On a recent sunny Thursday in Berkeley, Nori Nakamura stood on the outside patio of his new winery on Gilman Street, a white pitchfork held high above his head. A forklift tilted a box of freshly picked Pinot Noir grapes toward Nakamura, who raked them onto a conveyor belt, which moved the purple fruit up into a destemming machine. The clusters then dropped into an oak barrel, where they would begin to ferment.

Noria Wines is at 725A Gilman St., Berkeley. The tasting room is open Fridays, 3 p.m.-7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays, noon-6 p.m. Wines cost from $10 to $15 a glass. Tasting flights, with three or four glasses, run $25 to $35. 

Nakamura, 52, has been making wine for more than 20 years and has had his own label since 2010. But Sept. 28 was the first time he had made wine in his own facility, at his own winery.

Noria Wines at 725A Gilman St. opened its doors in August, joining a cluster of eight other wineries in West Berkeley. Noria, which means waterwheel in Spanish, specializes in California wines that pair well with Japanese cuisine. Sourcing grapes from vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, Nakamura crafts four different Pinot Noirs, a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc and a sparkling white wine. They are available to taste Friday afternoons and every weekend in the winery, a space with handcrafted wooden doors, Japanese hanging lamps and barrels of aging wine stacked high against one wall. 

Nori Nakamura rakes Pinot Noir grapes from a forklift onto onto a conveyor belt, which moves the purple fruit up into a destemming machine. Credit Kelly Sullivan

Nakamura, who first came to the U.S. in 1999 to work for an international hospitality company, has worked 22 harvests. But decades of experience have done little to dispel the nervousness he felt last month processing grapes at his own place for the first time. Previously, Nakamura made Noria wines at Silenus, a custom crush facility in Napa, which assists in all aspects of winemaking. This time, Nakamura was only helped by a longtime friend, Gonzalo Martinez, from Napa.

“I’m so scared,” Nakamura said he as rushed from loading the grapes to moving his barrels with a forklift. “It feels good, but not quite yet.”

Brosseau Vineyard in Monterey county had delivered five tons of Pinot Noir grapes that morning and Nakamura and Martinez planned to process them in just a few hours. Most of the grapes would be placed whole in the stainless-steel fermentation tanks that line the back wall of the winery. But Nakamura also lets some grapes ferment naturally in oak barrels for a few days without yeast or refrigeration. He then blends the two. 

A cold and wet spring pushed back this year’s grape harvest by about six weeks. Nakamura was happy about the delay, as it gave him more time to move barrels of Noria wine from Napa and open his tasting room. 

Noria is at 725A Gilman St., close to eight other wineries in West Berkeley. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

A desire to be in Berkeley’s bustling wine scene

Nakamura has long dreamed of opening an urban winery in the East Bay. He has been making wine in Napa for decades but has always commuted there, first from Vallejo, where he lived with his girlfriend, and then, after they married, from Albany. I “love Berkeley, the East Bay,” he said. Nakamura wanted to open a place where people could drop in without appointments (unlike at many Napa wineries) and could enjoy tasting wine in a more casual and friendly environment. 

Nakamura began searching for a spot in January 2022 and looked all around, including in Alameda, which also has a number of wineries. But as soon as he saw 725 A Gilman, which used to house an outdoor pottery and fountain store, he grabbed it. 

The space is just steps away from several other wineries, including Donkey & Goat, Broc Cellars, Hammerling Wines and Vinca Minor, which makes it easy for customers to wander from one winery to another. On the first Friday of every month, the various wineries host Gilman Wine Block First Friday with wine, food and music. Hundreds of wine lovers tend to show up. The next First Friday is scheduled for Nov. 3.

“It’s all about location, location, location,” said Nakamura. “In the winery business, the more the merrier.”

Nakamura leased the West Berkeley space in October 2022 and then went through the long process of getting permits and building it out. Martinez, who is an accomplished carpenter, made the hanging barn doors for the winery. Nakamura’s brother made the wood countertops.

The other wineries in the neighborhood have already welcomed Nakamura. Jared Brandt, the co-founder of Donkey & Goat Winery, said Nakamura brought by some bottles of Noria Pinot Noir from Sangiacomo Vineyards to taste. The whole team enjoyed the wine.

“It’s a great addition to the neighborhood,” said Brandt.

Noria offers four different Pinot Noirs, a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc and a sparkling white wine. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Unexpected path to becoming a winemaker

Growing up, Nakamura learned about wine when he visited his uncle’s Italian restaurant in Tokyo. He mostly drank French and Italian wines there and at other fine restaurants in Japan. He got a sommelier certificate after falling in love with Italian wine after a trip to Italy. So, when the company he worked for, JAL Hotels, sent him to San Francisco in 1999 to work as the catering manager at the Nikko Hotel, he didn’t know anything about California wines. And at first, he wasn’t interested.

But then a friend invited him to go wine-tasting. They went to Truchard Vineyards in Napa where the owner walked them through the vineyards and brought them into the cool, dim wine cave. There, at the end of the cave, illuminated by a beam of light, stood two glasses of Chardonnay. The wine was a deep yellow, unlike the light yellow French Chardonnay Nakamura was used to. Nakamura took a sip. It was an “aha” moment. The wine’s fruitiness overwhelmed him, as did the pleasure he got wandering the vineyard. 

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, shame on me,’” said Nakamura. “I really need to study and drink more California wine.’” 

He then embarked on a serious study of California wines. Within a year, he had visited 170 wineries. His appreciation for the wines grew into a desire to make them. He wasn’t sure how, but every time he got the chance to ask a winemaker where he or she had learned to make wine, they responded “UC Davis.” 

“I realized that there could be a way for me to get into the industry,” Nakamura said. “That was to go to UC Davis to learn about viticulture technology. And then, if I can get the degree, that could be my entrance ticket to the industry, even though I don’t know anyone here.”

After his job with Nikko Hotel ended, Nakamura took a year of prerequisite classes at UC Davis and then enrolled in the viticulture and enology program. He transferred credits from his Japanese university and got his degree in just two years.

Like all would-be winemakers, Nakamura started to work at various wineries, first as a “cellar rat,” cleaning equipment and moving barrels, and eventually assisting in the winemaking process. He worked at two custom crush facilities where he observed how dozens of winemakers crafted their vintages. He worked as an assistant winemaker at Artesa Vineyards and Winery in Napa and then as head winemaker at Jamieson Ranch Vineyards and Larson Family Winery in Sonoma. 

“If you want to be successful as a business making wine, you have to have a plan and a story.”  — Nori Nakamura

By 2010, Nakamura was ready to start his own label. He knew he had to develop a wine that would stand out in the highly competitive wine market. Nakamura loved the sophisticated food scene in Japan, but realized few diners drank wine to accompany those meals. California’s bold and fruity cabernets with their strong tannins overpowered most delicate Japanese dishes. Nakamura thought he could make a lighter California wine that would blend well with sophisticated Japanese food. “I spent a year or so to come up with the concept,” he said. “There are thousands of wines in California produced every year. The market is very competitive. If you want to be successful as a business making wine, you have to have a plan and a story.” 

Nakamura used Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from Sangiacomo Vineyards, the same place that Artesa Winery, his employer at the time, sourced grapes. “I fell in love with the complexity, depth and pure fruit expression of the Pinot Noir,” he said. He has now been using grapes from those vineyards for 13 years.

In his first year Nakamura made 300 cases — all at the custom crush facility Silenus in Napa — and he sold all of them in Japan. He focused on the Japanese market from 2010 to 2014, gradually increasing his production.

Working with his longtime friend Gonzalo Martinez (right), Nori Nakamura moves barrels of wine with a forklift at his new winery, Noria. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

In 2014, the value of the yen dropped sharply, which meant the cost of Nakamura’s wines suddenly doubled. He knew he needed to diversify and expand production to go into the U.S. market. And for that he needed capital. He found funds from Japanese investors and then hit the pavement in the Bay Area. He visited many Japanese restaurants, with bottles of Noria wine in tow. “It wasn’t easy but I had a niche market,” he said.

Noria wines are now also sold in 25 restaurants in San Francisco and in San Diego, Florida, New Jersey and Indiana. He currently makes about 1,500 cases a year. With the new winery on Gilman, Nakamura and his new business partner, Atsushi Yamari, plan to expand to 3,000 cases a year. 

“Nori is focused and driven to make the best wine he can,” said Scott Meadows, the president of Silenus, the custom crush facility where Nakamura got his start and where he made wine for decades. Meadows has watched Nakamura evolve as a winemaker, experimenting with different grapes and flavor profiles. Noria wines have shattered the myth that wine only goes with Western food, said Meadows, who spent decades in Japan. Nakamura’s wines are crisp and pair well with lighter food. “My wife loves them,” said Meadows. 

Less than a week after Nakamura crushed his first vintage in his new Berkeley winery, he was happy but tired. The new place was already living up to his expectations. He had hosted a delegation of 30 people from Japan and reveled in having an elegant space to show off his winemaking and hospitality skills. Newcomers had dropped by to taste the wine. And he had been working late into the day to process grapes, including some Gewurztraminer for a white wine. 

I have not had a moment to feel a sense of achievement,” Nakamura said. “However, I feel that I am now living the dream I once aspired to.”

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