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French wine lovers protest as lauded young Japanese vintners threatened with deportation

AFP-JIJI

French wine lovers have risen up in revolt after a Japanese couple who make “outstanding” wine in southern France were threatened with deportation.

More than 42,000 have already signed a petition protesting the “crazy, moronic and shameful decision,” with wine and restaurant critics now joining the outcry.

Rie and Hirofumi Shoji’s “exceptional” red wine, Pedres Blanques (White Rocks), made from grenache grapes near Banyuls-sur-Mer in the French Catalan region of Roussillon, became an instant hit after their first harvest last year.

It has already made the cellars of Spanish restaurant Can Roca, which has twice been named the best in the world by Restaurant magazine, and top Paris eateries have also been vying to stock up on the natural wine.

Their first year of production completely sold out, with 10,000 bottles quickly snapped up and the price surging from €12($14) to €26.

But immigration officials said the couple could not stay in France because they were not earning enough and their business was “not viable.”

The Shojis sunk €100,000 of their savings and took out a €50,000 loan to buy their vineyards on difficult terrain where the Pyrenees mountains plunge into the Mediterranean.

They harvest the grapes by hand, growing them organically and without adding anything to the wine.

Hirofumi Shoji, 38, fell in love with French wine when he began working for the French three-star Michelin chef Alain Ducasse in Japan.

The Shojis met in France after arriving separately in 2011 dreaming of making their own wine. Both studied and worked with some of the country’s leading winemakers in the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions to perfect their skills before marrying and buying the land together in 2016.

But when they tried to change their status on their papers from “employees” to “farmers,” officials told them they would have to leave the country because they earned less than €2,000 a month.

Their lawyer Jean Codognes said that at first he thought it was “an administrative mistake,” but the prefecture recently confirmed its order.

“Their wine has been a huge success and 75 percent of the production for this year has already been reserved,” he added.

He said the couple had not had a “centime” of state aid to set up their business because, as foreigners, they did not qualify.

Renowned local winemaker Alain Castex also came to their defense, praising Pedres Blanques as “an extraordinary wine.”

“They are really passionate people with very high ethical standards and they have been a magnificent success,” he told French public television.

Jean L’Heritier, the organizer of a wine fair in Perpignan, the capital of the Roussillon region, said it would be a “huge loss for everyone if the Shojis had to leave. The quality of their grapes, and the typically Japanese perfectionism of their winemaking” had impressed their peers, he told the local newspaper, L’Independant.

Callers to local radio stations raged at the officials as “moronic,” and Twitter users also described the decision as “criminal.” Green Member of European Parliament Yannick Jadot called the decision “absurd” and urged his supporters to sign the petition to save the Shojis.

Banyuls is best known for its rich red dessert wines, often called the wine world’s best-kept secret.

Codognes, who has appealed the decision, said the couple were doing well compared to many other winemakers locally. “The average revenue in the area (from winemaking), even with subsidies, is less than €1,000 a month,” he added.

Several Japanese winemakers have made a name for themselves in France in recent years, almost all making organic and natural wines, led by Hirotake Ooka, whose Domaine de Grande Colline wines have a cult following in his homeland.