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His early years were spent as a gawky, big-eared kid barely able to put a sentence together.

Yet when Gil Nickel rode off into the sunset on the back of one of his cherished vintage motorcycles last week, he left behind a king-size legacy.

Most of us who knew Nickel were quite aware of his appetite for life. Yet only close friends, family and business associates were aware of many of his achievements — achievements that would have stretched most mortals beyond the breaking point.

Close to 1,000 turned out at Nickel & Nickel Winery Monday afternoon to celebrate his life, to comfort his family and, for the majority of us, to learn even more about this well-liked Okie from Muskogee.

His business partners at Far Niente, Dolce and Nickel & Nickel, Dirk Hampson and Larry Maguire, set the stage for the two-hour-plus memorial, sharing "Gil stories" and introducing others to comment on this man who, Maguire pointed out, was, besides a vintner, a businessman, yachtsman, gourmand, writer, storyteller, visionary, jokester and preservationist.

Gil Nickel quietly observed the world around him, including the actions and activities of family and friends. And when the time was right, he made his move.

That move included both strengthening of body and polishing his image. The scrawny kid picked up a set of dumbbells, then painstakingly developed a muscular body that earned him a prime spot on college gymnastics teams.

While never really comfortable as a public speaker, Nickel nevertheless held his own in every situation — from hosting wine celebrations and presiding over industry meetings to engaging a rapt crowd of cronies in a tale bound to wrap up with hearty laughs all around.

"He was a gifted speaker but he was anxious about doing it," declared brother John Nickel, who, with his brother and father, had turned a mom-and-pop nursery into the second largest operation of its kind in the nation.

"Gil would tell you about the time he stumbled over the introduction to his mother. He said he knew who she was but he just couldn't remember her name. His favorite saying was: 'When I stand up, my mind sits down.'"

The memorial celebration's most eloquent speaker said few knew that as a young man his brother had studied for the ministry.

He noted how Gil had accepted a job with the space industry right out of college. But he didn't like the job and returned home to the family business in Oklahoma. "So I guess that makes him the only qualified vintner in the Napa Valley to say that winemaking isn't rocket science."

Nickel finally figured out his brother's modus operandi, he revealed Monday: "He'd fantasize, visualize, conceptualize, organize, deputize, then supervise.

"It wasn't long before I had to admit my little brother eclipsed me and began teaching me things.

"I told him he was crazy when he came out here (to California and then the Napa Valley to make wine). But he worked on optimism. He never saw an obstacle only the goal. He became my teacher, and I was the reluctant student."

John Nickel maintained his brother succeeded because he refused to compromise when it came to quality.

When Gil discovered he had melanoma some five-and-one-half years ago, "he told me he knew in the end the cancer would win," John added.

"He admitted he was disappointed about being cheated out of 15 or 20 years of the smelling-the-roses phase of his life. But he told me he was glad it was on the back end instead of the front end."

He made us smile

Both Gil and his wife, Beth, were more concerned about the well-being of others than their own comfort, speakers said again and again at Monday's gathering.

"Gil was caring, tenacious, but generous to a fault," declared Tony Ashmore, a friend since college and best man at Gil's second marriage ceremony. "We met at Oklahoma State University…where Gil was asked to teach me gymnastics. I'm Gil's only failure in life. He was a class act, and I'm a better person for having known Gil."

Austin Kenyon said he didn't meet Gil Nickel until both of them had wrapped up their college studies. When Kenyon was setting up state-mandated studies focusing on nursery stock problems, he dropped by Greenleaf Nursery to meet with John Nickel. When Kenyon revealed the purpose of his visit, John invited him to another office with the remark: "Come over here — I've got a problem I want you to meet."

Ed Gilbertson met Gil Nickel at car shows and soon learned both were fond of Ferraris and vintage motorcycles. He said Gil had a special talent "for making everyone feel like you were best friends. And he was always the life of the party."

"Gil was one of our heroes," noted Michael Mondavi, CEO of the family winegrowing operation launched by his father in 1966. He admitted he wanted to dislike Gil when he learned that Gil had purchased the Far Niente site — a property on which the Mondavi family believed it had first right of refusal.

"But he didn't judge — he accepted people for what they were. He was our best neighbor, even to the point of making sure the view my mother had (from her nearby Oakville Grade home) was as good as the one he enjoyed when he restored Far Niente. Gil and Beth added style and character to the Napa Valley with both Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel. They are great models for all of us."

Noting that Gil Nickel was a perfectionist, Robert Mondavi believes "Gil's commitment to excel attracted all of us. He was an asset to the Napa Valley, and our country. He left us a legacy that will carry on forever.

"Gil had a knack to make us smile — to feel good about the wine business and ourselves. So, let's leave here today smiling."

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