Brian Nuss first fell in love with Mount Veeder in 1983, when he moved from Colorado and began working as a ranch hand in this rugged area west of the city of Napa, Calif. "It's the most beautiful place in the world," he says without hesitation.
But it's not just the breathtaking vistas that attracted him. Nuss, now the owner of Vinoce Vineyards, argues that the appellation has the climate and altitude to make wines that, at their best, can have unique earthy tannins, rich fruit flavors and silky texture.
Nuss, 46, is so smitten that he named his new winery Vinoce (pronounced vin-O-chay), which he translates as "wine nut." He coined the word in tribute to his German-Italian heritage; "nuss" means nut in German, and "noce" is nut in Italian.
Nuss' introduction to Napa County grapegrowing came through a roundabout route. Although he was working in home construction when he arrived in California, he also served as a ranch hand at comedian Robin Williams' 600-acre property, PymRae, perched 1,600 feet above the Napa Valley floor on Mount Veeder.
When Williams decided to add vineyards in the early 1990s, Nuss, who was managing PymRae by then, contacted Robert Craig for planting advice. Craig, then president and general manager of The Hess Collection winery, was impressed by Nuss' no-pretenses, down-to-earth style, and the two became friends.
When Nuss purchased 40 acres of PymRae in 1990, he again called on Craig for guidance. Following Craig's advice, Nuss planted 25 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Yet, despite his passion for Mount Veeder, Nuss did not initially have the right to use the name of the appellation, which had just received its official American Viticultural Area designation in 1990. "We cut off the appellation at [Nuss'] property line because there were no grapes planted there yet," explains Craig, who had helped to draw up the boundaries. The appellation had to be amended to include Vinoce once the vineyard was planted.
Initially, Nuss sold his grapes to Robert Craig winery, as well as to Cuvaison and Ehlers Lane. Impressed with what others were doing with his grapes, he decided to give winemaking a try. He worked a couple of harvests at Robert Craig, and enrolled in courses at the University of California, Davis, in preparation for his first vintage.
Nuss' debut wine, the Vinoce Mount Veeder 1997 (89 points, $60, 210 cases) is a blend of 50 percent Cabernet Franc, 30 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. It's effusively fruity, with jammy blackberry, raspberry and wild berry flavors that are rich and elegant. "I just wanted to do something different with Cabernet Franc," said Nuss.
Future vintages will also contain at least 50 percent Cabernet Franc, as does his latest release, the Vinoce Mount Veeder 1998 (88 points, $60, 190 cases). Even though many vintners struggled to get grapes ripe during 1998's cool, wet weather, Nuss made a wine with very ripe, juicy blackberry, plum and wild berry fruit that is rich and polished.
One of Nuss' primary concerns is managing the Mount Veeder tannins. The mountain vines produce small berries with tremendous concentration, but the high proportion of skins and seeds to juice can result in overly tannic wines. Nuss, who makes his wines at the Robert Craig facility, ferments his wine in barrels, in an effort to integrate fruit and oak flavors from the beginning, and then ages it for almost two years in new French oak.
Nuss expects to make 500 cases from the 1999 vintage, and eventually plans to expand production to 1,500 cases annually. Meanwhile, he still owns his home-construction company. "I love it all," he said. "But I'm just looking forward to when I can do this [wine] and nothing else."
Check our our recent ratings of Vinoce wines.
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