The Coco Farm Winery has a very unique story that makes it stand out from the other Japanese wineries. In short, we could say that this winery became what it is today thanks to the persistent work of two men : Noboru Kawada and an American vintner named Bruce Gutlove.
At the origin, before the winery was founded, there was a project by a Japanese teacher named Noboru Kawada, who wanted to help mentally-disabled and autistic people improve their relation with the outside world through manual and agricultural work. Kawada-san set up a special class for autistic students in 1958 and brought them on the slopes where the winery now sits, clearing the land, planting and tending table-grape vines as well setting up as mushrooms nurseries. The idea was to give these otherwise-introverted students a healthy manual-labor experience in a natural setting that would help them relate to the outside world. The institution named Cocoromi Gakuen (cocoromi means challenge) was created officially in 1969 without outside help on a base of 30 disabled patients. In the early 1980s'investors from the families of the students decided to set up a winery all the while keeping growing mushrooms. In the end of the 1980s' they'd use grapes produced here as well as grapes grown in Sano (20 km from there) and they would also import grapes from Cline Cellars in Sonoma, California. That's through the owners of Cline-Cellars that Kawada-san met Bruce Gutlove, a UC-Davis-trained winemaker, and he asked him to come over in Japan to see what could be improved in the winemaking. He ended up saying yes and discovered there how big the challenge was to turn things around : the weather in Japan brings lots of rain, too much for the grapes, the table grapes weren't particularly fit for winemaking and the Japanese-style hiradana trellising system (very high above the ground-- see pictures) didn't help either. But the autistic students made for a compelling reason to stay as there was a very good spirit in this place, and Bruce Gutlove decided to stay beyond the several months he had enrolled for. Today, the Coco Farm Winery produces 200 000 bottles a year, a success story for such an institution and which happened without government subsidies, be it local or national.
I had heard about Coco Farm here and there for a while, even in France with for example Kenji Hodgson who spent time here, and I knew I would visit this winery one day.
Before his UC Davis training in the early 1980s', Bruce Gutlove began to work in the wine trade in New York as wine buyer, meeting many visiting vignerons and tasting their wines, and that's where he shaped his taste for that showed, in his own words, a careful, humble stewardship of the land combined with a philosophy of minimal manipulation in the cellar. His training in California taught him the scientific side of winemaking and afterthen he went to work in different wineries in the Golden State. The use of modern techniques both in the vineyard and in the cellar was widespread in California and many of the wines he tasted there, while technically free of faults weren't speaking to him like some of the wines he had tasted in New York. Among the winemaking experiences he went through in California, the most rewarding ones were in wineries with a non-interventionist approach in the cellar. This type of winemaking where the wine is let alone to live its life by itself was not the norm in California, as winemakers were focused on fruit preservation and enhancement through additives and technical tools. That's when he was offered this temporary job in Japan and discovered the magnitude of the task. The good side was that there was no wine history in the country and that anything could be tried and explored. Within two years, all the while changing the viticulture and the winemaking practice and selecting varieties and suitable terroirs, he began to explore a vinification with minimal intervention, sorting the grapes, using wild yeast at ambient temperatures, avoiding chaptalization and bottling unfilter anded without or with very little SO2, this all for a few cuvées. Even in a Japanese climate context and with the difficult conditions at Coco Farm, the results were immediately positive, so they slowly extended the practice to more cuvées. Bruce Gutlove also began to read the Japanese agro-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka who is a resource on natural farming here, and in the works of whom Bruce found compelling evidence of why a technical approach to winemaking in general leads to a reduction of the wine quality. At about the same time, Bruce Gutlove came into contact in Japan with the French natural wines which are widely imported here, even meeting in person the visiting vignerons, people like Mark Angeli, Guy Bossard, Angiolino Maule (an Italian), Olivier Cousin, Claude Courtois and others. This was a strong encouragement to continue on this path. Having become a father at that time, this added a sense of purpose and responsability regarding the way his work had an environmental impact on our world. Since then, Bruce stepped back a little from Coco Farm, spending time in Hokkaido to grow grapes there, but the young team in charge today is doing a very good job he says, and he encourages them to keep looking for new ways to improve the viticulture and cellar practices. Right now all the wines except the méthode Champenoise sparkling are fermented through indigenous yeast.
On our way to the winery on the flatland, we past a small vineyard parcel (pic on left) also managed by the winery. Romain says that the soil is very wet much of the season, it is planted with Tannat, Chardonnel and Vignole. They had to rise the level of the wood to keep it away from the wet ground.
On the right, you can see that the protection against wild animals is way above the ones in use in France, the reason being that the forests above the winery are home to an ever larger population of ...monkeys. The upper part of the fence is thus electrified. Locals sometimes catch a monkey with a trap designed for boars (also present in the region), otherwise they hunt monkeys in the woods when the hunting season is open.
The vineyard above the facility is planted with several varieties : Petit Manseng (planted in 2005), Norton, Riesling Lion and Muscat Bérry A. When Romain arrived here they were doing their own grafts and it didn't work all the time, so now they use the service of a nursery to which they deliver the wood. The vines are 3 meters from each other in a given row and the inter-row makes about 6 meters. Lately, they've been using the 5BB rootstock for the grafts, because it's well adapted to these conditions, it has lots of vigor, which helps sustain the long branches which they grow here.
Romain Weinstock arrived here in june 2009, initially for a 6-month duration. He got his Viticulture-enology degree (BTS) in France in 2000 at the Julien Altaber (now settled in Burgundy) and Christophe Pialoux, another new name of artisan winemaking who settled in the Côte Roannaise west of Lyons. Romain worked in New Zealand (Waipara) for a year, then he spent 3 months to South Africa (Western Cape) for the harvest season, then he went to California in the Russian River area (Porter Creek). He says that the vatroom there was the simpliest one he ever saw. This was for the harvest of 2008, and he remembers that the wine shops in California had already a good selection of imported natural wine, he felt that people were open minded in that regard compared to other countries he had visited. Then he went to Australia to work at Delatite, after which he began to look for a winery job in Asia, sending résumés in wineries in Japan, which made him land here for 6 months first, a duration which he has repeatedly extended as he felt better and better in the winery as well as in the country.
Romain is in charge of the winemaking of the reds, sort of, even if this is done with discussing with Shibata-san, the chief winemaker. Bruce Gutlove is now a technical consultant and they have free reins to take the necessary steps in the winery.
Romain is settling here for good, it seems, and he passed recently his motorcycle license (the one valid for up to 400 cc), and he bought this 400cc Yamaha which he customized a bit. For a year he can't take passengers (his girlfriend for example), that's the way it goes for new riders in Japan.
There's no weedkillers used here in the vineyard, they just mow the grass to prevent excessive growth and competition. There's no plowing either because of the steep slope and because of the soil erosion it could unleash if the ground was overturned.
They use mostly Bordeaux mix (copper base) under the form of sprayings against the disease, and they stopped using sulfur. They use small, strange-looking caterpillar tractors which are common types of machines used by the Japanese farmers.
They may use synthesis chemical products against pests, but not through spraying, they prefer the direct application on the insect nests. That's a precise task that can be achieved because there are so many workers, otherwise it could prove very costly for a "regular" winery.
They also use Kampo medicine, which are made from various medicinal herbs marinated in water, to help the vines fight the disease.
The vinification varies of course from the small high-end cuvée to the entry-level cuvées and from the whites to the reds. For the whites, when they want to keep the aromatic side of the variety like for the Gewürztraminer they add some SO2 on the press juice, while on the reds there's no adding of SO2, all the red wines in the casks are SO2-free at this stage. Last year they didn't add any SO2 on the reds at the racking stage either. The red/white balance is something like 50% each if I remember.
Last year Romain says that they made 320 tons of grapes, including the 5 tons of grapes (Riesling Lion & Muscat Bailey A) that they produce here and in another location not far from here (10 km). The rest comes in trucks from further regions like Yamanashi, Yamagata, Nagano and Hokkaido. Everything is hand picked and transported in 10 to 13-kg crates. In these other regions, the grapes are not picked by the patients but by the growers themselves, as Coco Farm Winery works in tandem with these growers and buy their grapes every year.
The number of cuvées is something like 18 on average, may change slightly depending of the year. Here is a picture that I shot at the railway station and showing 12 of their cuvées.
After the Fukushima disaster, the work on the mushroom nursery had to stop because even if tiny amounts, some radioactivity was detected in the mushrooms, so the patients had to be dispatched among the other winery and vineyard tasks to remain active. Speaking of radioactivity nothing was found in the grapes, possibly because of the deep rooting of the vines and because much of the grape loads used here come from other regions like Hokkaido.
The patients here were happy to pose for me in front of (even if you can't see it) a pallet of glass bottles. It seems that they are very proud to work here. This took place in the bottling facility (picture on right) and the bottling line had just stopped when we walked in. Their first names are (from right to left) : Takeshi, Osoi san, Yoshiro (behind), Yamada san, Ki chan (behind), Kero chan and Hoshino kun.
A festive event, the Harvest Festival, is held every year at Coco Farm to help fund initiatives around autism, and I guess that they feel then the general interest of visitors for their work.
The teachers and staff overlooking the patients are something like 40 if I'm right, and the winery staff is about 16 people.
__ Coco Farm Cabernet Sauvignon 2012. Very fruity, a bit perly (some gas). Quite enjoyable and round already, tastes very well. Romain says that it tastes much better than before. He says that the fact that the wine saw very little SO2 helps in this regard, there is no harsh angle. It Will be part the entry red wine. They added SO2 so as to have 10 or 15 mg of free SO2, which is close to nothing. The red entry wine this year will be a cuvée making about 50 000 bottles in volume, through a blend of these vats, plus more red in metal vats and a few casks.
We walk then in the first stretch of the cellar in the hill, and stop near three small metal vats containing wine from three different growers.
__ Coco Farm Chardonnay 2012, produced in Yamagata by Ogata-san, an old-style farmer who works on 2 hectares and produces grapes of very good quality because of his meticulous vineyard management. Thanks to the good health of his grapes he can harvest later with better maturities. Before selling to Coco Farm, he sold his grapes to a wine company named Sainte Neige (they love French names over here), a subsidiary of Asahi Breweries. No notes, but I'm not sure we tasted this wine actually.
__ Coco Farm Chardonnay 2012, produced by sato-san in Nagano. The color is darker than usual for a Chard. Very round, a bit perly, some gas. Seems almost ready for me. It got 50 mg/liter of metabisulfite-potassium, which makes 25 mg/liter of SO2 in total, and there was not long ago about 12,5 mg of free SO2, the amounts diminishing with time.
__ Coco Farm, Koshu 2012, produced in Yamanashi by Akiyama-san. They vinify since 2004 the koshu on a very atypical way, doing some sort of red-style maceration with the skins, which explains the almost orange, onion-peel color of the wine. While koshu is often elsewhere very light and with little tasting properties, this wine offers a strong tannic character. Every year they change a bit the procedure, but they keep the maceration. The aromas go in my opinion to cedar bark to orange peel, and Romain says that when this wine ages it gets wax aromas too. This koshu is harvested very late in the season, like early november [a much milder season in Japan than in Europe, to tell the truth]. It arrives at 18 brix which makes 9% in alcohol potentially (way over the average in Japan). They chaptalize usually for most of the cuvées because of the low potential alcohol. Last year they didn't chaptalize the reds except for the two entry cuvées, the tannat reaching naturally 13 ° or 13,5°. This koshu had to be chaptalized to reach 21 brix. Koshu is a variety with very big grapes and the vines have big yields which explains also the dilution. Even in mountainous regions like Yamanashi, Yamagata and Nagano, the rainfall levels reach something like 1100 mm a year.
The Japan wine-region map on the right (courtesy of Vitisphere.com) shows you where are located these different wine regions from where the winery's grapes come from. Tochigi is the region of the Coco Farm Winery, but there are only 4 wineries in total in this Prefecture.
__ Coco Farm Zweigeltrebe 2012 (cask), a red variety from Austria which is grown by Fujisawa-san in Yoichi, Hokkaido (also the town of one of Nikka's breweries). These are young vines, this is the 2nd vinification they're doing from this parcel. They were a bit afraid at the beginning and were tempted to add SO2 but they didn't add any. The wine tastes very well, very sapid, easy drinking and onctuous. Also pretty ready it seems, Romain says that it will be bottled in summer. This cuvée was vinified in an almost-full 8000-liter vat with pumping-over twice a day, and it's now all in casks. Nothing is set on the filtration issue, they'll see when the time comes. There may be a small filtration and no SO2 added. For me the wine is fine like it is now. The wine ends up in wine shops in Japan and in restaurants.
__ Coco Farm, Koshu 2012. Some wood aromas. Here in Japan you don't find second-hand casks, so you need buy them new and to age and wane them yourself.
__ Coco Farm Merlot 2012, carbonic maceration, from a cask. Last year Shibata-san made a try here with a carbonic maceration of Merlot, with grapes sources sourced from Akiyama-san in Yamanashi (the man who grows this very beautiful Koshu). Total volume : a 1000-liter vat, now in casks. This merlot is the first grape load to arrive at the winery every year, they always begin with the merlot. The wine tastes good, a light pleasant and fruity wine, rather clear (not turbid). Ready to sell in my opinion.
They tell me about a French farmer who settled in the island of Kyushu, in Kumamoto and has been adapting the Maria Thun lunar calendar for Japan. Amazing... a French farmer in Kyushu...
__ Coco Farm Cabernet Sauvignon (there no Franc here). Tastes well too, round with a lightly sugary feel. Very pleasant drink indeed. Romain underlines that the easy-drinking side of all these wines we're tasting is directly related with the fact that they didn't get any SO2 addition nor filtration. Romain says that the Ph is quite high on these wines.
__ Coco Farm, blend of Merlot & Muscat Bailey (cask also), the two red varieties being sourced from a small grower in the Tochigi Prefecture, not too far from here. Tastes good, fresh in the mouth, also with a light sugary note. Romain would like to blend this with the Merlot that we tasted before.
__ Coco Farm Muscat Bailey of the winery, from a 2-hectare plot (including some tannat) located some 10 kilometers away. 4 casks of this red. Nice chew in the mouth, fruity, even if the taste isn't the one we're used to with the European varieties.
Their Muscat Bailey cuvée won the prestigious distinction to be on the cover page of Real Wine Guide (#38 - pic on right)), a very informative Japanese magazine with a focus on natural wine. The cuvée, named DAI ICHI GAKUSHOU in Romanji, is fermented on wild yeast, aged in small casks and bottled without filtration. The lack of or minimal quantity of sulfur contributes to the life feel of the wine.
__ Coco Farm Muscat Bailey, from the vineyard above. More freshness in the mouth, a bit turbid.
__ Coco Farm, Norton, 4 casks. Very dark color, a bit purple on the side. More acidic but no tannins, which also makes an unusual taste for a European amateur. The variety has not big yields (in the Japanese standards : still 50 hectoliters/hectare) but it is very resistant to disease. Very aromatic too, Romain says the right word : jasmine.
Romain and Shibata-san opened a few bottles, including now-rare vintages, thank you to Bruce who gave his instructions here...
__ Coco Farm, sparkling 2007, half-dry white méthode Champenoise. Disgorged june 2012. Pleasant bubbly with aromas of lemon and apple. Of course like in Champagne, the wine got its liqueur d'espédition at the disgorgement stage. Costs 7500 Y.
__ Coco Farm, Nokkai Kerner 2011, a dry white. The grapes come from Yoichi, Hokkaido, Mr Fujisawa (the same grower who provides the Zweigeltrebe). Aromatic wine, even if more on the nose than in the mouth. Costs 3000 Y (1000 Y = 8,2 € or 10,6 USD)
The transportation of the grapes takes 2 days from Hokkaido, the truck leaves at 5pm, then after a night's rest, a full day and it arrives at the winery the second day at around 6am. The grapes arrive from all the regions from mid-august to mid-november.
__ Coco Farm, Kurisawa (climat, lieu-dit) 2007. White blend of Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner, Pinot Gris and Kelner. Vinified separately in stainless-steel vats, blended afterwards. Sourced in the Nakazawa farm, manage by a couple of growers who farm organic (but no certification). Tis is the most organic cuvée here, 4000 bottles yearly maximum. This cuvée was priced 2400 Y but they hiked the price to 2800 Y. Precise, neat nose. The mouth is more neutral.
__ Coco Farm, Chardonnay 2005, sourced from Ogata-san, in Kaminoyama, Yamagata Prefecture, a town with the best terroirs in Japan, they say. Vivid nose, in the mouth, woody notes. Pleasant drink. Sourced from an elderly grower who tends very well his vineyard. This Chard is harvested later in the season. Japanese-style trellising with branches pointing in all directions. 13° in alcohol without chaptalization. Harvested in two runs, november 16 and 30.
__ Coco Farm, Muscat Berry (a red) 2011. Blend from a parcel 10 km from here and the few rows above the winery. Very nice wine indeed, alive with a beautiful freshness. Unfiltered, got only some SO2 during the vinification, right after the malo. Bottled during the harvest 2012. Romain is rightly proud to have vinified this wine... 4 or 5 casks in all, or 1600 bottles, priced 5000 Y apiece.
__ Coco Farm Muscat Berry 2004 (same cuvée). More concentrated, more maturity, nice too but I think that I prefer the 2011.
__ Coco Farm, Tannat 2004. From vineyards in Kumagaya, Saitama, 40 km from here, the hottest city in Honshu, they say. Vines planted in 1999.
The nose is quite intense, dark color. Nice mouth with tannins which are well integrated in the wine and a nice concentration. Superb wine indeed, and thank you again to Bruce who has asked that this now-rare bottle be opened for me. 2004 was the first or the 2nd vinification of these vines. In the later vintages the wine tended to feel more diluted.
__ Coco Farm, Koshu F.O.S. (for fermented on skins) 2005. From 2004 they made tries with macerating the koshu on its skins, 2005 being the first vintage of this wine to be sold on the market. Very original wine, with an orange color. Nice honeyish aroma on the nose. Rosé de gastronmie, we'd say in France. Concentration, freshness and aroma notes of dry apricot.
They say it evolves well along the years in the bottle. In general they add SO2 on the whites but for this cuvée, because of the tannin and the phenols, they think they'll abstain from adding SO2 in the future, when they press at 1020. When Romain arrived, they still added bacteria for the malolactic fermentation but he began to make analysis (chromatography) and he realized that when they were supposed to add the bacteria, the malolactic fermentation was already completed, so they stopped adding anything. Romain uses the pied de cuve technique for the reds when a given alcoholic fermentation has trouble starting. For the whites they use a Jiroboam with juice and put it in lukewarm temperature before pouring it back in the vat.
Back to Hokkaido : Bruce Gutlove told me that having worked with the grapes of this region since 2002, he firmly believes that it will come to produce very compelling wines, on pair with some of the best wines produced in the other wine regions abroad, especially dry wines from varieties such as Kerner and Zweigeltrebe, including traditional-method sparkling. He found out from the first year they used these grapes at Coco Farm (2002) that the terroir over there was unique, yielding delicate wines with nice aromas, good acidity and a mineral finish. The weather there is very different too, very cold much of the year but with a hot_if short_ summer. The disease pressure is also lower there, allowing minimal spraying on the vines.
After thinking to move to southern Italy or France (Loire or Jura) to further pursue his own projects, Bruce realized that Hokkaido was a good place for his plans : he knew the region and the country, he could keep working with Coco Farm, and the land was cheap there, allowing him to buy 14 hectares of land from which he could devote 3 hectares to viticulture. I can't wait to go there one day...
Short history of the origin of the Coco Farm Winery
The yearly Harvest Festival, a funding-raising event and festive day at the Coco Farm winery
Informations and data on wine in Japan (in French)
Coco Farm Winery's English website