TAKAHATA WINE FESTIVAL

A slow drink coming

by Richard Smart

At Takahata Wine Harvest Festival next month the quality of booze will not be a problem — and neither will your conscience as you nurse a hangover the next day.

“We’re fully-fledged members of the international and regional slow-food movement nonprofit organizations, Slow Food International and Slow Food Yamagata,” Tetsuya Okuyama, president of Takahata Winery in Yamagata Prefecture, told The Japan Times in his spartanly decorated office, where the only accouterments are the certificates his wine has won in national competitions.

“Many people think that slow food is about trying to eat organically grown food. It isn’t,” he said. “The movement aims to interest people in eating and drinking things produced within their region or country rather than food and drink from halfway across the world.

“The global trend toward free-trade agreements will make it more difficult for any companies but the strong to survive, and that is where slow food comes in. It looks to act as a counterbalance to FTAs and help people consider that which is grown and produced near their house.”

This philosophy has helped Takahata Wine to stay prominent within its local community. “A lot of the grapes we use for our wine are grown by local farmers,” said Okuyama. “We could buy up local land and grow everything ourselves, but then we would lose our ties to the local community.”

The festival — taking place Oct. 5-8 in the town of Takahata — will feature music from long-established Japanese folk artists such as Hitoshi Komuro and Bread and Butter, but the most important sound will of course be the clinking of the 20,000 or so expected guests’ glasses.

Off the tourist radar, Takahata offers little to visitors looking for something spectacular, but a lot for those interested in the intimacy of a small town and a slow weekend.

While the most famous local temple, Kameoka Monju, may not be anywhere near as spectacular as its better-known counterparts in the likes of Kyoto, it has a paradoxical nature that one would be hard pushed to find in an urban temple. As the place that students from this rural area visit to pray for good luck in their exams, one cannot help but think that with today’s declining rural population, each student’s wish takes the temple further into obscurity as one more child leaves Yamagata — many for good — for a big-city university, prayer answered.

The Hirosuke Hamada Museum, housed in a building that looks like a UFO from a 1950s B-movie, is also a worthy stopping point for those with children. Hamada was an author whose children’s picture books, including “The Tears of the Dragon,” have lead to comparisons with the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.

A must-visit for anyone in the area is the Kikutei soba shop. Set in the traditional surroundings of a huge Edo Period house, a homemade tempura and soba set menu from this restaurant (¥2,000) was one of the best meals I have had in Japan. Sitting on tatami mats and surrounded by gardens, the paintings and antiques — faded yet fantastic and clearly handed through many generations — create an atmosphere that is difficult to find for such a reasonable price at restaurants in Kanto.

Then, of course, there is the winery, so back to the booze.

Japan has been producing wine since 1877, when the Yamanashi Grape Company of Japan (Dainihon Yamanashi Boudo Kaisha), was founded in the town of Katsunuma in Yamanashi Prefecture. It is, however, only in the last few years that the Japanese wine industry has gained respect.

Motoko Ishii, who runs a wine school in Tokyo, told the Asahi Shimbun last year that there are two reasons for this: “The first is the emergence of vintners who have mastered the techniques and knowledge needed for wine-making and who can speak about their products convincingly. The second is the fact that the quality of wine has risen to a level that can withstand tasting.”

Okuyama added to this. “A few years ago a wine enthusiast, Hiroshi Yamamoto (who has also written and translated many books about wine, and helped Japan set trading standards for its wine industry), started campaigning for local wines. Since then, domestic wines have fared better against their foreign competitors.

“Most Japanese wine, however, tends to cost well under ¥1,000, but we have no interest in cracking that market. Takahata Wine is the top-selling wine in the higher-quality ¥3,000 market,” he said. “The awards we have won — including two silvers for our Chardonnays at this year’s Japan Wine Challenge — have helped us to keep a loyal base of customers while we gradually expand.”

The winery is hopeful that its expansion and reputation will help continue the upward trajectory. “No one has yet managed to produce a good Pinot Noir grape in Japan,” Okuyama said. “We recently managed to develop one that we can use for cloning year upon year to hopefully give us this.”

He added, “Takahata has the same climate as (French wine-producing region) Burgundy, so we have been bringing good soil from the mountains and stones from an area that used to be under the sea to provide our growers’ soil with nutrients that will allow us to grow top-quality grapes.”

The company, whose name has become synonymous with Takahata in nearby regions, is not likely to be on the tip of the tongue of any Kanto or Kansai dwellers.

“You’ll find Takahata wine all over the nearby prefectures,” said Okuyama. “But we aren’t particularly interested in selling nationwide. We hardly have the resources to advertise and get the wine known throughout the country, and even if we did, where would we get the grapes for so much wine from? I don’t want to import any more grapes than I have to.”

Currently, Takahata Wine sells around 720,000 bottles a year, and given the company’s commitment to local grapes and the slow-food movement, it is unlikely that there will be a sharp rise in sales any time soon.

Now, with Takahata tied into the local economy, the future looks bright. This is something that Okuyama takes credit for: “Before myself, the bosses of Takahata Wine were random executives from a parent company and had little knowledge of wine. This is always a recipe for disaster. If the people at the top of a company come from outside there will always be problems. People in the lower ranks of a company should never have to teach those higher up the basics of their industry. It can be demoralizing in winemaking to have to try to explain the subtleties of a Chardonnay to an executive of a soft drinks company.”

Wondering what it took to make a winemaker, I asked Okuyama whether many of those that worked at Takahata were wine otaku (obsessives).

“Not at all,” he said. “Those people tend to be too specialized and can see sales going down as a sign that they are succeeding.”

Takahata though, continues to grow in reputation as its expansion to Japanese restaurants in the United States shows. “The quality controls are so strict for importing drink to the U.S. that when a businessman was looking for a wine from Yamagata he had one choice, Takahata. Every other wine from this prefecture failed to get permission to import.”

Before ending the interview, there was one question left that bothered me. Takahata imported grapes, from Australia and from Hungary. If this was so, how could the company claim to be a part of the slow-food movement.

“We bring grapes from other countries because they can’t be grown in Japan. There are two choices: we can import some grapes and make good wine, or we can grow all our grapes here and have bad wine.” That, I would guess, is the difference between a winemaker and a wine otaku.

Takahata Winery Festival Oct. 4 to Oct. 7. Check www.takahata-wine.co.jp Hotels are few and far between in Takahata but there are plenty of places to stay in nearby Yamagata, Sendai and Fukushima. Soba shop Kikutei: Nukanome 2017, Ooaza, Takahata machi (0238-57-3841) From Tokyo Station take the Tsubasa shinkansen to Takahata (about 2 hours 30 mins./¥10,700). The festival will be a well-signposted 20-minute walk from the station.