Nobuko Takemura, co-founder and president of VinVie Winery & Cidery in Matsukawa, Nagano Prefecture, knows from more than 20 years working on her family’s third-generation apple orchard that farming is hard work. Yet, looking out from the steps of VinVie’s cidery and taproom, over the orchards and farms that roll out to meet snow-capped mountains, she also believes there is no better place to be.
“Matsukawa is really fun,” Takemura says of the town and region that has been her home since 1990. “It’s beautiful. It’s a great place to live and work.”
Pastoral and picturesque as it may be, Matsukawa is in trouble. Like many rural areas, Matsukawa’s population is decreasing, a reflection of Japan’s larger demographic shift and overall exodus to larger urban areas. This means not only fewer local customers for her farm, but also fewer growers to continue the region’s centuries-old apple-growing tradition — in 2018, Nagano Prefecture produced nearly 19% of the nation’s apple harvest, second only to Aomori Prefecture’s whopping 58%.
In 2014, Takemura attended a cider seminar organized by the International Apple Cider Association in the nearby city of Iida. An idea started brewing when she took her first sip of hard cider. An alcoholic drink savored for centuries in the United Kingdom, Ireland and France, cider is still relatively unknown in Japan. Takemura saw its twofold potential.
First, there’s the brew itself. “It was delicious and really fun to drink,” she says. “Cider usually has an alcohol content of 6 to 8%, about half that of wine. It’s a kind of alcohol you can really enjoy with your friends and have fun without getting a hangover. I thought we could use our apples to make cider.”
Then there’s the boost it could give the region. “If we made cider, it would be a way for people to learn about Matsukawa and how attractive it is,” Takemura continues. “They could also learn about agriculture and maybe get involved in both.”
The two-hectare family farm began converting a portion of its apple harvest to cider. They took their apples to Mashino Winery to be turned into Marry, a cider that combined apples from local farmers. The bottles were slipped onto the shelves of their on-farm shop alongside bags of their apples to see how it would fare.
The cider sold well enough that in 2017 the family planted 30 cider apple trees, such as Dabinett, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Yarlington Mill, and drew up plans for an on-site cidery and taproom. By 2018, they were brewing under the name VinVie. Combining the French words for “wine” and “life,” the moniker captures what Takemura hopes her cider offers customers and her community. “Wine and cider make people’s life richer,” she says, “and my hope is to reactivate the community and the region.”
VinVie currently produces seven kinds of cider and five kinds of wine, and Takemura hoped the completion of the cidery and taproom in April 2020 would increase output. But after being shut down during the first state of emergency, a series of untimely frosts, followed by an unprecedentedly long rainy season, resulted in a harvest of apples with cracked skin that could not be sold fresh.
Instead, Takemura and her crew came up with two new options. One was an ice cider that freezes the brew before fermentation to concentrate its flavor. The second is a campaign dubbed “Everybody’s Cider,” that combines VinVie’s apples with those of other growers in the area who are also struggling this season. Fifty members purchased a cider share, and by April 2021 they will be able to enjoy the results of this unique experiment.
“It’s important to focus on what we can do,” Takemura says. “We just need to keep adapting to the situation.”
Takemura’s quick thinking means VinVie’s online sales remain steady. She also started a series of YouTube videos that allows people to learn more about the cider-making process and tour the cidery — there’s even the occasional staff push-up competition. The emphasis is on having fun, something Takemura also believes is an important element for success.
“I have a farm and apples waiting for us to take care of them,” she says. “We have to face the future for the sake of the apples and trees. The trick to being optimistic is to enjoy what you are doing at the moment.”
For more information, visit vinvie.jp. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.
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