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Sensory careers: Taste

Dirk Hampson, Napa Valley winemaker:
Not quite far niente


In this story:

Heady stuff

Enology (ee--lo-jee)

Life and work


(CNN) -- "How sweet it is to do nothing" goes a translation from the Italian of the phrase dolce far niente. Without the sweetness, far niente also can mean "without a care."

And when did a good wine not carry a little irony in its splash?

Such romantic concepts as a sweet doing of nothing couldn't be farther from the aromatic bustle required to produce the Napa Valley's Far Niente wines in Oakville, California.

graphic Winemaking -- a life's work in the vineyards -- may be one of the most common career fantasies going. Is it one you've toyed with?

I'll lift a glass to that.
Give me a few more years to get over this running away with the circus thing, and I'll be there.
Nope. I'll just drink the stuff and let somebody else get their hands purple.
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"We have various factors that can destroy the crop," says winemaking director Dirk Hampson. "Lack of rain, too much rain -- that's what the French call a 'difficult' year -- tornadoes. Without the crop, we can't make the wine. And the quality of the wine we can make in a given year depends on the quality of the crop.

"And we're not a commodity, as a wine like Gallo is. We're a branded luxury wine, and we end up competing against the finest wines in the world. So as a consumer, you don't really give a damn if it rained. You care that if you're paying this much money for a bottle of Far Niente, it should be as great as Far Niente is supposed to be."

And it's supposed to be pretty great. Not for nothing did the Washington Post's Michael Franz -- the French might call him "difficult," too -- call the 1992 Dolce "the best dessert wine I've ever tasted from America, with a riveting aroma of apricots, honey and vanilla-scented oak." As a little dessert to that rave, Franz went on to name the late-harvest Dolce "unspeakably wonderful."

A 1994 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon is rated at as being a little pricey at $55 but outstanding in quality for its characteristics of color, bouquet, acidity, body, finish. At, you'll find a $100 bottle of the 1997 Cab rated a handsome 88 on the 100-point scale. A $77 bottle of the 1996 vintage rates even higher, at 91.

The vineyards held by the Far Niente ventures are planted with grapes to produce Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc  

Hampson's partner Gil Nickel has done so well as proprietor of these ventures that his 100-ton yacht is a familiar sight in the harbor at Sausalito. And having spent some $2 million to reconstruct the 1885 winery he bought in the late 1970s, Nickel now is at it again, preserving a 19th-century home and barns on the estate of Nickel & Nickel, his newest label.

The vineyards of the Napa Valley today are being pruned. As many as 50 trained workers tend to Far Niente's plantings alone. "Brown twigs against green ground," Hampson describes the winter vineyards. But there's no waiting for harvest to get busy. Not even for spring. "The aesthetic" of good winemaking, he says, "starts from the very beginning." graphic

Heady stuff

"From tasting the grapes in the vineyard and deciding when to pick, to tasting the juice and the wine as it's fermenting -- and deciding what modifications we want to make -- to the blending, choices on aging, timing and treatment prior to bottling.

"You know how when you walk into a museum, you can identify a Monet across the room? He had a style he was trying to achieve, definitely recognizable. If our style of wine isn't recognizable, then it probably isn't worth the price."

The Stelling Vineyard is the 100-acre cornerstone of Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon. It's located behind the winery, in the western hills of the Oakville appellation  

Then again, Claude Monet probably could depend on his canvases, brushes and pigments with more assurance than Hampson can depend on his soil temperature, rainfall and vines.

"Some years allow you much more room to achieve your dreams than others."

Far Niente's ownership of five vineyards -- the Stelling, Barrow Lane, John's Creek, Carpenter and John C. Sullenger -- gives Hampson a familiarity with his resources, however, cultivated over the 18 years of Far Niente's wine releases.

"Winemaking has gone past being technique-driven," he says, to the point that we've retained craftsmanship, using applied science and analysis to reduce risks. It's a combination, but more craftsmanship, really, than science or art."


Enology (ee--lo-jee)

"My dad was an attorney" and Hampson spent the early part of his boyhood in his native Oregon. "When I was 10 years old, we went off to live in Europe, in Paris. And even before we left, my parents drank wine -- which in America wasn't that common at the time. I was exposed to the vineyards in Europe, saw some of the wine regions. I didn't fall in love with it, but there was a little familiarity with it.

"I was in college later in Portland, Oregon, getting a degree in English. I was thinking about becoming a lawyer like my dad. But he thought that wasn't a particularly good idea. He thought law had changed from being quite the profession of gentlemen to being the butt of every joke people could find.

graphic Far Niente's five main vineyards comprise more than 240 acres of land in the Napa Valley of California. Here are some sights of the provenance of Far Niente, Dolce and -- soon -- Nickel & Nickel wines.

"So I sat down and wrote a list of what I wanted. At 18. I can't believe I did that. I wanted to be inside and outside. I wanted to have a product, not a service. I was long on self-confidence, and I wanted to show that I was either good or not good, in which case I'd go do something else. I wanted a lot of responsibility.

"And about that time, I read an article on the program in enology (the study of wine and winemaking) at the University of California at Davis. The degree is essentially comparable to pre-med with a bunch of wine and grape-growing classes thrown in.

"After Davis, I ended up working in a brewery and several wineries in Europe," including Germany's Schloss Vollrads Rheingau Estate. Hampson did an apprenticeship in Burgundy at the Nuits St. Georges negociant of Labouré Roi. And he was in Bordeaux at the Chateau Mouton Rothschild's First Growth winery for a harvest one year.

He was on the ground floor -- or actually on the third floor, where the grapes come into the winery and fall to the crush pad -- in 1982, at the advent of the Far Niente Winery that Gil Nickel had built on the site of John Benson's original facility.

"The conditions ended up being just right" in 1999 "that we could pick enough grapes on December 6 for four barrels of wine. I'm expecting in a couple of years to bottle that wine. And I believe this will be the only St. Nicholas wine ever produced in this country."

And today, "my work is less hands-on because we have three winemakers" under Hampson's direction. One handles the flagship Far Niente label's wines. Another handles Dolce, the late-harvest dessert wine. And a third is in charge of the new Nickel & Nickel label, which is specializing in single-vineyard wines from Napa and Sonoma.

"My responsibilities as director are more about developing the goals of our winemaking, helping shepherd the image and style of the product. Being a mentor in certain ways."


Life and work

Hampson is 44, married and has four children "between the ages of 13 and 5. The only thing daunting about that is that we're going to have teen-agers in the house for the next 14 years. I don't know whether I'm man enough for that or not.

"At harvest time, there's a lot of hours. I tend to work part of the day on weekends. I generally start in the morning around 7 or 7:30. I do try to make sure I have dinner at home. As compared to a lot of people like lawyers and doctors, I'm luckier than some, I eat at home, have time with the kids.

Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, in the winery's underground caves -- the first to be constructed in the Napa Valley since the turn of the century  

"But there's no doubt that trying to run a winery that's reviewed by hundreds of publications around the world is a taskmaster that can't be ignored. At the same time, I'm making a luxury product that's involved with fine food and taking time. Our winery has its own chef.

"You've undoubtedly read about that paradox in which the French eat so much more butter and cream than we do and yet have less heart disease than Americans. Part of that is related to wine. But my guess is that another part of it is the fact that they stop and spend two hours having lunch or two hours having dinner. They're enjoying the pleasures of good food, good wine and good company. I think that's part of the secret of the French paradox, as well."

Today, as the pruning goes forward for a month or more in the vineyards -- buds might appear around March 15 when the soil reaches 50 degrees -- Hampson is watching 10,000 square feet of new tunnels go into the hillside behind the Far Niente estate house. "That hill is like Swiss cheese."

He's working with architects on the new winery going up near the Robert Mondavi estate for the new Nickel & Nickel venture.

And here's one for rare wine lovers. In 1999, Hampson saw a late harvest coming in. "The conditions ended up being just right that we could pick enough grapes on December 6 for four barrels of wine." In Germany, grapes picked on St. Nicholas' Day -- and only on that day -- are eligible to make St. Nicholas wine.

"Four barrels," Hampson says, "is not very much wine." You hear the veteran winemaker's anticipation rising as he talks of this potential jewel in those tunnels. "I'm expecting in a couple of years to bottle that wine" under the Dolce label. "And I believe this will be the only St. Nicholas wine ever produced in this country."

"You know how when you walk into a museum, you can identify a Monet across the room? He had a style he was trying to achieve, definitely recognizable. If our style of wine isn't recognizable, then it probably isn't worth the price."

The Dolce program also has a Web cam -- right now its page shows a sequenced shot of grapes from last year. Around April, the company's managing director Larry Maguire and communications director Mary Marshall Grace will mount the camera again as the vines bud out.

And Napa will again go green before running red.

"I'm in the right job for me," says Dirk Hampson. "I'm one of the lucky ones. I got a great fit."




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Far Niente
University of California Davis Viticulture and Enology Program

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