Nickel started vintage racing in 1984 and became the first American to win the European FIA Historic Sports Car Championship. He was also an avid car collector.
Born Harold Gilliland Nickel in 1939 in Muskogee, OK, Gil Nickel was raised in his family’s nursery business. He relocated to Northern California in 1976 to pursue his dreams: racing cars and making fine wine.
Nickel started vintage racing in 1984. He used to drive his 1951 Ferrari 340 America to the track at Sears Point, spread his tools out and that was it. Nickel reckoned that early Ferraris were a bit like racing tractors. They went like the dickens but they don't stop or turn very well.
Nickel’s passion for vintage racing led him to become the first American to win the European FIA Historic Sports Car Championship. Gil continued to compete almost until his death and was also an avid car collector. Some of the most significant cars in his collection which is displayed at the winery include a 1966 Ferrari 500 Superfast; a 1961 Corvette roadster; an unrestored, mint condition 1935 Bentley 3.5 litre Sports Saloon; and the pride of his stable, the 1951 Ferrari 340 America with its sleek Vignale spider body that he used to race at Sears Point. He called it "the queen of my used-car fleet, and one of the most beautiful cars of all time." He also owned six BMW motorcycles, a 13,000-mile Ferrari Daytona built in 1972 and a 1990 Testarossa and even a 1950 Chevy panel truck in the Far Niente livery.
In the late 1980s, Nickel moved into more modern vintage racers with a 1964 Lotus 26R, the factory racing version of the Lotus Elan. In a 1962 Lotus 23B, his favourite, he won the FIA European Championship in 1995.
Out of a seven-race series in 2000, Nickel ran six, broke down at Nürburgring passing for the lead, won four contests and finished third in one. It all came down to the last race of the season in Burgundy, France, where he had to win the last race, and did by half a car length.
He went back to Europe in the summer of 2001 with a 1963 Lotus 27 Formula Jr. and a 1972 Formula 2 Surtees; the latter is the championship-winning Matchbox Special, a car once driven by the great Mike Hailwood.
In 1979, after studying enology at the University of California at Davis, Nickel founded the Far Niente wine estate in Napa Valley. He started the company by transforming a run-down old Napa Valley winery that had been abandoned since Prohibition days. Soon after, he brought in his partners, Director of Winemaking Dirk Hampson and President Larry Maguire, who have, as a team, elevated Far Niente to world-class status. Far Niente’s Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are impeccable expressions of these noble varieties, vintage after vintage. Far Niente also produces Dolce, a late-harvest wine that is America’s counterpart to the most famous late-harvest wine in the world, French Sauternes, often referred to as “liquid gold.”
Gil Nickel was a visionary of the Napa Valley wine industry and the proprietor of Far Niente winery. He was also a gifted nurseryman, champion vintage auto racer, avid motorcyclist and guided missile analyst. While his passions were many, his friends and longtime associates agree that Gil was driven more by his ideals, loyalties, friendships and sense of humor, than his business interests. In the Fall of 2003, Gil passed away after a courageous battle against melanoma.