Disabled winemakers tend Japanese winery31st July, 2014 by Jean-Baptiste Ancelot
In our article on Japanese wines we spoke about the Coco Farm & Winery estate, a great example of oenotourism and the integration of disabled workers (the students). In this article we will focus on this estate started by Noboru Kawata in 1984 in Ashikaga (Tochigi prefecture) which is today in the good hands of his two daughters: Ikegami Chieko, responsible for the winery, and Machiko Ochi, responsible for the center.
“We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“, Ikegami Chieko.
WINE EXPLORERS: Can you tell us a bit about your background as an introduction?
IKEGAMI CHIEKO: I was born on the 15th of October 1950. After graduating from Tokyo Women’s University I started working for Soshisa, a publishing company in 1972. One day I decided to take an oenology course at Tokyo Agriculture College and found it fascinating. So naturally I joined the Coco Farm & Winery in April 1984. I have been the vice president of the Coco Farm & Winery since 1989, and in 2009 I was awarded the title of executive officer by the Tokyo Agriculture University. I’m also the chief governor of Cocoromi Gakuen (a facility of social welfare) and a member of the Union Japonaise des Œnologues.
MACHIKO OCHI: I’m the second daughter of Noboru Kawata. I was born on the 23rd of January 1956. At the university I majored in social welfare. I immediately started working for Cocoromi Gakuen. And before I took over my father’s position (chief administrator of Cocoromi Gakuen), I worked in vineyard as a grape grower.
WE: How was the Coco Farm & Winery vineyard born?
IKEGAMI: When Noboru Kawate (founder of Cocoromi-Gakuen) was the teacher of a special class for mentally and intellectually challenged junior high school students, he found that his students always looked like they were feeling nervous at their school desks. However they acted very differently in the mountains. Because their intellectual abilities were impaired, the families of these students thought they could not amount to much. Thus, their developmental needs were not a priority. However, Noboru had a different idea. For these students, only hard work at the farm could possibly highlight their capabilities. He created the vineyard for the students in order for them to experience the joy of harvesting and to end up in the vineyard at least once a year, to provide them with something that could give them a sense of self worth. He wanted them to be able to be proud of what they can accomplish and since there is such a strong link between what ones does and who one considers oneself to be, he wanted them to be able to link themselves in this manner to their occupation.
MACHIKO: Our father chose grapes from many other fruits because it could be turned into wine. He always enjoyed wine for the joy of sharing it.
WE: What are your students doing at Coco Farm & Winery?
MACHIKO: Students perform a multitude of different tasks throughout the year which includes the following:
1. Putting paper umbrellas around all grape clusters
2. Cutting the grass in the vineyards
4. Shedding vine leaves
5. Taking care of the young shoots
6. Harvesting the grapes
7. Collecting the pruned shoots
8. Spraying the vineyards with the required chemicals
9. Crushing and pressing grapes
10. Working on the bottling line
11. Assisting packaging for shipping
12. … and so much more !
WE: Are visitors sensitive to the fact that challenged people are working in the vineyards?
MACHIKO: Half of the people don’t notice that fact nor do they care about it. The other half is very impressed that they are working in this way.
IKEGAMI: But in the end it is always an exciting thing to work in a vineyard with the aim of obtaining the highest possible quality of grapes, regardless of who tends to the vines.
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This vineyard in the mountains, North of Ashikaga, is a physical challenge to work in: it has a steep slope of 38 degrees average of inclination ! We tested it, it’s really abrupt. Why did you choose to plant vines here ? “Because at the time it wasn’t possible to obtain agricultural land on flat ground, only on the steep slopes of the mountains“, said Machiko.
However, the southwest exposure offers very good conditions for the ripening of the grapes. And the steep slopes allow efficient drainage of rainwater between mid-June and mid-October. Rather important considering the average annual rainfall of between 1,100 and 1,200mm per year! And for the students this exercise of endurance is very beneficial: “they learn patience, it allows them to work with the seasons and sometimes lead them to improvisation working on sloping land, which is very stimulating“, Ikegami added. Moreover these are excellent soils for growing vines: a mixture of graphics, basalt and Jurassic shale.
And when they are not working in the vineyard, the students are involved in transporting the logs, from the farm to the edge of the forest. Because it is here first moistened, then stored in columns of sections aligned in nature – where it will later develop shiitake, the delicious Japanese mushroom that goes wonderfully with soups, meat and fish.
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WE: Oenotourism is highly developed on the estate. Is it one of the key of Coco Farm & Winery’s success?
IKEGAMI: From its origin wine has had a very strong connection with food. It must remain something fun for people coming from the vineyard and the cellar, to sit in the restaurant and to order wine. On the other hand, Cocoromi Gakuen is a centre of social well-being in which it is not common to have any fun. So it would be very nice if the many customers who visit Cocoromi Gakuen do so not only for comfort, but also to enjoy the environment related to the wine. And we must always keep in mind that a winery shouldn’t only be a cash machine; we must continue to improve wine quality and customer satisfaction above all. Wine tourism is an important point, but it is the general harmony reigning over the domain that is our strength.
WE: Are you having difficulties working with mentally and intellectually challenged people?
MACHIKO: They tend to be very honesty, and very rigid. So we always have to behave in the right way. They are fantastic people.
WE: Why do you have such a great diversity of wines in the range?
IKEGAMI: Coco Farm & Winery always try to listen to the voice of the grapes – telling us which wine they want to become. Also we don’t use cultivated yeast. We ferment only with natural ones. We venerate what the grapes want to be. The number of wines in the range is decided naturally. And we have quite a few products in the range now, mostly made from Muscat Bailey A, Norton, Tana, Riesling Lion*, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Manseng.
WE: Which are your two most successful wines ?
IKEGAMI: Our sparkling wine NOVO, a pure Riesling Lion made in the traditional method champenoise, and DAIICHI GAKUSHOU (“first movement”), a red Muscat Bailey A, which is one of Japan’s typical grape varietals. We use natural yeast, no chemical treatment, just leaving the grapes to do what they want to do. No filtration and a long ageing. This wine is the first trial and the first step to Japanese wine growing.
WE: Will you increase the number of students in the coming years?
MACHIKO: We would like to, but I’m not sure that we will be able to. The current students are getting older and many of the new students have more severe problems. And it’s hard to find staff, many people don’t like this type of work which is rather hard and dirty.
WE: Any new wine coming soon in the range?
IKEGAMI: I don’t know if we will add a new wine to our range in the near future, but it is possible. “We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“.
*Riesling Lion is a crossing between Japanese Koshu Sanjaku and Riesling with the same parents of the variety Riesling Forte.