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Saturday, June 9, 2007

Koshu Project sets out to redefine Japanese wine

Ernest Singer is young at heart, with six children from three different families, and an office with staff members mostly half his age. "It's the young that have the passion that Millesimes thrives upon," he explains, navigating a sea of desks and concentrated faces.

Ernest Singer
Ernest Singer hopes to promote viniculture and help revive Japan's agriculture through his wine grape-growing Koshu Project.

The name of his company — French for 'vintage' — gives the game away. Millesimes is known for importing wine and operating four schools nationwide, training Japanese as sommeliers and to understand the art of wine and winemaking.

Now, Millesimes is on the cusp of taking the wine world by storm with The Koshu Project and Japan's first homegrown vin extraordinaire. And while some find the concept laughable, the Japanese government is taking Singer's goal of helping to revive this country's agriculture very seriously indeed.

"Last year the government placed at my disposal some 1,000 hectares in Shizuoka Prefecture at the foot of Mt. Fuji, to be planted, starting last April, with 10,000 vines. We have existing vineyards in Yamanashi and Nagano, and plan to quintuple the size of operations by 2012."

Singer came to Japan from New York aged 12 with his parents, who were with the U.S. military. "My father was a computer engineer in Yokohama; there were 100 bases in Japan back in 1958. It was a great place to grow up in, and cheap!"

When in high school, Wood read an article in this paper about Paul Rush, who had been in Japan before the war, was interned, repatriated, and returned in 1945. "He was a remarkable man — introduced American football, played poker, founded St. Luke's Hospital in Tsukiji."

Rush was most famed, however, for modernizing Japan's agriculture when the bottom fell out of the silk industry after WWII. Silkworms had been raised for a century in Shizuoka, Yamanashi and Nagano especially; there were mulberry fields everywhere.

"I went to see him and his project in Kiyosato, Yamanashi, and stayed three days. Even though I went on to do other things, his vision for Japanese agriculture stayed with me."

Singer did a lot of things as he got wind of business trends and opportunities: real estate, travel, promotion, computers. Then 25 years ago, seeing the way the economy was heading, he decided to focus on what he calls "quality-of-life products."

"I thought long and hard. Leisure activities like tennis and horse-riding required land. What was space intensive? Wine. Trouble was I only knew two, one was Chablis, the other wasn't."

Because wine labels were not decipherable to the Japanese, consumption per person was on the average 500 ml a year, with 40 percent domestic wine and the rest mostly cheap sweet German stuff. Knowing education to be the key, Singer opened his first Academie Du Vin, and set about translating books by experts like Robert Parker.

"Consumption today averages out annually at 2.5 liters per person," he says, "with domestic wine down to 20 percent of the total, and imported Red Bordeaux predominant. Still, Japan stands only 25th in the world. We should be in the top 10."

Having been in advertising, Singer knew about marketing but, as admitted, little about wine. "I spent two years researching."

Viniculture in Japan dates back to the eighth century, using a grape indigenous to Asia known in Japan as Koshu. Yet when Singer had it tested, DNA analysis proved it to be vinifera, of European stock. This proved that Koshu had the capability of producing great wines.

Vines were planted in Yamanashi so that grapes could be transported to Edo before they spoiled. Later, two samurai were sent to the Paris Exposition in the Meiji Period to study winemaking.

To take Japan to a new level a century later, Singer employed professor Denis Dubourdieu of the University of Bordeaux to advise. When the first few hundred cases of Millesimes wine were produced in 2004, he invited Parker to come over for a tasting.

"It was after Robert gave it the thumb's up, that everyone started to wake up. Until recently, vines were being dug up. Now we are planting. More and more every year."

Four wines were made in 2006 under The Koshu Project label (designed by Hiroshi Senju): a white, a rose, Zenkoji, and Cuvee Denis Dubourdieu.

Singer believes the Cuvee is the first Japanese-made wine to have an impact on the international market. "Robert said as much, describing it as 'right, crisp, zesty'— 'a cross between a Loire Sauvignon and a Muscadet'— 'a wine to guzzle with sushi and sashimi." In other words the perfect accompaniment to Japanese cuisine."

Japanese wine has been a joke for years, but as Singer points out, most people don't realize how much bad wine is made all around the world. It's those vineyards that set out to make wine suitable to the cuisine of that country that succeed.

"The tannin in red wine helps dissolve the high fat content of, say, French food. But the climate here is not suitable for reds. Anyway Japanese food is exceptionally light and healthy, so it needs a platform wine rather than one that overpowers it."

Singer is planting high because of climate change. Low-lying grape-growing Katsunuma, west of Tokyo, is suffering rising temperatures; grapes are losing their acidity.

"The Koshu Project has had a big response in the States, with major orders from Oceania and SE Asia. According to current EU regulations, it's illegal to import Japanese wine into Europe, but by July we'll be clear for sales in France and the U.K."

Singer wants Japan to see that larger farms are efficient and profitable. His dream is for a cooperative system so that wine-makers can make a good living. It's the only way, he believes, to persuade young people back onto the land."

Web site (in Japanese and English, and including a virtual tour of The Koshu project): www.koshu.org

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