KATSUNUMA, YAMANASHI PREF. - In the countryside of Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture, just north of Mount Fuji, a family-run operation has been making wine the old-fashioned way for almost 100 years: squeezing grapes by hand inside wooden presses.
Every year in mid-October, Hitoshi Mitsumori, 54, along with his wife Kaori, 53, and son, Motofumi, 27, get together with other local farmers to process freshly harvested Koshu white wine grapes, a variety indigenous to the prefecture.
Over the course of about three days, farmers from the Hishiyama district — one of Japan’s most famous areas for growing fruit — haul in about 13 tons of Koshu grapes which, after being fermented on site, are returned to their owners the following spring as budōshu (grape alcohol).
“Nowadays, big wineries use automated machines to crush their grapes but we use wood baskets and crush them by (levers),” Hitoshi says in a recent interview at his shop, Budobatake. “If you put the grapes in expensive machines, the cost of the wine we drink will get expensive. By using the traditional techniques from the past, we can lower costs.”
Although not likely the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Japan, private wine production began in the late 1870s, thanks in part to Masanari Takano and Tatsunori Tsuchiya, two young Japanese who had studied winemaking techniques in France.
Wine consumption, along with production, greatly increased in Yamanashi and across Japan from the second half of the 20th century, mainly due to the change to a more Western diet after the 1970 Japan World Exposition in Osaka. According to the National Tax Agency, Yamanashi was the top wine producer in the country, with shipments of 5,510 kiloliters, or 33 percent of national output, in fiscal 2016.
Budobatake’s vineyard, which grows 48 types of grapes, including Kyoho, Fujiminori, shine muscat and Delaware varietals, is located in an alluvial fan behind the family’s store. Because of its location on a 30-degree incline, with winds that gust down from the mountain, ample sunlight and excellent drainage conditions, the vineyard is ideal for growing grapes.
Budobatake distinguishes between the budōshu it produces and wine. “In Japan, we don’t think of this as wine culture but budōshu culture,” says Kaori, who also holds a license as a wine adviser.
Following the harvest in late autumn, about 30 local farmers bring whatever leftover Koshu grapes they have after sending out their shipments for consumption and, in the culminating event of the season, work in shifts to process budōshu in a mass “labor of love.”
First, damaged grapes are removed from their bunches. After the local farmers’ grapes are weighed individually, they are gently crushed in wooden grinders — just enough to break open the skin — and destemmed, which makes it easier to squeeze juice out in a wooden press. The grape juice is then separated from the leftover solids, which are returned to the vineyard to be used as compost.
“The juice from the grapes is put into these tanks and fermented and ripened,” Hitoshi says, adding that the number of bottles local farmers collect in the spring is determined by the weight of grapes they bring.
Budōshu is a particularly good match for Japanese cuisine, says Hitoshi, who, along with his son Motofumi, is in charge of the fermentation process. “The farmers drink their wine at dinnertime and social gatherings, but also ceremonial occasions. It’s a longtime tradition of the Hishiyama district,” says Hitoshi.
Although most of the budōshu will mature in tanks over the winter before the farmers come again to bottle and cap their wine in March of the following year, a small amount is specially bottled before Christmas, in time for the New Year.
Budobatake holds study tours of its grape-squeezing process, as well as budōshu and grape juice tastings. The shop sells a large 1.8 liter (1 shō) bottle of dry budōshu for ¥3,500, while the smaller 720 milliliter bottle goes for ¥2,160. The shop also offers an assortment of other items, including grape jams, raisins and fruit gelato.
For the Mitsumoris and local farmers, the passing of the torch to successors in an aging country with a shrinking population of farmers is a priority. Hitoshi’s father, Kesaji, 88, is a second-generation grape farmer.
Kaori, who is an active leader of female farmers not only in her region but across Japan, says getting people to think about the future of fruit farming is the most important thing. She defines a leader as “a person who takes action for the region.”
“For fruit farming, each one of us is a leader. What’s special about this area is we have study groups. It is rare to find people who are thinking about how the region will be in the next several decades. So we have to cultivate capable people who can think about five, 10, 20 years down the road,” Kaori says.
Her husband is of like mind. Hitoshi says the future of their industry depends on creating a structure where producers can connect with consumers, especially amid the liberalization of economic markets through multilateral international trade agreements.
“To keep this region of production alive we have to pass on the history, culture and traditions as well. There needs to be a system where young people can earn money in cities like Tokyo and support regional areas, and rural areas need to be able to accept this. This will lead to having a more stable market,” he says.
For more information about the Budobatake winery and its produce, visit www.budoubatake.net.