enough to have bought several cases of The Vineyard House Cabernet after being introduced to it thru a friend and have all three years of 2005, 2006 and 2007 with the ’05 being our current favorite. I have given many as gifts to friends and restaurant owners who have come back to me wanting more exclaiming it was one of the finest they have tried. I love introducing people to a wine they have not had before and the bottle is quite impressive so it makes a beautiful gift. Jeremy is to be admired for his high standard of doing business.. I agree with you Steve on that for in today’s market and economy it can be difficult not to lower your standards. However, with the story of doing this for his dad and with the ownership in Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel he has no need to compromise. Jeremy has so much to be proud of and I wish him much success in his endeavors with The Vineyard House. Everyone in my family will continue to support his efforts as The Vineyard House is one of our favorite cabs along with the Trefethen Halo.

  6. Visited Far Niente last week, beautiful place, wine is beautiful too, but at $125 not something I am going to buy too often…and The Vineyard House at $175 – never!

  7. Good job Jeremy, I am proud of you!

  8. Nickel & Nickel is a great review for $35+ a person.

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