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Japan’s Zen Winemakers

First in a four-part series on Japan’s unexpected wine scene.


Kofu, Japan — Japan has an emerging indie wine scene, complete with its own rock-star winemakers and pioneering grape growers planting vineyards in remote locations. And yet no one outside of hard-core Japanese fans knows these wines exist.

That’s because they shouldn’t. Japan has no history of producing world-class wine. Rain, not sun, dominates the country’s steamy climate. Wine consumption is in free fall, as the country’s two-decade-old recession shows no sign of recovery.

Yet, against such odds, a nascent fine-wine movement has taken root in Japan. A loosely knit collection of perhaps 100 young artisan winemakers is working, often alone with antiquated equipment, to produce world-class wine. While their Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Chardonnays lack the richness of their European and American counterparts, the best of these wines have aromas that are as inviting as they are intense. Delicate fruit flavors in these wines are enhanced by mouthwatering acidity.

That is just as it should be, these winemakers say. The goal is to add an Asian category to the international definition of fine wine, rather than to create a lesser version of a wine that already exists. Only by reflecting, rather than masking, Japan’s watery terroir will they produce wines of distinction, they say.

“I never make wine,” says Eishi Okamoto, who has been producing wine at his Beau Paysage winery for 11 years. “I accept whatever the vineyard gives me.” Okamoto farms 15 different plots, a total of seven acres of vineyards in Yamanashi prefecture near Mt. Fuji. He produced 5,000 bottles of wine last year. Slightly more than half of his wines are Merlot and the rest is Chardonnay, although he is experimenting with other varietals.

Like many young independent winemakers, Okamoto is a strict organic farmer. “What I am doing is based on traditional Japanese agriculture,” he says. “When you have pests in the field, you must find ways to coexist with them. I try to live with nature.”

Japanese wine lovers have embraced these Zen winemakers, snapping up their wines as quickly as they are released, despite price tags that can equal $100 a bottle. Okamoto’s Beau Paysage wines sell out within days of their release through a single online sales site. All but invisible to the outside world, these small operations do not produce enough wine to satisfy demand in Japan; these winemakers rarely export.

This movement, with its emphasis on classic European varietals, is distinct from a push by Japan’s wine companies to produce Koshu, a white wine using Japan’s native Koshu grape. [The Koshu story will be discussed in a separate story in this series.]

Efforts to produce “natural” wine using grapes grown in Japan is very new, says Miyuki Katori, a journalist who has tracked the development of these young winemakers and is writing a book about them. Because of their efforts, now, for the first time in the country’s history, Japanese consumers can buy Japanese wine and feel reasonably certain that what they are drinking is actually what the label says it is, she says.

Food shortage sparks a wine culture in Japan

Wine was introduced in Japan after the country opened its ports to the western world at the end of the Edo Period in the mid-19thcentury. With food in short supply at the end of World War II, the government pushed wine as an alternative to sake, rationalizing that grapes were less important to the nation’s diet than rice. Wine had the added advantage of being a convenient way to dispose of damaged grapes unfit for consumption as fresh fruit and, so, was often fortified with alcohol and loaded with sugar to mask unpleasant flavors.

A Japanese market for European fine wine began to emerge during the economic boom of the 1990s. Wine critic Robert Parker’s views became widely circulated among Japan’s newly rich businessmen seeking to educate themselves on the wines of the world. Domestic wine, however, remained mostly a cheap, sweet concoction.

Japan’s artisan wine movement has emerged only in the last 10 years, says Katori. The winemakers typically are new to the craft or are sons and daughters who have inherited struggling family-owned wineries. They work independently, gathering informally to share information and support. United in their desire to create true Japanese wine, she says they use only high quality grapes grown in vineyards in Japan.

Failure to set standards cripples Japan’s domestic wine industry

Hagiwara, BrownWhile this approach may sound routine, here, it is nothing short of a revolution. Japanese wine regulations, or rather the lack thereof, make it legal to label inferior bulk wine from Chile, Australia or China as “Japanese” wine. Considering the high cost of farming in Japan, domestic producers struggle to compete with these cheap imitation wines.

“You have to have a real relationship with the winemaker and develop a deep trust to believe what they say about their wines,” says Katori, noting that five years ago when she began to investigate the origins of the grapes and juice in “Japanese” wines it was “taboo” to even ask questions.

Today, Japanese wineries are beginning to address the issue of wine label regulations. Kenichi Hagiwara, the director of Sadoya Winery, a family wine company in Kofu, Yamanashi, defends the practice of using imported bulk wine in his least expensive “Japanese” wines.

“Japanese consumers do not think that food from outside of Japan is as safe as food grown here,” says Hagiwara. “If we have to label the origin of the grapes, this might be a disadvantage.”  Imported wine labeled “Japanese” wine accounts for 60 percent of the revenue for his company, he says. To afford to improve his top wines, he needs the income from these cheap imported wines.

TsuchiyaSmall family wineries that don’t play this game have suffered. When Yukari Tsuchiya and her husband decided to leave their jobs as microbiologists to take over his family’s winery near Kofu in 1996, “our friends wondered why we were doing this,” she recalls. After overhauling the vineyards and rebuilding the winery, Kizan Winery has emerged as a leader within the new artisan wine movement.

“Now they understand. This is a challenge worth tackling,” says Tsuchiya. “We are seeing the results of our efforts.”

Standing in one of his mountain vineyards in the beautiful Tsugane region 2,600 feet above sea level dotted with perfectly preserved Edo Period towns, Okamoto says he believes that the work being done by this new generation of winemakers is the beginning of an agricultural awakening in Japan. He hopes it brings young people back to farms and that Japan will begin to recreate a local, sustainable food culture.

“I am not an evangelist,” he says. “But if I do what I think is right with my wine, when people drink it, they will get the message. A thought is a quiet thing. But it can be very strong.”

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food writer at work on a book about climate change and wine.

Photos: Top, Eishi Okamoto of Beau Paysage. Credit: Masahiro Kato. 

Middle, Kenichi Hagiwara, of Sadoya Winery, and Corie Brown. Credit: Masahiro Kato.
Bottom: Yukari Tsuchiya of Kizan Winery. Credit: Charlie Fager.

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.