On a golden afternoon this past fall at Coco Farm & Winery in Ashikaga, Japan, picnickers and revelers gathered among the vines to celebrate the 31st annual harvest festival. The wine flowed, the sun shone, and live jazz echoed across the small valley, resplendent in fall colors. The sheer number of people there for the event—around 8,500—reflects how far the winery has come since its rather audacious beginning several decades ago.
The winery began as the dream of Noboru Kawata, a local teacher of students with special needs. Frustrated with conventional ways of treating people who didn’t fit into traditional roles in society, Kawata envisioned a residential and working facility for students with mental or physical disabilities. He was convinced that working in nature was a better alternative to a life in institutionalized care.
In 1958, Kawata and his students got to work, clearing 7.5 acres of land on a steep hillside in Tochigi prefecture, about 50 miles north of Tokyo. Over the decades, the community, Kokoromi Gakuen (kokoromi means “challenge,” or “to try something new”; gakuen means “academy”), slowly grew alongside the grapes. In 1980, Kawata established an official farm and winery with seed money from residents’ families; in 1984, the winery received a government permit to produce wine.
Today, around 150 students attend the facility, the majority of whom live onsite. The facility welcomes students diagnosed with varying levels of autism, Down’s syndrome, developmental disabilities and other special needs.
Kawata observed that the detail-oriented, repetitive work involved in growing grapes and cultivating mushrooms at the farm seemed to provide relief to his students, particularly those with severe autism. As the enterprise grew, Kawata became increasingly committed to the project as a long-term and self-sustaining solution. He began exploring how to produce wine that not only had a good story but also good quality.
While talking to wine experts around the world and visiting winemakers in Napa Valley, Kawata recruited California native Bruce Gutlove for his project. Having studied enology at the University of California at Davis, Gutlove was working as a consultant for wineries in Napa and Sonoma. “When I got here in 1986 they were making very sweet wine,” said Gutlove. “We moved away from that rapidly. The wines are drier now and better-paired with meals.”
More than two decades later, Gutlove is still in Japan. Five years ago, he moved to Hokkaido to start his own winery, but he remains committed to the Coco Farm & Winery as an active member of the board of directors. “It worked against all odds,” Gutlove said of the project. “It’s a pretty outrageous idea when you think about it."
Over the years, the winery has grown to 15 acres of vines and from an annual production of 1,000 cases to more than 13,000 cases. Roughly 20 percent of the grapes used in production are from the farm's vineyards, which are planted with Japanese, American, European and hybrid varieties including Petit Manseng, Norton, Tannat and Vignoles.
Initially Coco relied on additional grapes imported from California, but since 1996 it has made its wine entirely from Japan-grown grapes, using grapes like Chardonnay and Koshu varieties purchased from regions known for wine production such as Yamagata, Yamanashi and Nagano.
“It’s the story as well as the wine that draws people,” said Romain Weinstock, a Frenchman who joined the team of winemakers in 2009. “Over the past five or 10 years there’s been a boom in Japanese wine,” he said, adding that all of Coco’s wines are sold domestically and that demand consistently meets supply.
Weinstock, who traveled to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and the United States to make wine before coming to Coco, says that making wine in Japan is both refreshing and challenging. “People’s grandparents here weren’t making wine, so there’s no fixed method,” he says, comparing it to his native France. “It’s more open and experimental, but also very detail-focused.”
Not long after the harvest festival, a few dozen students and a small team of professional winemakers worked side by side, sorting and pressing the last of 2014’s grapes. “Everyone works according to his capabilities,” said Weinstock. “The goal is to provide work.”
Though Kawata passed away in 2010, he lived to see his dream become a sustainable reality. Today, the winery draws visitors from across Japan and around the world for tastings, tours and even internships. The winery gained international recognition in 2000 when its sparkling white was served at an official dinner at a G8 summit in Okinawa.
Kawata reflected on the philosophy behind his venture in his 2004 memoir, The Yattembeh Spirit. “Making wine is a lot like working with the kids at Coco Farm, it seems to me,” he wrote. “One works with what nature has provided, to bring out the best in each one.”