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Fall in for some wine adventures

by William Campbell

A s a welcome series of typhoons scrubs away the last of the summer heat, we find ourselves at long last putting away the beer-bottle openers and breaking out the corkscrews. Fortunately for wine lovers, this fall offers no shortage of temptations.

From mid-October to early November, the Four Seasons hotel in Marunouchi, Tokyo, will be hosting a series of guest chefs from some of California’s top wineries. Each chef will be presenting a special lunch and dinner course menu, paired with wines to match. Although these are not formal wine dinners per se, during each chef’s stint a representative from the winery will be greeting guests and circulating among the tables.

Karen Cakebread and chef Brian Streeter from Napa Valley stalwart Cakebread Cellars will close the program on a strong note during the final week (Nov. 1-4), but perhaps more interesting for hard-core wine lovers will be the appearance of Doug Margerum and chef Jeremy Tummel from Oct. 25 to the 28th.

Margerum owns the Wine Cask restaurant and wine shop in Santa Barbara, and has tirelessly promoted the region’s wines for the past 25 years. Considered by many to be the “Godfather of the Central Coast,” and an advocate of the region without whom the movie “Sideways” would have never have happened, Margerum has finally decided to start making his own wine.

In 2001, he opened the Margerum Wine Company in a 22-sq.-meter space at the back of a friend’s Santa Barbara winery, making him “too small to even be called a ‘garagiste.’ ” But being spatially challenged certainly hasn’t stopped him from subsequently earning rave reviews from Robert Parker and many others.

Although all the course menus include wine, they are certainly not inexpensive at 12,000 yen for lunch, and 25,000-35,000 yen yen for dinner.

But they do include the chance to meet some luminaries from the California wine scene and, in a nice twist, the Four Seasons will be making a donation to noted nonprofit organization Kids Earth Fund (KEF) for each booking made. For more on the wine events, please call the Four Seasons Marunouchi on (03) 5222-7222; for KEF, please see www.kidsearthfund.org.

For those looking for a perfect wine-related day trip this fall, Coco Farm and Winery in Tochigi Prefecture is only an hour by express train from Tobu Asakusa Station in Tokyo on the Tobu Isesaki Line.

Coco Farms, in the city of Ashikaga, recently opened a large veranda and cafe outside their tasting room, so it is possible to spend a day in the sun tasting wine and watching the fall colors work their way across the vineyards.

But what of Japanese wine?

Local production certainly doesn’t have the best of reputations, “and not undeservedly so,” says Coco winemaker Bruce Gutlove. “Although the real problem lies with Japanese labeling laws.”

Legally, anything can be labeled and sold as “Japanese wine” as long as it contains at least 5 percent “domestic product.” The definition of “domestic product,” however, requires only that the wine be fermented in Japan, not that the raw juice actually comes from grapes grown here. That means that in the worst case a blend of 95 percent Bulgarian bulk wine and 5 percent of wine made in Japan by fermenting reconstituted Australian grape juice concentrate could legally be labeled as “100 percent Japanese wine.”

Despite Japan’s challenging growing conditions, Gutlove — perhaps the only winemaker to ever appear on the cover of the Wall St. Journal — believes that quality wine can indeed be made here. The results, so far at least, have been very encouraging.

Adventurous wine lovers can try for themselves any day of the week; Coco’s tasting room is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the veranda and cafe serves daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Be forewarned that while the valley is a delicious sun trap during the day, as soon as the sun crests the hilltop midafternoon, the temperature can drop precipitously.)

For those looking for a bit more excitement, Coco hosts its annual Harvest Festival during the third weekend in November each year. This wine lovers’ version of Woodstock sees up to 10,000 people spreading blankets in the terraced vineyards and enjoying a sun- and wine-soaked day of jazz and other live music.

This year’s festival will be held on Nov. 18 and 19. A free shuttle bus covers the 10-minute journey from Ashikaga Station to the winery. The 2,000 yen entrance fee includes a full-day pass, a bottle of wine, a corkscrew and a glass, making this one of the all-time great deals in Japan. For more info, please see www.cocowine.com/english/english.html.

Those looking for more immediate gratification will be happy to hear that Dean & Deluca’s flagship store in JR Shinagawa Station recently tripled the number of bottles on offer in its wine section.

Since opening nearly three years ago, the specialty grocer’s main store has evolved in a number of ways. The primary change we’ve noticed has been a reduction in the fish and fresh meat offerings, and an increased focus on the cafe and of course the ever-popular wine section.

Reflecting Dean & Deluca’s deep roots in the Napa Valley (the owner and many members of the board each have their own wineries), the wine offerings focus on exclusive selections from California, although wine buyer Jay Rodriguez is happy to point out that they’ve recently started building a nice collection of small-production champagnes as well.

The wine section is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and the cafe starts serving espressos from 7 a.m., so the next time you find yourself in Shinagawa and in need of quick pick-me-up, you know where to go!