Anton Nichelini, husband to Caterina Nichelini and father of 12, stood only 5-foot-6 when he built his winery in Chiles Valley. But, in terms of history, it isn’t the size of the man, it’s the impression he makes on the land.
As forebear of the Nichelini family and founder of the Nichelini Winery, Anton’s imprint is nothing short of a crater. Nichelini vineyards were harvested and Nichelini wine was made for the 122nd consecutive year this year, extending its claim as the longest family-owned continuously operated winery in the Napa Valley. Nichelini is second in California in that particular niche to only Wente Vineyards in Livermore, a family-owned operation in its 125th year. There are 262 family and extended family members.
“If you talk to Krug, they will tell you their winery is older. It is, but it has changed hands,” said Doug Patterson, Nichelini vice president, marketer and third-generation family member during the recent “Festa della Vandemmia” (vintage festival) held annually by the descendants of Anton and Caterina Nichelini.
The Festa celebrated the introduction of a reserve cabernet sauvignon created by Aimee Sunseri, a fifth-generation member of the Nichelini clan and its seventh family-member winemaker. A month earlier a zinfandel reserve created by Sunseri was celebrated. They are the first two reserves ever made by Nichelini.
Of the range of wines made at Nichelini, old-vine zinfandel, however, continues to be its signature wine. It is the same wine that Anton Nichelini produced from the family vineyard’s 20-acre plot more than a century ago.
“Zinfandel has been our signature wine for 122 years now and we would certainly like for it to continue to be,” said Patterson.
Swiss and Italian by heritage, Anton Nichelini worked in the magnesite and chromite mines, which are still visible on the land he homesteaded in Chiles Valley, before launching his winery. He started selling wine in 1890, and built his cellar in the same year, said Patterson.
His wine was not something he just schemed up in the cellar. He learned how to make wine shortly after coming to the U.S. from a vintner named Joshua Chauvet, alleged to be to Sonoma County what winemaking pioneers Charles Beringer and Charles Krug were to the Napa Valley.
“Chauvet worked at Buena Vista for a time and that’s where he apparently learned all about the winemaking business from Agoston Haraszthy,” said Patterson.
Haraszthy is also credited with teaching winemaking to Beringer and Krug. Worthy of note, Haraszthy, a flamboyant individualist who proclaimed himself the “Count of Buena Vista,” met an abrupt ending in an alligator-infested river in Nicaragua in 1869.
Anton Nichelini set the bar high for the succession of heirs in his wine cellar.
Sunseri prepared herself to take over the winemaking role by earning degrees in viticulture and enology from U.C. Davis and microbiology from U.C. Santa Barbara.
“It’s kind of like a pedigree, from winemaker to winemaker,” said Patterson.
“Our main objective continues to be to produce wine from grapes that grow very well in the Chiles Valley district,” he added, “but we’re also working to have a place in history.”
There is, in fact, a committee of family members, headed by 89-year-old Dorothy Hoffman, intent on securing that place. One component of their work is in preserving the one-room 14-by-14 foot cabin that was Anton and Caterina’s first home — as well home as to the first four of their 12 children. Looking at what remains of the cabin, it boggles the mind to think about how they all lived there.
“Anton took five years to get the improvements on the land done so that when he finished he would get ‘patent,’ which was a homestead deed to the land,” said Patterson.
The cabin was built to specifications required to obtain the patent. Patterson said that at the time the Nichelinis built it there were two identical cabins built by nearby homesteaders. But both burned to the ground.
“Consequently, the Napa County Historical Society thinks the cabin on this property is the only one of its kind left in the county,” Patterson added. “If that’s true, we go beyond the family in our history.”
In addition to restoring the cabin, a stone wall along the road has been built where an original wall fell down after being shaken over the years by truck vibrations along Sage Canyon Road. A plaque with Anton and Caterina’s names on it has been mounted in the wall.
The house that Anton built in 1895, which serves as the winery has been recognized as both a national and state historic site.
Today, the Nichelini property is 540 acres. There are 13 blocks of vines, 12 named for the children born to Anton and Caterina, the 13th for Anton, himself.
That the Nichelinis made wine for this long is a phenomenon when considering that the Napa Valley was not always wine country. According to Patterson, the attrition rate of bonded wineries was such that by 1965 only 24 of 168 operative wineries in 1934 remained.
Even an arrest by Prohibition officers couldn’t stop Anton Nichelini.
“He was a heck of a dynamo for a little bitty guy,” said Patterson.