Japanese American tea and history take root in Sonoma vineyard

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — On Nov. 7, several dozen Japanese Americans and their friends from across California descended on Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge Winery. They didn’t come to taste Convict Zinfandel, Elevation Cabernet Sauvignon or even Nagasawa Chardonnay, named after Kanaye Nagasawa, the globe-trotting Japanese samurai and adventurer who ran the original Fountaingrove Winery in the 19th century.

Kanaye Nagasawa. courtesy of Karen Ijichi Perkins

Nagasawa was dubbed the “Grape King of California” for the success of his Fountaingrove Winery in Santa Rosa and his skill in promoting his wines throughout Europe and North America. The winery was abandoned in the 1930s and was demolished several years ago. The Paradise Ridge Winery, a half mile from the old Fountaingrove Winery, grew its first grapes in 1978 and opened its tasting room in 1994, said co-owner Rene Byck.

“My mother Marijke Byck-Hoenselaars was very interested in the land — which is adjacent to Fountaingrove — and the story,” Byck said. “She worked with the Sonoma County Museum and the Friends of Kagoshima, Santa’s Rosa’s sister city and Nagasawa’s birthplace, to create the historical exhibit in our tasting room.”

His samurai sword — rescued from the 2017 Tubbs Fire that burned nine buildings, the wine-making facility, hospitality center and the tasting room at the Paradise Ridge Estate and Winery — now hangs in the rebuilt hospitality center and tasting room, Byck said.

STEEPED IN HISTORY — Nao Magami (L) led the planting of tea bushes — which may have been descended from plants originally at the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony — near the Fountaingrove Winery site run by Kanaye Nagasawa in Santa Rosa, Calif.
photo by Stephen Magagnini;

The visitors, led by Southern California ad man, entrepreneur, marketing coach and historian Nao Magami, had come to plant Japanese green tea. Not just any tea, but about 150 bushes steeped in Japanese and California history.

“It did have a historical connection to Nagasawa,” Byck said. “We love history, supporting the arts and our community and being good stewards of the land.”

Magami believes his tea bushes could well be descended from some of the six million seeds and 140,000 saplings brought to California by the first Japanese colonists in the United States some 150 years ago.

Those seeds and plants came to life in 1869 at the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, 272 acres in the sun-burnished foothills of Gold Hill outside Placerville, Calif. They were cultivated by 22 Japanese, most of them vanquished warriors from Aizu Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture. On an old farm, they planted 400,000 tea seeds.

The colonists had fled to California on the steamship the SS China with firearms dealer and Prussian diplomat John Henry Schnell after their patron and warlord, or daimyo, Katamori Matsudaira, and his 4,000 samurai had been crushed by an army of more than 20,000 imperial soldiers in the 1868 Battle of Aizu. Katamori hoped the Wakamatsu colony would become the lynchpin of a far-flung Japanese empire.

By 1870, their tea had been honored at the California State Fair in Sacramento and the Horticultural Fair in San Francisco, where according to an 1886 Sacramento Union story, Schnell had 10,000 plants left over and sold some to California’s first millionaire, entrepreneur Sam Brannan, who planted them on his farm in Calistoga.

But the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony was undone by a drought that led nearby gold miners to divert its water supply. One of the colonists, carpenter Matsugoro Ohto, learned about another Japanese immigrant thriving in the vineyards of Santa Rosa, Kanaye Nagasawa, who had arrived in Santa Rosa in 1875 as part of a religious group led by Thomas Lake Harris, a pilgrim, poet, prophet and self-styled messiah from upstate New York who led utopian-style communities in West Virginia and Brocton, New York on the shores of Lake Erie.

Nagasawa was himself an enigmatic figure and a product of Japan’s painful evolution from an isolated island nation to player on the international stage. Born in Satsuma, Japan in 1852, he shined as a warrior and scholar. By the time he was 13, the young samurai was one of 15 students sent to England by the daimyo, or baron, of Satsuma to learn the ways of the West and bring them back to Japan.

Although the shogun forbade Japanese from going overseas, the chosen 15 hid out for two months until they could board a ship to London. Nagasawa, who was too young to enter university, was sent to Aberdeen, Scotland to live with the family of Thomas Berry Glover, a Scottish merchant in Nagasaki who helped shepherd the chosen 15 to England.

In 1867 Nagasawa and a handful of other young samurai who hadn’t returned to Japan met Harris, the leader of the Brotherhood of the New Life religious group, in London. Harris persuaded the Japanese students to come with him to New York to work on his utopian farm near Lake Erie. It was there that Nagasawa became a master winemaker.

By 1875, the messianic Harris — a friend of the New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who famously declared “go west young man!” — took Nagasawa and three other members of his “brotherhood” to Santa Rosa after reading a magazine account. They started with 400 acres above Santa Rosa Harris bought for $50 an acre and established Fountaingrove Ranch. It became known as “the Eden of the West” and grew to more than 1,800 acres, 375 of them devoted to wine grapes cultivated by Nagasawa.

The convoluted saga of Harris, the visionary megalomaniac who did not believe in church but certainly believed in spirits, good and evil, and thought God was both man and woman, and his relationship with the young samurai Nagasawa, who considered Harris the “Father,” “Primary” and “King” is detailed in “The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove” by Gaye LeBaron and Bart Casey, which can be purchased at the Paradise Winery.

In 1890, Harris moved to New York City and his group began to evaporate. He left Fountaingrove in Nagasawa’s capable hands. The Japanese vintner, who never married, built it into one of the largest wineries in California and the first to ship California wines to Great Britain.

Volunteers plant tea trees said to be descended from the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, near the site of the historic Fountaingrove Winery. photo by Stephen Magagnini

According to the research compiled by Fern Harger and the Friends of Kagoshima Association for the Kanaye Nagasawa Historical exhibit at Paradise Ridge Winery, Nagasawa partnered with the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco to stimulate Japanese immigration to California. Between 1890 and 1910 the Japanese population grew from little more than 1,000 to 40,000, over half of them farmers.

Nagasawa outlasted Prohibition in 1920 and a round of anti-alien laws. In 1924, Emperor Taisho awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, one of numerous honors conferred on the man who became a baron known as the “King of Wine” in Japan.

The night before his death from arteriosclerosis on March 1, 1934, he whispered to his relatives, whom he’d sponsored from Japan, “the transition is near now…and it shall be beautiful.”

Nao Magami, who led the November expedition to plant tea bushes where the King of Wine once planted grapes, told his team of volunteers, “now the Wakamatsu spirit has been connected to Kanaye Nagasawa’s spirit.”

Next spring, Magami said he and his team will return to harvest the green tea leaves. Aside from its symbolic value, “green tea’s an antioxidant that’s better than coffee, even though I like coffee,” Magami said. “For a $100 donation, you can get a bush in your name.”

For more information, contact Magami and the Friends of Wakamatsu Fountaingrove Team Farm at 4545 Thomas Lake Harris Drive Santa Rosa, CA 95403 or zakmagami@mac.com.

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