Berkeley’s Gilman District is celebrated for its punk music venue, breweries that have become popular gathering places, a Whole Foods Market, and, more recently, the new Boichik Bagels’ factory and cafe. But winemaker Nori Nakamura decided to open his winery, Nakamura Cellars, in the neighborhood because there were already several other wineries located within two blocks of each other, between Fourth and Sixth streets on Gilman.
Nakamura started his American career at the Hotel Nikko in downtown San Francisco, after working for the hotel’s parent company in Japan. Before his arrival in the United States, he’d also become a certified sommelier. Last month, Nakamura gave me a tour of his newly opened tasting room and winemaking facility.
Two grape crushers—one for processing red grapes, the second for white—and several gleaming steel tanks contained the next batches of Noria Wines. Nakamura added an “a” at the end of his first name to come up with the name of his label and the Spanish word for waterwheel. According to his website, the image is meant to conjure “water, nature and the basic energy of life.”
His lifelong path toward winemaking has its origins in a distinctive set of childhood memories. When he was a boy, his late uncle opened an Italian restaurant in the middle of Tokyo. “My family got together there once or twice a year,” Nakamura recalled. “Everybody sat at a long table, maybe 15 people, having a good time, eating good food.” And all the adults were drinking wine. Although he didn’t know anything about wine at the time, Nakamura recognized something special about the effect it had at those family gatherings.
“Wine culture wasn’t prevalent back then [in Japan], 35, 40 years ago,” he explained. Japan’s drinking culture revolved around beer, sake and whiskey. Drinking wine started to become trendy there, he noted, about 20 years ago.
After he’d settled into his job in San Francisco, a friend of Nakamura’s took him up to Napa for a winery tour. Before that trip, he’d been embracing European wines and largely avoiding the ones made here in California. That day, a pale green chardonnay changed his mind about California wines. “It was a big expression, with huge fruits,” he said. “I had never tasted wine like it.” Nakamura was inspired to not only study local winemaking but to also start tasting as many of the local different varieties as he could.
On his subsequent travels throughout wine country, Nakamura asked everyone he met how they started making wine. Without fail, they’d all gotten degrees through the UC Davis viticulture and enology department. Nakamura followed suit. After graduating from the program in 2004, he worked his way up from assistant to head winemaker at several wineries, including Jamieson Ranch Vineyards in Napa and Larson Family Winery in Sonoma.
While he was learning the craft and trade, Nakamura, with the support of his employers, decided to launch his own label. He started to sell Noria wines in 2010. To differentiate his label from a wide field of established brands, Nakamura decided to make California wines that would pair with Japanese cuisine.
“When I talk about Japanese food with non-Japanese people, some of them think that sushi is the only Japanese food,” Nakamura said. “But there’s a range of dishes, many different vegetables and appetizers, so many ingredients combined with different cooking techniques.” With that range in mind, Nakamura doesn’t model the flavor profiles of his sauvignon blanc and chardonnay on similar wines. Instead, his point of departure is the two main types of sake—junmai and ginjo.
Junmai sake, he explained, is the traditional kind, known for its bold alcohol-forward flavor. It’s normally served at room temperature. “When you go to Japan in wintertime and eat udon or ramen, some people serve it warm,” explained Nakamura. Ginjo is made with a cold-temperature fermentation process, a newer technique. “The flavor retains a fruitiness, a freshness, a vibrancy,” he said. And it’s always served cold.
“My sauvignon blanc, I’m modeling after the ginjo style of sake,” he said. “It’s not the taste but the structure and mouthfeel.” But, Nakamura added, there’s also a hybrid sake called junmai ginjo, which is his favorite type of sake to drink. “It’s more complex because it contains the characteristics of both.” His chardonnay is based on the junmai ginjo sake.
“My recommendation for the chardonnay is to pair it with sukiyaki,” Nakamura said. Sukiyaki, he reminded me, is a broth made with soy sauce, mirin and sugar. Thin slices of beef are cooked in it, and then diners can dip the meat in an egg. “Because it has more structure and sharpness, it also pairs well with egg dishes and shellfish,” he noted.
His sauvignon blanc is made from grapes grown in the Russian River Valley. “This one is very fresh, vibrant, very fruity, but with a nice acidity,” he said. Although it’s really good with sashimi, he believes the best pairing is with tempura, vegetables, chicken or fish.
One of Noria’s 2020 pinot noir vintages is harvested from grapes in the Chalone region of Monterey County. “What’s unique about Chalone is the limestone. You hardly see any limestone deposits in California, but there’s this tiny spot in Hollister,” Nakamura said. Noria also produces a sparkling wine and a rosé, which are only available for purchase in the tasting room.
When Nakamura initially launched Noria wines, he sold the bulk of his first vintages to a distributor in Japan. Because the price of wine is currently elevated in Japan, 70% of Nakamura’s customer base is now American, and, he estimated, many of his clients are local restaurants. Iyasare in Berkeley currently features Noria’s chardonnay and pinot noir on their wine list; both are 2016 vintages. Nakamura noted that his wines are also served, among many other restaurants, at Masa Sushi in Novato, Ozumo in San Francisco and Wakuriya in San Mateo.
At the end of 2022, Nakamura left his full-time job at the Larson Family Winery to devote himself to the 2023 launch of Nakamura Cellars. While his winery is not licensed for food service, Noria has started to partner with food trucks and pop-ups. At the end of September, the staff from Chikara Ono’s Delage served sushi to a lucky group of 12 wine tasters. And on Nov. 4, jazz harpist Motoshi Kosako performs one of his sets inside the winery.
Nakamura Cellars, open Fri 3-7pm, Saturday to Sunday 12-6pm, 725-A Gilman St., Berkeley. 415.992.2332. noriawines.com.