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Spreading the gospel of natural winemaking

by Melinda Joe

Should you ever be lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle of wine from Beau Paysage — the cult producer in Yamanashi Prefecture, whose coveted cuvees sell out within hours of release — look at the back label. On it, you’ll find a message from winemaker Eishi Okamoto, earnestly delivered in Japanese and English: “A glass of wine can change the world.”

The rest of the quote, which incorporates a line or two from John Lennon’s “Imagine,” goes on to qualify this statement (“We can change the world if we change our daily food and drink”) and urge support for Okamoto’s mission: to promote sustainable agriculture.

When I met Okamoto in July, he was wearing a T-shirt imprinted with this slogan as he prepared to speak about the role winemakers can play in the sustainability movement. As a mostly organic producer, he thinks of himself less as a vintner than an environmental caretaker who translates the terroir of his vineyards into luscious merlots and piquant pinot noirs.

“I want to express nature as it is,” he said, before adding, “I’d like to think on a larger scale, beyond the way that I’m farming now.”

Okamoto’s presentation was part of the first Itadakimasu Project, a one-day symposium featuring chefs, producers and industry professionals who assembled to discuss “the future of food” in Japan. The event, which took place in the bucolic town of Kiyosato, Yamanashi Prefecture, culminated in a collaborative dinner prepared by 10 of Japan’s top chefs.

Joining Okamoto was Masaru Terada, president and master brewer at Terada Honke, which produces the naturally fermented organic sake Gonin Musume in Chiba Prefecture. Like Okamoto, Terada manages his own fields, but also sources rice from nearby organic farmers.

The number of brewers who use regionally produced rice is slowly rising, but the majority rely on the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA) Group, which purchases rice from various growers around the country — most of which use fertilizers or pesticides on their crops. Encouraging more sake makers to cultivate rice could help boost organic rice production. As Terada pointed out, there is “a lot of land not being used” that could be utilized for organic farming, and with more than 1,500 breweries in Japan, sake makers could have an impact.

If recent trends are anything to go by, the message is catching on with consumers. Bars specializing in natural wine are flourishing in Japan — already one of the world’s largest markets for vin naturel — and restaurants are including more options on their menus. Although most of the natural wine sold here is imported, domestic producers such as Beau Paysage are gaining visibility.

The move toward organics is also taking off to some extent in the sake world: Over the last few years, I’ve noticed more “agrichemical-free” brews on the market. While I don’t drink natural wine and sake exclusively (flavor is as important to me as principle), I support the movement and am glad that more alcohol producers are joining the conversation on sustainability.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.