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Japanese Wineries Struggle with Marketing and the Environment - 2004-06-23

The Japanese have been making wine for more than a hundred years, but the industry, by worldwide standards, is still considered fledgling. VOA's Steve Herman has more from Ashikaga, Japan, on the challenges facing Japan's wine industry.

A worker uses a blast sprayer to spew beneficial bacteria to combat fungal rot as he ambles through neatly planted rows of grapes in Tochigi Prefecture.

Growing good wine grapes is a challenge anywhere. In Japan, where suitable land is scarce and expensive and the weather fickle, grapes get tender loving care. Some bunches are individually wrapped to protect from bacteria and bugs.

At home and abroad, Japanese wine has gained little respect, however, despite a century of winemaking.

Japan is one of the world's top wine markets, importing nearly two-thirds of the wine that is poured here. The Japanese each year drink more than 250 million liters of wine and per capita consumption has nearly tripled in less than a decade.

Only a small fraction of the wine the Japanese sip, less than eight percent, is made purely from Japanese grapes. The rest of the local product is mixed with imported wine.

Experts, however, say there is local wine worth tasting, including such reds as merlots, muscats and cabernet sauvignons. Among the whites, they recommend the fruity Rieslings, sparkling wines and those made with the indigenous Koshu grape.

Tokyo wine columnist and educator Sandra Shoji says domestic winemakers have to learn how to market their products, especially in international competitions.

"If Japanese enter their wines, which are made purely of Japanese grapes and they win prizes, then they will get recognition," she says.

With Japan's sommeliers mainly pushing French wines on patrons, the domestic makers are fighting an uphill battle. More than one billion dollars is spent here annually on French wine. Professor Yoshihide Yamakawa of Yamanashi Gakuen University is one of Japan's top wine scientists.

He says some Japanese dishes go very well with inexpensive, but perfectly decent Japanese wines. However, the professor complains Japanese sommeliers turn up their noses at homegrown wines.

Ms. Shoji, the wine writer, says many producers have also failed to attract Japan's sophisticated drinkers, mainly women, who know the difference between a vintage Bordeaux and Beaujolais Nouveau.

"At one time they [the makers] went for bottles that actually had no writing on it. It just had flowers," she recalls. "So if you bought a pansy, maybe you got a pinot noir. If you bought a rose you got a merlot. And it came in slightly smaller bottles because supposedly women don't drink as much, but it just does not work out. Women are just too well-educated about wine recently."

At Coco Farm, where American Bruce Gutlove has been making wine for 14 years, there has been some success combating preconceived notions about domestic labels. Coco Farm has increased sales to 200,000 bottles a year and is experimenting with different grape varieties after a plant virus forced it to give up on the traditional, but acidic, Koshu grape.

"We lie in wait and when a promising looking customer walks by we waylay them - we pound them over the head with a bottle, figuratively of course, and say 'stop, think, taste this and tell us what you think about this, really,'" he says.

But just when Japanese winemakers are beginning to gain a bit of respect at home, the effort to make good wine is becoming more challenging.

Vintners and scientists agree that, whatever the cause, the climate has been warming in Japanese wine country over the past half century. That is causing a variety of problems, from grape rot to anemic-looking fruit.

The viticulturist, Professor Yamakawa, says red grapes need a 20-degree temperature change between day and night to trigger production of anthocyanin, the pigment that produces that blood-rich color. But it is just not getting that cool any more in the evenings in the birthplace of Japanese wine, Yamanashi, which enjoys a 70 percent share of the domestic market.

That has grape growers heading to the hills, moving farther north or experimenting with grape varieties better suited to warmer climates.

But Mr. Gutlove at Coco Farm, notes his neighbors to the north, who have built a reputation for outstanding full-bodied red wines, face trouble as well.

"You talk to some of the older growers there and they are saying 'it's getting harder and harder to grow merlot.' And they're thinking of going to cabernet sauvignon," he explains. "If this does come to pass that way it would be unfortunate because a lot of people spent a lot of time and energy on merlot and to see the region too hot to grow merlot, well, that mean then there's a chance that's lost."

In the meantime, the campaign continues to get Japanese diners to choose vintages from closer to home for those celebratory toasts.