Early in her career, winemaker Atsuko Radcliffe aspired to brew sake. Fate, however, had other plans for her.
“Thirty years ago, the sake industry was completely closed (to women),” Radcliffe, who was born and raised in Ibaraki Prefecture, recalls. “I knew that I could continue to enjoy sake, so I gave up on becoming a brewer.”
Having earned a degree in microbiology and biochemistry, she was working at a large chemical company when a friend approached her about a job at Coco Farm Winery in Tochigi Prefecture. Although she had no experience making — or even drinking — wine, Radcliffe was a quick study and dove into all the aspects of production, tending to the grapes in the vineyard and operating machinery in the cellar.
After three years at Coco Farm, she and two associates established the first wine and viticulture consulting company in Japan, which handled everything from legal permits to cellar management.
Realizing the need to learn more from vintners overseas, she traveled to France to broaden her experience. Though brief, Radcliffe’s stints in Burgundy and Bordeaux changed her perspective on the drink forever.
“Wine is science, technique and technology, but at the same time it’s a part of life. It’s about how you live — drinking, eating, laughing and talking,” she says.
In 1995, she began splitting her time between Japan and Australia in order to work two vintages a year. A turning point came four years later when legendary winemaker Philip Shaw offered her a position at Rosemount Estate — Australia’s fifth largest winery at the time — where she remained until the company was bought by the beverage giant Foster’s in 2006.
“Rosemount was so big, so busy, and the speed … I just couldn’t believe it,” she says, describing her trial by fire. “I had always worked at small wineries, and suddenly I was in charge of 30,000 barrels.”
Following her tenure at Rosemount, her erstwhile dream of becoming a sake maker came true when the president of Miyagi Prefecture’s Urakasumi Sake Brewery asked her to work for him. Radcliffe remembers her time at the brewery fondly and says that the experience taught her “why sake is so beautiful,” but after 18 months she returned to Australia.
When I ask why she left, she replies simply, “I’m a winemaker.”
In 2013, she launched her own brand in Denman, a tiny town 250 kilometers north of Sydney, in the Upper Hunter region. Called Small Forest — a translation of her maiden name, Kobayashi — Radcliffe’s wines are sold mainly in Australia and at a handful of locations in Japan.
I sampled a selection of Small Forest wines recently at a tasting event in Tokyo. The 2015 Upper Hunter Chardonnay is fresh and balanced, with a judicious amount of oak and taut acidity. The 2016 Verdelho is light and dry, while the 2015 Shiraz Rose has a velvety texture with notes of red berries and rhubarb.
Most impressive, though, is the 2014 Shiraz (Small Forest’s first vintage, made with grapes from the Orange region), which has flavors of dark berry, cocoa and spices overlying a firm structure. True to Radcliffe’s intention, all of the wines are quaffable and food-friendly.
“I want people to enjoy my wine as a casual drink because that’s how I enjoy it at home,” she says.
Small Forest: www.smallforest.com.au