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by Ken Zinns

After taking a few wine courses through UC Extension in the early '90s, Bay Area architect Ken Zinns developed a serious interest wine. Ken has been touring and tasting wines for nearly 20 years, and has come to love not only the wines, but also the people behind them. Ken's interest in wine is more than passive, and he's been working at several urban East Bay wineries since 2001, and is the assistant winemaker for both Eno Wines in Berkeley and Harrington Wine in San Francisco.

Visit to Noria Wines in Berkeley - October 2023

Sunday - October 29, 2023

I visited a new winery and tasting room in West Berkeley in late October with a couple of friends. Noria Wines opened in August, getting their remodeled space ready just in time for this year’s harvest and crush. There had been a couple of nice articles on the winery recently, and my friend Jane suggested meeting there on a Sunday afternoon. I checked in with another friend, Taka Momoi – owner/winemaker of Arthur Cellars in San Francisco – as I’d mentioned the new winery to him and he’d told me that he’d met the winemaker before and had actually already been to their new Berkeley tasting room.

Jane, Taka, and I met up for lunch at Picante in Berkeley – a longtime favorite for Mexican fare, it’s just a couple of blocks from Noria. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch at a large shaded patio space and then walked down the street to the Noria tasting room.

Noria Wines is located on Gilman Street just off of Fourth Street in West Berkeley, joining a growing list of small wineries and breweries in the neighborhood, all located within a few blocks of one another. The winery exterior combines the industrial look of West Berkeley with a most welcoming entryway. Jane, Taka, and I walked into the Noria tasting room and were greeted right away by owner/winemaker Nori Nakamura and his business partner Atsushi Yanai. There’s a tasting bar with seating just inside of the entrance at one end of the space, while most of the large open area was set up with tables and chairs, with stacks of barrels and large wine tanks at the other end of the space. There’s an adjacent outdoor area that’s used as the winery crushpad. After my friends and I took a seat at one of the tables, we had a chance to talk with Nori for a little while.

Noria just opened in August – later than Nori had hoped due to the lengthy building permit approval process and construction work to convert the previous space into a winery. Nori told us that he was thankful for this year’s later-than-usual winegrape harvest – he said that if he’d gotten his first Pinot Noir fruit this year at the same time he got it last year, he would not yet have received some crucial winery equipment that he’d ordered. It must have been a rather stressful harvest and crush season for him, with the winery space and equipment still just coming together in his new facility.

Nori told us that he was very happy to have found a space for his new winery so close to other wineries in Berkeley. It’s typically a close-knit group of producers there who’ve been able to capitalize on the synergy of so many wineries within the small area, and Nori said they’ve been very welcoming. He also likes the low-key, casual vibe of wine tasting in this urban wine oasis compared with the more formal (and expensive) tastings in Napa Valley.

Nori, who’s originally from Tokyo but has lived in California since 1999, worked for wineries in Napa and Sonoma for over 20 years before focusing full-time on his Noria wines this year. While he was still working in the hospitality field in Japan, he earned a sommelier certification, and after he arrived in California, his growing love of wine led to his enrolling in the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis and receiving a degree from there in 2002. Starting out as a winery cellar hand, he eventually worked his way up to become assistant winemaker and then winemaker for several highly-regarded wineries in Napa and Sonoma. He launched his own Noria wine label in 2010 while he was still working in Napa, and until this year he made his wines at other wine facilities there, so this year was actually the first time he’s made the Noria wines in his own winery.

The name Noria, besides being a play on his own name, means “waterwheel” in Spanish. The waterwheel can be seen to represent water, energy, and the cycle of nature, and these elements also relate to grapevines and wine. Like many vintners, one of Nori’s main goals is for his wines to pair well with food, and in this case, with Japanese cuisine. He crafts his wines to be more subtle and elegant than the bolder renditions found in many California wines made from the same grape varieties as his. In fact, he models some of his wines on different styles of sake – not for the flavors but for the vibrancy and texture. Early on, Nori sold all of his wine in Japan, but with fluctuating exchange rates between the yen and dollar affecting sales there, he found that he needed to augment that with domestic sales. He told us that he currently sells around 70% of his wine in the US market, with much of it going to Japanese restaurants in California and other states. Production for the Noria wines is about 1,500 cases per year with plans to expand to around 3,000 cases in the coming years.

Jane, Taka, and I all took a look at the Noria wine list that Nori had given us. There are three tasting flights available – one with three white wines, another with three red wines, and a third with a mix of two whites and two reds. We all selected the mixed tasting flight, and Nori graciously started us off with a taste of a wine that was not part of the flight, his 2015 Brut Sparkling Wine. Made by the traditional Méthode Champenoise with 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir from Carneros, this was “en tirage” (matured in the bottle) for seven years. This had subtle pear and apple aromas, with toasty undertones, a creamy yet vibrant texture and light delicate bubbles – quite pleasant.

We continued with the two white wines of our tasting flight, which Nori brought out together for us. The 2021 Bevill Family Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc came from the cooler western portion of Russian River Valley. Fermented in 60% stainless steel and 40% neutral oak and aged on the lees, this wine includes a small percentage of Gewürztraminer (which I hadn’t guessed until I read the notes on the winery website later). I’m not usually a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc but this was really enjoyable, with bright grapefruit aromas along with subtle floral and fresh herb notes, a medium-light mouthfeel and lively finish. Sourced from the Sonoma Coast AVA, the 2021 Sangiacomo Green Acres Vineyard Chardonnay was whole-cluster pressed and fermented and aged entirely in French oak, with 25% of the barrels being new. This displayed apple and citrus on the nose, with touches of flowers and fresh herbs in the background. The oak was more a feature of the medium-rich texture than the aroma, and the wine had a long clean finish.

Moving on to red wines, Nori again brought both of them for us to compare – two Pinot Noirs from very different vineyard sites. First was the 2021 Sangiacomo Roberts Road Vineyard Pinot Noir, from a site located in the Petaluma Gap region of the Sonoma Coast AVA. Made with Swan, 777, and 115 Pinot clones, this was aged for 14 months in 50% new French oak. Featuring upfront black cherry and spice along with subtle floral notes, this was medium-bodied with good acidity, fine tannins, and a lively finish. Delicious now though it has enough structure for mid-term cellaring. Our second red was the 2020 Brosseau Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Chalone AVA in Monterey County. From Mount Eden and 114 clones, this underwent a very similar winemaking process as with the Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot. With a more savory herbal profile than the first Pinot, its red fruit and spice components less prominent, and it had a more structured mouthfeel and tannic finish – some time in the cellar should benefit this wine. These two Pinots were totally distinct from one another, and they displayed their vineyard site origins very well.

In addition to the wines we tasted during our visit, Noria also makes a Pinot Noir from Umino Vineyard in Russian River Valley and has also produced a Rosé of Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. They’ll also be adding Gewürztraminer to their wine line-up, and they’re planning to release a Gewürztraminer Pét-nat sparkling wine soon. Given the Spanish meaning of winery’s name, it’s appropriate that the wine labels evoke the image of a waterwheel. In addition to the tasting flights and bottles for sale, all of the current wines are available to enjoy by the glass at the tasting room. Prices are very reasonable for the quality of all of the wines. Noria is open for visitors on Friday through Sunday afternoons (see the winery website for hours) and reservations for tasting are not required – walk-in visitors are welcome. And although their license does not permit them to serve food, they’re working on bringing food trucks to the winery.

Jane, Taka, and I all had a wonderful time at Noria. It’s a pleasant, relaxed environment, and we experienced great service and hospitality by Nori and Atsushi during our visit. The Noria wines we tasted were all very good, and their light, graceful touch will be excellent matches with a variety of foods, not just Japanese cuisine. I was surprised after our tasting when I saw on the winery website the percentage of new French barrels used on their Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs – the oak is so well-integrated in all of these wines that it doesn’t stand out at all in the way that it sometimes does in other wines. I enjoyed all of the wines we tasted, though my favorites were the 2021 Bevill Family Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and 2021 Sangiacomo Roberts Road Vineyard Pinot Noir, with the 2015 Brut Sparkling Wine just a touch behind those two. Noria is a fine addition to the West Berkeley wine scene, and presents a very distinct set of wines compared with other wineries in that neighborhood. If you’re planning a visit to that compact group of West Berkeley wineries – and you should! – a stop at the Noria tasting room is highly recommended.

[Additional Reviews & Journals from Ken Zinns]


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