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When Daisuke Suzaki visited one of the legends of Japan’s wine world, Akihito Kido, with an impassioned appeal for help with his winemaking dreams, he was initially greeted with bafflement.

A winery in Toyota? Home to the headquarters of Japan’s biggest automaker — adjacent to Nagoya, the nation’s fourth-biggest city?

As a fellow native son of Toyota, Kido (of the eponymous Kido Winery in Nagano) was sympathetic to Suzaki’s ambitions. But with firsthand knowledge of the scorching heat that afflicts the city, he also thought his visitor “a little odd.”

Despite this, Suzaki and his wife, Azusa, went on to establish the Azucca e Azucco winery in Toyota and met with such success that their wines — from pinot noirs to chardonnay-gewurztraminer blends and sparkling red lambruscos — sell out immediately after release, and feature on elite wine lists in Tokyo and Osaka.

The winery underscores the surprising diversity of a Japanese winemaking transformation that began with Kido and a handful of other vintners around 2000, and has spread from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Much of the pleasure in discovering Japan’s wines is each vintage’s expression of a distinctive local environment, or perhaps fūdo — a cherished Japanese term for natural features that carries spiritual connotations.

“Azucca e Azucco produce wines that call to mind the scenery and warmth of their fields,” says Shuhei Okubo, who serves Suzaki’s wines at his French-Japanese wine bar Level in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka neighborhood. “There’s a glow and character to these wines that bring to life the particular conditions in which they are made every year.”

For Suzaki, that’s only natural: “I was born here, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Through invention and ingenuity, we wish to express the unique terroir of Toyota.”

Daisuke Suzaki inspects bottles of the latest release from Azucca e Azucco. | JOJI SAKURAI
Daisuke Suzaki inspects bottles of the latest release from Azucca e Azucco. | JOJI SAKURAI

Inspiration in Italy

Suzaki overcame Kido’s skepticism, persuading him to take him in as a trainee by telling him about the three years he studied winemaking in Sicily and Tuscany. While Sicily is notorious for extreme heat, Tuscany is also far from the ideal winemaking terrain that people imagine.

“Especially on Tuscany’s coast where I trained, it’s hot and inhospitable, and temperatures don’t drop enough at night,” says Suzaki. “Still that’s where Sassicaia, one of the world’s great wines, is produced.”

The experience seeing “stubborn old guys” deploying technique, invention, wisdom and wile to make excellent wine in arduous conditions inspired Suzaki to try the same in Toyota. “I saw no point in going in search of the ideal terrain, in a place where I had no personal ties,” says Suzaki. “The whole fun of it was overcoming challenges to make wine where I was born and raised.”

The first stirrings of this mission came when Daisuke and Azusa were university students in Tokyo. Inspired by Japan’s Italian food-and-wine boom of the 1990s, they backpacked around Italy visiting countless wineries in starkly contrasting environments.

“What I loved on these backpacking trips was seeing vineyards clinging to Alpine slopes, then next to beaches where people swim in the sea,” he recalls. “It taught me there’s no such thing as a ‘best’ wine country — each area in Italy has its own special appeal and character.

“I also learned that grapes are an extremely strong life form. Grapes overcome drought, heavy rains, frosts,” he adds. “Observing the various conditions in which they thrive in Italy, convinced me we could succeed in Toyota as well.”

Passing the torch

Suzaki’s story closely mirrors the philosophy of Kido’s own mentor, Usuke Asai, who pursued a lonely mission in the 1980s and ’90s to prove that Japan could make fine wines. Asai succeeded through intense research and trial-and-error, but the transformation he drove was first a revolution in mentality.

The wines at Azucca e Azucco have playful names such as In Bocca al Lupo!, which is Italian for 'into the wolf’s mouth.' | JOJI SAKURAI
The wines at Azucca e Azucco have playful names such as In Bocca al Lupo!, which is Italian for ‘into the wolf’s mouth.’ | JOJI SAKURAI

For generations, the conventional wisdom was that Japan was simply not a suitable place for winemaking. Heat, humidity, seasonal rains and acidic terrain, the belief went, all condemned Japan to producing no more than sweet tipples made from table grapes.

Asai scoffed at the notion that Japan’s winemaking was “destined” to failure, while questioning the equally entrenched idea that regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy were somehow “blessed” with greatness.

“It isn’t blessed lands that create great wines,” Asai would say. “It’s lands where people create great wines that come to be thought of as blessed. … Wine isn’t something that comes down as a gift from the gods. It’s humans toiling to coax out nature, over generations, who produce great wines.”

Asai proved his theory by crafting a celebrated Nagano merlot. His greater legacy was mentoring Kido and a crop of other young vintners on a journey of winemaking excellence — overturning nearly a century of resignation about plonky predestination.

Suzaki carries on this mindset — with an Italian twist. “Asai talked about destiny. And there are different types of destiny. What I saw time-and-again in Italy was that people are born into a land, and have to live there. They have no choice, so they make the best of it,” says Suzaki. “Like those Italians I met, I, too, have no choice but to love this land, and make the best wine I can make. That’s my destiny.”

Charm in every vintage

Suzaki greets visitors wearing a jersey of Italian soccer club AS Roma. He’s fond of the team because he and Azusa were in Italy at a time its captain, Francesco Totti, delighted fans with imaginative play that made him a top fantasista — or creative playmaker.

One of the delights of Azucca e Azucco is the whimsical fantasy with which the husband-and-wife team create a narrative around the grapes they raise with loving care. Their amphitheater-shaped vineyard is a teatro (theater) for burattini (puppets) who come to life — with unique personality — each year on the vines as grapes.

There is also wit and charm in the naming and label art of every release. These change with each vintage according to how the grapes grew, as if they were children. (One recurring name, however, is In Bocca al Lupo! [into the wolf’s mouth], Italian for good luck.)

“The names and labels express how wine is not any old product, but a different crafted work every single year,” says Suzaki. “Each vintage tells the story of what we were thinking that year, what we were feeling, and how the grapes developed.

“That sense of the progress of our lives together, told through our wines, is something very interesting and very precious.”

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