Kusunoki Winery is located in Suzaka city in the northern part of Nagano prefecture. Kusunoki Winery’s wines are part of the Nagano Appellation Control System and its 2009 Chardonnay and 2011 Merlot have received awards from that organization. Further, its 2014 Barrel Aged Chardonnay was selected for the G7 Ministers of Transportation reception event in 2016. When I visited in September 2017, I enjoyed and bought a bottle of the Merlot Eternal Romantique 2014. This wine is named after the first Japanese woman photo journalist, Tsuneko Sakamoto, who helped with the harvest. She is over 100 years old and attributes her health to red wine. Good stories always make good wine!
While my visit to Kusunoki Winery was a while ago, I am writing about it now because it is what caused me to start thinking more seriously about the Japanese wine industry. Until then, I understood from wine literature that Japan, generally, is not suitable for winemaking because of its wet weather. However, when we asked the Kusunoki winemaker what known wine making region Nagano is comparable to he answered Virginia in the United States. The reason is that both places suffer from wet and humid summers that cause vigorous plant growth affecting quality and that increase the risk of fungal disease affecting quantity. This made sense to me but I also knew that Virginia wine has a much better reputation that Japanese wine and is much more affordable. So, why the difference?
It seems that 10 to 15 years ago the Virginia state government put money into researching how to grow wine grapes and make wine in Virginia. This resulted in a large improvement in Virginia wine quality and quantity. In comparison, right now, the Nagano wine industry is a mix between large national producers and small artisan winemakers who do not necessarily work together to solve what I imagine are problems common to all of them. There is also comparatively less government investment in the industry.
While Nagano does produce some good wines, a general and valid criticism is that, overall, the wines lack flavor and are much too expensive. If weather is really the main factor (more on that point in another post) holding back Nagano’s wine industry, Virginia’s story suggests that Nagano has an opportunity to improve to where it can compete widely in terms of both quality and quantity.
I am not aware of a national, prefectural or even Suzaka town-level wine industry development plan. Having such a plan would be a critical advantage. Of course, getting the relevant stakeholders to the table is always difficult.