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Robert Nicol, Architect and Vintner

After 45+ years as an architect, Bob Nicol became a vineyard owner, kind of by default.

Lea en Español

By Lisa A. Goldstein

After 45+ years as an architect, Bob Nicol became a vineyard owner, kind of by default. He had decided to move north from Oakland, California to Napa when he found a dream residence designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s office. It had a loft perfect for architecture work. It also happened to sit on 20 acres of vineyards.

Nicol’s architecture practice was slow, so he took classes at UC Davis on maintaining existing vineyards. Alongside his crew, he upgraded and improved the poorly maintained vines. Now he spends his time as a vintner.

Hearing Loss

Nicol’s mother had a difficult birth that almost killed both of them. A few months later, he was found to be totally deaf. He only responded to noise below 500 cps, which is the high end of sound in feeling vibrations without hearing anything. Human speech ranges from 500 to 3,000 cps, so Nicol was not hearing his parents’ speech. All kinds of hearing devices were tried back then and as recently as 25 years ago with negative results. Because Nicol was an only child, his parents were able to focus all their attention on him. He was sent to a weekly art class as well as dance, and music lessons. The goal was to see in what he did well or showed potential.

School was difficult because Nicol had trouble paying attention and understanding. Home education was the only alternative, where stringent methods were used  to force him to pay attention for basic education and speech by two teachers. He didn’t speak his first complete thought until he was 10. When it was time for high school, military academy was considered the best option to correct his demeanor and socialization needs. By then he was an excellent lipreader but had poor speech patterns. It wasn’t easy, but he achieved the rank of first lieutenant. By the time he was ready for college, his speaking voice had much improved thanks to a speech teacher once a week. The headmaster’s wife – a drama teacher – also taught him privately about inflection.

Becoming an Architect

After several summers working as a draftsman at various places, the word “architect” kept showing up. While attending a small private liberal arts college, Nicol passed a new library being constructed. He was able to view a rolled-up set of architect’s plans. He went to the old library to look up the profession and discovered it required far more education than he was receiving. To be an architect, one must attend an accredited college in architecture, which is usually six years. Then there’s 3-5 years of practice experience under a licensed architectural firm before taking the state exam (10 exams in five days). In California, the average failure rate is over 80%, Nicol says. People are allowed to attempt the exam two more times.

He attended a five-year program at UC Berkeley for a masters degree. After working for two architectural firms over four years, Nicol spent several years in solo practice before starting his own 11-person firm. After five years, Nicol downsized to a solo firm again, where he spent the next 40 years. He used an answering service to help with phone calls. When fax machines were invented, that became the main source of communication for the firm.

In 1993, Nicol was named a Fellow of the American Architects, one of the most prestigious professional designations for architects in the nation, according to Fresno State News.

Vintner Work

Now that Nicol is 85, he’d like to slow down and relax a little. But as the owner of a vineyard, there is much to do. He has a team of eight farm workers who don’t speak English, and a live-in manager who speaks both English and Spanish.  Nicol’s deafness has not been an issue; he gets by using Live Transcribe and help from his partner, Wanda.

Robert Nicol Vineyards – which grows pinot noir, chardonnay, and riesling grapes – is in a mountain valley with 1,600 feet elevation on the end of what might be the longest dead end in the county at 15 miles. It’s isolated, but this is what Nicol prefers.

“We generate our own electricity with solar, Tesla batteries, and a Cummins generator,” Nicol said. “Water is from a well at purity of two parts per million. We have 20 chickens for a dozen eggs a day and grow food for basic living. There are three families plus us living on this vineyard campus.”

When it comes to either profession, Nicol says both require similar communications but have totally different results. “I am not recommending either profession unless [you] have the talent for them,” he adds. “There are many obstacles to deal with unexpectedly, especially if alone,” he adds.

Clearly, Nicol is talented in both professions. His wine grapes, by the way, have received two 90+ ratings from Wine Spectator (2008 and 2012), which less than five percent of wines in the world can achieve.

Robert Nicol, arquitecto y viticultor

Después de trabajar más de 45 años como arquitecto, Bob Nicol se convirtió en propietario de un viñedo, sin haberlo tenido en mente. Había decidido trasladarse al norte, desde Oakland (California) a Napa cuando encontró una residencia de ensueño diseñada por el estudio de Frank Lloyd Wright. Disponía de un ático perfecto para obras de arquitectura. Casualmente disponía también de 20 acres de viñedos.

El negocio de arquitectura de Robert iba despacio, por lo que decidió apuntarse a clases en la UC Davis sobre el mantenimiento de viñedos existentes. Junto con su equipo, renovó y mejoró las vides mal mantenidas.

Ahora se dedica a la viticultura.

La pérdida auditiva

La madre de Robert tuvo un parto complicado en el que casi pierden la vida los dos. Unos meses más tarde, se descubrió que el niño era completamente sordo. Solo respondía al ruido por debajo de 500 hercios, que es el extremo superior del sonido en el que se notan vibraciones sin oír nada. El habla humana oscila entre 500 y 3000 hercios, por lo que Robert no oía cuando hablaban sus padres. Probaron todo tipo de dispositivos auditivos disponibles en aquella época, hace tan solo 25 años, con resultados negativos. Como Robert era hijo único, sus padres pudieron dedicarle toda su atención. Le apuntaron a una clase de arte semanal, así como a clases de baile y música. El objetivo era averiguar qué se le daba bien o en qué mostraba potencial.

El entorno escolar era difícil porque Robert tenía problemas para prestar atención y comprender. La educación en el hogar era la única alternativa, donde se utilizaron métodos rigurosos para obligarle a prestar atención a la educación básica y al habla por parte de dos maestros. No pronunció su primer pensamiento completo hasta los 10 años. Cuando llegó el momento de la etapa de secundaria, se consideró que la academia militar era la mejor opción para corregir su comportamiento y sus necesidades de socialización. Para entonces, era un excelente lector de labios, si bien tenía patrones de habla deficientes. No resultó fácil pero logró el rango de teniente primero. Una vez preparado para entrar en la universidad, su voz había mejorado mucho gracias a un maestro de habla con el que trabajaba una vez a la semana. Su esposa, que era profesora de teatro, también le daba clases particulares sobre inflexión.

Estudiar arquitectura

Después de varios veranos trabajando como dibujante en varios lugares, la palabra «arquitecto» seguía apareciendo. Mientras asistía a una pequeña universidad privada de artes liberales, Robert pasó por la construcción de una nueva biblioteca. Pudo ver un conjunto enrollado de planos de arquitecto. Se dirigió a la antigua biblioteca para aprender acerca de la profesión y descubrió que requería mucha más educación de la que estaba recibiendo. Para ser arquitecto, se deben cursar estudios en una universidad acreditada en arquitectura, que suelen ser de seis años. A continuación, se deben adquirir 3-5 años de experiencia práctica en un estudio de arquitectos con licencia antes de realizar el examen estatal (10 exámenes en cinco días). En California, la tasa promedio de fracaso supera el 80 %, comenta Robert. Los alumnos pueden realizar el examen dos veces más.

Asistió a clases durante cinco años en la UC Berkeley para obtener un máster universitario. Después de trabajar en dos estudios de arquitectos durante cuatro años, Robert pasó varios años ejerciendo en solitario antes de fundar su propio estudio de 11 personas. Después de cinco años, decidió trabajar de nuevo en solitario, lo que hizo durante los siguientes 40 años. Utilizaba un servicio de contestador como ayuda en las llamadas telefónicas. Cuando se inventó la máquina de fax, se convirtió en la principal fuente de comunicación del estudio.

En 1993, Robert fue nombrado «Fellow of the American Architects», una de las designaciones profesionales de mayor prestigio para arquitectos del país, según Fresno State News.

Trabajar de viticultor

Ahora que Robert tiene 85 años, le gustaría bajar la velocidad y relajarse un poco. Sin embargo, como propietario de un viñedo, hay muchas tareas que hacer. Tiene un equipo de ocho trabajadores agrícolas que no hablan inglés y un gerente residente que habla inglés y español.  La sordera de Robert no ha sido un problema; se desenvuelve bien utilizando Live Transcribe y con la ayuda de su pareja, Wanda.

Robert Nicol Vineyards, donde se cultivan uvas pinot noir, chardonnay y riesling, se encuentra en un valle montañoso con una elevación de 1.600 pies (488 m) al final de lo que podría ser el «callejón sin salida» más largo del condado con 15 millas (24 km). Se encuentra aislado, pero Robert así lo prefiere.

«Generamos nuestra propia electricidad con energía solar, baterías Tesla y un generador Cummins», dice Robert. «El agua procede de un pozo con una pureza de dos partes por millón. Tenemos 20 gallinas que ponen una docena de huevos al día y cultivamos alimentos para la vida básica. En este campo de viñedos viven tres familias, además de nosotros».

En cuanto a cada profesión, Robert señala que en ambas se requiere una comunicación similar, pero los resultados son totalmente diferentes. «No recomiendo ninguna de las dos profesiones a no ser que se tenga talento para ellas», añade. «Existen numerosos obstáculos imprevistos a los que te tienes que enfrentar, especialmente si trabajas en solitario», concluye.

Claramente, Robert tiene talento en ambas profesiones. Por cierto, sus uvas para vino han recibido dos calificaciones de 90+ de Wine Spectator (2008 y 2012), algo que menos del 5 % de los vinos del mundo puede lograr.

 

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