Wine-lovers go loco for Coco

A visionary vintner with grape hopes for the future


ASHIKAGA, Tochigi Pref. — Five hectares of misty hillside in Tochigi Prefecture contain one of Japan’s best-kept secrets — a tiny vineyard that may one day become this country’s first producer of world-class wines.

What’s more, should Coco Farm and Winery pull off this incredible feat, it will be almost by accident, because the farm came into being more than three decades ago for a quite different purpose.

The managing director, Bruce Gutlove, explains: “Noboru Kawada, Coco’s founder, was a high-school teacher who foresaw that the rise of the nuclear family would create a need to house the mentally handicapped,” he says. “So in 1969 he created Cocoromi Gakuen, where students live together and learn nature’s most basic lesson: planting, watching something grow, then literally seeing the fruits of your labor.”

Students at the school, anywhere from 17 to 77 years old, have conditions ranging from autism to Down syndrome. Kawada’s priority was to give his students healthy, outdoor activities as an alternative to being institutionalized.

“The main reason Coco Winery is here,” says Gutlove, “is to provide an environment for Cocoromi Gakuen students to work in.”

Viticulture came late in the farm’s development, which at first focused on raising pigs and growing table grapes, then shifted to the cultivation of shiitake mushrooms. It was not until 1984 that Coco Farm obtained a license to produce wine for sale and consumption. Twelve thousand bottles rolled off the line that year.

Kawada soon wanted to take Coco Farm’s wine production to new levels of professionalism. In 1989, Gutlove — who holds a master’s degree from America’s most prestigious oenology program, that of the University of California, Davis — arrived in Ashikaga on a six-month troubleshooting assignment.

He’s been there ever since.

“Bruce is a deeply talented winemaker and scholar,” says Melanie Campbell- Drane, the Japan Times wine columnist. “If he had worked all these years in a more hospitable viticultural environment, such as California, there is little doubt in my mind that he would now be a winemaker of considerable renown.”

Instead, Gutlove immersed himself in the the life of Coco Farm. For the first seven years, he lived in the Cocoromi dormitories with the handicapped students. “He has lived and breathed that community,” says Campbell- Drane. “His conviction in his mission is not based solely on the viticultural challenge, but on his passionate commitment to Cocoromi’s students.”

Indeed, the challenges might have daunted anyone motivated solely by oenological ambition. Soon after arriving in Ashikaga, Gutlove, who has worked at renowned Californian wineries such as Robert Mondavi, realized that its location and climate were not well-suited for grape cultivation.

“This is a difficult site,” he says, gesturing toward the steep hillside planted with canopied vines. To an untutored eye, the sunlit slopes look picture-perfect. But the low elevation of the area means that summer nights are hot, so the ripening grapes continue to metabolize instead of shutting down for the night and storing their sweetness. Before Gutlove arrived, grapes were bagged to protect them from the damp climate, and the dominant varietal was Japanese Koshu — favored on account of its hardiness rather than its flavor.

Being first and foremost a home for its students, Coco Farm can’t be relocated, but land more suitable for viticulture has been acquired in Gunma Prefecture at an altitude of 600 meters. On a 1996 research trip to Germany, a team from Coco studied how grape growers in that country coped with problems of steep terrain and humidity.

Finding the ideal grape varietal, however, has exercised all the skills of Gutlove and his Japanese team. There have been years of trial and error.

One source of inspiration is Gutlove’s “wine library.” This is a collection of hundreds of bottles, amassed over years of ceaseless study and wine appreciation. Part of the library is stored in a cool, dark passageway, cut into the rocky hillside behind the caves holding barrels of Coco Farm’s methode Champenois Novo wine.

“It’s a good place to start,” says Gutlove. “It’s easier to open a bottle, pour and say, ‘Don’t you want to make something like this?’ “

But the wine library is there to stimulate creative thinking — it would likely be a futile enterprise to attempt reduplication of a favorite bottle. The grapes that produce many wines popular in this country, such as Bordeaux or Merlot, belong to a climate that’s utterly different from Japan’s. Viticulturists here who try and produce such copycat wines, says Gutlove, “are letting the market decide.”

The hallmark of a truly fine wine, he believes, is terroir. Such wine “has the quality of the earth it’s from. It tells you that you’ve listened to what the wind, sun and rain have told you.”

Finding a grape that will awake the terroir of Ashikaga has seen Gutlove turn oenological detective. He tracked down a little-known variety once grown in Missouri — until the 1850s, America’s most successful wine-producing area. Missouri wines drew praise from even discerning European critics, and the grape from which they were made was called Norton.

Will Norton soon be making an appearance in Ashikaga?

“It’s here already,” says Gutlove with satisfaction. “We’ve been growing Norton for nearly two years now, and this year will be its first harvest.”

“Bruce’s goal,” says Campbell-Drane, “is to make good wine from grapes grown in Japan. Popular opinion in the international winemaking world smirks at the very notion.”

But had Gutlove taken others’ opinions to heart at all, he would have headed straight back to California after those first six months. As it is, he sees Coco Farm poised on the verge of a breakthrough — Norton “could be the silver bullet for Japanese winemaking,” Gutlove says.

A sampling of Coco Farm wines, however, suggests that Gutlove has achieved excellence already. Visitors to the winery can enjoy lunch there — accompanied by a bottle or two. One outstanding vintage is the 1995 Oak Barrel red, full-bodied, yet layered with subtle flavors. Coco Farm whites include the sweet Vin Santo dessert wine and the sparkling Novo — the latter was served to international heads of state at the 2000 Group of Eight summit in Okinawa.

“Bruce has defied all predictions,” says Campbell-Drane. “He is a remarkable success story in the winemaking world.

“Yet there is no glory in his extraordinary achievements. They will never be written up in Wine Spectator or Decanter magazines. Wine guru Robert Parker will never come to taste and give them point scores.”

But in Japan, at least, there is a growing circle that appreciates Gutlove’s winemaking. And admires, too, his commitment to the vision of Cocoromi Gakuen’s founder Kawata and of his daughter Machiko Ikegami, the vineyard manager.

At the Conoisseurs Auction in aid of the Tokyo English Life Line, held at the British Ambassador’s residence last November, Ambassador Sir Stephen Gomersall paid tribute to Gutlove’s achievements. Auction Chairman Terry Wilson, who regularly orders Coco Farm wines, is of the opinion that Gutlove “deserves every award there is going. Bruce’s technical skills rank among the world’s best. Equally, his wine embodies the social conscience that he has put into practice in his life; it is an element that only adds to the good taste.”

Even should its wines receive the recognition they deserve, life at Coco Farm will continue as it always has done. “We now produce more than 200,000 bottles a year,” explains Gutlove, “but we can’t get big, as we’d stop being able to do what we’re here for — which is look after the students. They’ve lived with each other for more than 20 years. That’s family, and that comes first.”

But economies of scale are no impediment to Gutlove’s quest for oenological perfection. Given his conviction that “wine is less a manufactured product and more an agricultural product,” for Coco Farm staying small means staying special.

And just how special that is, a growing number of wine- lovers are coming to realize.