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How vine passion is fermented

Posted: October 16, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Updated: October 16, 2011 1:30 a.m.

Nancy and Russ Briley, joined by their dog Gucci, enjoy a bottle of their wine under their backyard grape arbor at their home in Castaic on Sept. 24.

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The Pinot Noir coming out of Nuggucciet Cellars began with the flip of a coin and a love of wine.

In 2007, Russ and Nancy Briley of Castaic decided to take a class at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita.

Russ won the coin toss and selected a food and wine pairing class for the couple to attend. Little did they know it would be one of the hardest classes the two had ever taken and lead the couple to producing their own wine.

But the road to becoming an online retailer was about as twisted as the vines in a vineyard of full-bodied grapes.

“Our original plan was just to make wine for our own use,” Russ Briley said.

But after receiving some positive reviews from Pinot Noir winemakers in Santa Barbara County, the couple sent a bottle off to Pinotfile and received a Good+ rating, roughly the equivalent of an 89 to 90 rating Briley said.

“We also received the value icon from them, meaning our wine is a great value for the price,” he said.

Each bottle sells for $25, nearly half the price a good boutique wine is generally sold for.

 The wine community


With good reviews in hand, the husband and wife team decided to roll the dice, make small lots of wine, and gradually build their volume each year to generate supplemental income for later in life.

Along the way, Briley met Mike Brown, winemaker and owner of Cantara Cellars in Camarillo.

“Russ is a wine geek,” Brown said. “He came into our winery one day, and we started chatting. He told me that he wanted to make wine.”


 But you cannot make wine outside a licensed winery, he said.

“I told him to bring his grapes on in, and we’ll get the wine made,” Brown said.

Briley doesn’t have his own vineyard but knew what grapes he needed to make a wine offering subtle flavors of red berries and cherries with a hint of spice and sandalwood. He began calling vineyards looking for just the right grape to buy.

“We were trying to find grapes, and Chuck Ortman of Riverbench Vineyard had some at the very last minute,” Briley said. “He sold us three-quarters of a ton and off we went.”

The grapes had to be picked up immediately after being picked early in the morning.

Transporting the nearly ton of grapes to a crush facility in Santa Maria, which destems and crushes the grapes, the resulting product was mixed with sulfur dioxide and dry ice to prevent the grapes from spoiling.


“The fermentation process can start as soon as the grapes are crushed, but it needs to happen in a controlled environment,” Briley said.


Driving the crushed grapes to a temperature-controlled environment in Oxnard, the grapes were cold-soaked for 72 hours. Each morning and evening, the grapes would be pushed to the bottom of the tank.


It took nearly 10 days until the liquid and partially broken grapes could be put into a press to extract the juice, add yeast and stored in oak barrels for aging.


Connoisseurs unite
“We wanted to age the wine as long as we could to get the complexity of the wine,” Briley said. “We waited 18 months.”


 Mike Brown of Cantara Cellars guided the Nuggucciet Cellars winemakers through the entire journey.


The final product wouldn’t have happened without him, Briley said.


Unlike the large wineries, Brown said working with small vintners is no different than the intellectual property that gets exchanged between chefs comparing recipes.


“Every chef will prepare the same dish in a different way, but with a slightly different twist,” he said. “It’s a very personal experience, like wine.”


On bottling day, Brown let the Brileys bring friends to his winery to fill, label and cork the bottles offering up the use of a pricey mobile truck to get the job done for Nuggucciet Cellars.


Producing 38 cases, or 456 bottles of vintage May 2009 wine in May 2011, was a neat feeling after waiting 18 months, Briley said.


“Friends came out and helped, it was a labor of love. And Mike had a barbecue to feed everyone."


Merely bottling the final product after all that time, however, was just the beginning of more trials to come for the boutique winemaker.

Labeling and licensing approvals


The labeling can cause stress and heartache too, Briley said.

The label had to be submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Canterra had to submit the label for him, because it had to come from the winery that was producing the wine, Briley said.

It took over two weeks to get approval. There are many requirements about content, font sizes, whether it’s a California wine or not and more.

“I had to submit the label three times before it was approved,” he said.

A byzantine string of government regulations, contradictions met Briley each step of the way, until the city of Santa Clarita stepped in, Briley said.

“The city of Santa Clarita was phenomenal,” Briley said.

After securing a federal tax ID number and a Los Angeles County permit to sell the wine wholesale, Briley next went to the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, or ABC, for licensing.

ABC offered two types of licenses.

Type 17 allowed Nuggucciet cellars to only sell wine wholesale to retailers and restaurants, Briley said.

Type 20 only allowed the sale of beer or wine by Internet, catalog or telephone, or an “off-sale” permit, meaning the wine is not on the premises where the wine is being sold. This permit fit with Briley’s plans to launch the retail sales side of his business via the Internet.

After speaking with four county officials over a period of weeks, he was finally close to approval for his Internet sales site.

But that didn’t solve all problems, he said.

Weeks later, by the time Briley got to the last county official, he was told he could not operate the Internet sales from his home.

“I was told a law was just passed stating I could sell anything from my house but alcohol,” he said.


Nuggucciet Cellars is stored at a professional temperature-controlled facility in Oxnard. The facility it’s in is bonded, and specializes in wine storage and shipping.

Briley was told he needed to find another location for his business.

Sales not allowed

Frustrated. Briley went to the city of Santa Clarita for help and direction. Assistant city planner Dave Peterson helped him out, he said.


“(Peterson) was so nice,” Briley said. “He advised I look for a retail outlet I could lease space from and told me the county would require I draw a diagram of what the place looks like, including where the parking was located, before I could secure a zoning affidavit.”

Thinking he was close to setting his business up correctly, Briley went back to the ABC, which told him he could not sell his wine at a retail location because of his license.

Briley said he appreciated the trouble that city officials went to, especially since he was only selling 38 cases of wine, a miniscule amount for  most wine-makers.

“I couldn’t get straight answers or clear direction from the county,” Briley said.

Briley went back to the city for help, and he was advised to then find a nonretail location he could sublease space from, even though Briley would not be storing his wine there, either.


Briley said he had to promise he wouldn’t have any alcohol coming out of the new location, which wasn’t a problem since the wine is stored in Oxnard.

 Posting the permit
Briley eventually found business space to sub-lease from in the Valencia Industrial Center, which met regulatory compliance.

“I told myself, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’m just going to drink all 38 cases myself,’” Briley laughed.

With regulatory compliance met, Peterson said he would put his name on the zoning affidavit to meet the myriad requirements for Briley.

“Dave Peterson just really felt my pain,” Briley said.

“Even though he didn’t live in the city, we helped him so he could operate his business,” Peterson said. “We try to stay out of the way as much as we possibly can to foster business.”

“Everyone in Santa Clarita understands businesses are our customers, and we’re willing to help make their business stronger economically,” Peterson said.

“If your business is doing well, we can support Little League and nonprofits and provide services to residents that improve the quality of life,” he said. “It’s a trickle-down effect.”

The one humorous moment, Briley said, was once he had all his approvals and was checked out to ensure everything was in order, he was required to post an alcohol-sales permit for 30 days. People were confused by the sign, he said.

“I’m in an industrial complex,” he said. “There’s no alcohol anywhere near the place, but you have to post it for 30 days.”

If there was one hero in this whole ordeal, Briley said, it was Peterson, who struggled alongside him to comply with all the laws.

Inspiration and vision

Nuggucciet Cellars is named after Brileys’ dogs, whose images appear on their label.

“We have two dogs, Nugget and Gucci,” Briley said.
“With three grown daughters, it would have been a fight if we named our first wine after just one daughter. We’ll name future wines after each of our daughters,” he said, discussing future plans.

“What I’d love to see for Santa Clarita is to start a custom-crush facility,” Briley said. “It’d be a gold mine.”
And more wineries would open up, he added.

“I think (Santa Clarita) would be a great place to have that, it’d become a destination place for people to come, rather than drive up to Santa Barbara. Ventura has now embraced this.”

The sole proprietor doesn’t expect to be making money until year six or seven, and is currently searching for the right grapes in Oregon. Until then, Briley plans to continue growing by introducing his wine to newcomers to the brand.

Today, he’s featuring his new wine at the Soroptimist International of Greater Santa Clarita Valley’s fourth annual Wine Affair: Sip, Stroll and Savor the Sounds event at the Westfield Valencia Town center from 2-6 p.m.

The Pinot Noir wine can be ordered from Nuggucciet Cellars by going online at nugguccietcellars.com or by calling (661) 993-0462. It is located at 26074 Ave Hall, #16, in Santa Clarita.

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