By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
Brian Nuss was in the construction business in the 1980s when he got the call to build a 20,000-square-foot home for the late comedian Robin Williams. The site was 600 acres on Mt. Veeder, not only a perfect, isolated location for the comedian’s privacy but also a great location for a vineyard. Williams’ father was after his son to “do something” with all that property and suggested a vineyard. The actor turned back to Nuss, who knew nothing about growing grapes but who was given the assignment.
Nuss brought in Robert Craig, who at the time was president and general manager of The Hess Collection winery. He had a lot of experience developing vineyards, including on Mt. Veeder. Twenty-five acres were planted to cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. The first vintage of Vinoce was 1996.
Nuss and his wife Lori developed a long-term friendship with Williams. They left the property before the comedian’s death in 2014.
“He could tell the same dirty jokes over and over and they’d still crack me up,” Nuss said of Williams. “I think it was the delivery.”
The name “Vinoce” is a tribute to Nuss’ mixed heritage and loosely defined means “wine nut.” “Nuss” means “nut” in German and “noce” is nut in Italian. “Vin,” of course, is wine.
You’d have to be a nut to endure a business that had its challenges. His wife died in 2016. His friends Craig and Williams died. Firestorms destroyed the 2017 and 2020 vintages. Instead of turning back, however, Nuss set his future on reinvention.
He is releasing two new wines, zinfandel labeled The Grapplier and a St. Helena cabernet sauvignon labeled Piccola Noce. He continues to make several wines from purchased grapes under the Vinoce label.
He also is building a business for his sons – Tim and Tyler – to take over.
In 2013 he brought in Keith Emerson as winemaker. Emerson worked 20 years in the wine industry, including a stint making 100-point wines for Vineyard 29.
We tasted an outstanding 2021 Vinoce Lori’s Lucky Penny Sauvignon Blanc ($45) that had some oak exposure to give it a round mouthfeel. The label is based on his late wife’s discovery of a penny outside the stadium of their beloved San Francisco Giants in 2010. That was the year the team won the World Series. She attributed the victory to her lucky penny.
We also enjoyed the 2019 Vinoce St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) for its balance. Smooth, black fruit character and surprisingly mature tannins.
Vinoce is a small producer, making less than 2,000 cases in a good year. Nuss said he wants to keep production manageable and not expand if it means a drop in quality. Even though the prices may seem high, we would not be surprised to see them escalate as Vinoce gains cult status under Emerson’s winemaking.
The wines are available mostly through the web site, www.vinoce.com.
Ladera Russian River Valley Pillow Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 ($60). This vineyard is just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean and benefits from a maritime climate. We loved the rich and juicy texture of the wine. Those of you who like your chardonnays with some oak notes will enjoy the spice character in this wine.
Ladera Napa Valley Howell Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($179). All of the vineyards in this sub-appellation have to be located above 1,400 feet, which makes it unique. Not surprisingly, its mountain vineyards produce some of the best and most complex cabernet sauvignon in California. Winemaker Jade Barrett manages to restrain the body and tannins of this monster to offer buyers a layered, fruit-forward and enjoyable wine. Dark fruit aromas are followed by black cherry flavors with a hint of mineral and soft tannins.
Ladera Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($89). Out of the bottle this wine is very complex and hedonistic with luscious plum and black cherry notes that stretch from the aromas to the flavors. Hints of coffee and spice. Ladera sources grapes for this wine from Howell Mountain, Pritchard Hill, Atlas Peak and Calistoga to give it a broad spectrum of flavors.
VML Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 ($55). Using grapes from a single vineyard in the Russian River Valley, this producer has a hit with this soft and balanced chardonnay. Apricot and apple notes with hints of vanilla and flint.
Canvasback Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($44). This wine from Duckhorn’s Washington State portfolio is a blend of cabernet sauvignon (84 percent), merlot, malbec and petit verdot. Strawberry and red cherry notes with easy tannins and a hint of licorice.