Pioneering event aims to put Nikkei vintners on winemaking map

For decades, the Bay Area has been a world class destination for wine enthusiasts, drawing millions of visitors to Napa, Sonoma, and even the burgeoning Livermore Valley.

But on July 17, a group of Nikkei winemakers tried something new — hosting a wine tasting event at a sake brewery in an industrial park in southeastern San Francisco.

However unlikely the setting and circumstances, this sold-out event may have awakened the Bay Area to an under-the-radar class of California wines.

Dubbed “California Wines with Japanese Soul,” the first of its kind event brought together five Japanese and Japanese American winemakers — B. Kosuge Wines, Kanpai Wines, Mikami Vineyards, Paulownia Wine and Six Cloves Wines — to offer tastings of their unique wines, capped by a flight of locally produced, artisan sake. The idea for the event was borne from a dinner party at the home of Noriko Kamei, one of the co-founders of the Sequoia Sake brewery, which hosted the wine tasting.

Sonoe Hirabayashi, owner of Six Cloves Wine, is originally from Omachi, Nagano Prefecture, Japan photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

“Wines made with Japanese sensibilities are very unique, and we wanted to share that with the community,” said Kamei, who considers herself a wine enthusiast. “I was talking with my friend, Sonoe, drinking one of her wines, when we decided that more people should know what wines with Japanese sensibilities taste like.”

Kamei’s friend, Sonoe Hirabayashi, is the owner of Six Clove Wines in Sonoma County and one of the winemaking participants at the tasting event. Kamei and Hirabayashi lamented how few people in the Bay Area were familiar with Japanese wines, despite being in an international epicenter of winemaking. So they decided to create and host a tasting event featuring California wines from Japanese and Nikkei winemakers.

According to Kamei and Hirabayashi, what distinguishes Japanese-flavored wine from other California wines is its balance from its first sip to its last drop.

“Wine is meant to be enjoyed from beginning to end along with the food we eat without overpowering the flavor of the food,” said Hirabayashi. “This is how Japanese people drink sake — all throughout the meal and to enhance the flavors of the food. Our wine is made with this in mind.”

“California wine is known for its big, fruity, bold flavors,” said Hirabayashi. “They usually don’t have subtle complexities or finish that complements a wide variety of food flavors. Japanese wine is about subtlety and complementing the flavors of the food so that it can be enhanced by the wine.”

Despite her determination to spark more awareness of Japanese-styled wines, Kamei had modest goals for the event, admitting, “When I came up with the idea to do this, I didn’t know what the result would be. But I decided to give it a try.”

Kamei enlisted the help of Ken Minami, an attorney in the wine industry who has helped make connections to Nikkei winemakers in California. Like Kamei, Minami was excited to give it a shot, so he helped contact Nikkei winemakers who could participate and plan the event logistics. He thought Kamei’s idea wasn’t as far-fetched as she may have believed.

“Japanese winemakers are a relatively small community in California, but they have a long history here,” said Minami. “Kanaye Nagasawa, who is known as the king of Nikkei winemakers, started making wine in California all the way back in the late 1800s.”

Nagasawa is widely believed to be the first winemaker of Japanese descent in California, producing wine at his ranch in Sonoma County.

REBIRTH — Born out of the 2017 fires, Hi no Tori (“Birds of Fire”) Rosé and Cabernet Sauvignon wines by Kanpai Wines, owned by Peter Chiang and Azumi Kubo. Proceeds from the sale of this wine benefit the California Firefighters Endowment, providing scholarships to the children of fallen firefighters.
photos by
Kenji G. Taguma/
Nichi Bei Weekly

One of the winemaker participants at this event included Jason Mikami, a third-generation Japanese American winemaker from Lodi, Calif. His family has been making wine grapes since his grandfather emigrated from Japan to Lodi in 1896. A computer engineer by profession, Mikami was born and raised on his family’s vineyard and hopes to continue the legacy of his family tradition by opening his own tasting room.

Even Kamei’s hosting the event at her sake brewery made perfect sense to Minami, because sake is classified as a type of wine under federal law. (This is why restaurants only need a beer and wine license, not a more expensive liquor license, to serve sake). Noriko also had the space for the event, which few of the Nikkei winemakers have.

“Most of the Nikkei winemakers sell direct to their customers from their Websites because most of them are small compared to the big wineries in the Bay Area,” said Minami.

“Nikkei winemakers are in a discovery phase right now, so Noriko’s idea to host this event was a great one.”

All 75 slots for the wine tasting event were sold, and many of the attendees were chefs, sommeliers and other members of the restaurant industry.

To cap the tasting experience, all of the visitors were encouraged to enjoy a flight of sake brewed at Sequoia Sake. The flight was headlined by their Ginjo sake, which is an unpasteurized sake and a favorite of Japanese restaurants in the area. It is extremely difficult to import unpasteurized sake from Japan because the shelf life of this sake is very short. Consequently, it has made Sequoia’s Ginjo sake the best-selling sake in its inventory.

By every measure, both Kamei and Minami considered their event a successful trial run for further discovery and growth of Nikkei wineries. Both are hopeful to inspire and organize future events featuring Nikkei winemakers.

For more information about Sequoia Sake, visit www.sequoiasake.com. Public tasting is offered at their brewery (50 Apparel Way, San Francisco) on Saturdays from 12 to 6 p.m.

For more information about the Nikkei winemakers, visit: www.bkosugewines.com, https://kanpai.wine, https://mikamivineyards.com, https://paulowniawine.com and www.sixcloveswines.com.

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