Table Speech

The Potential of Chikuma River Wine Valley

June 3, 2015

Mr. Toyoo Tamamura
Essayist / Painter / Winery Owner 

 My wife and I were both born in Tokyo but we moved to Nagano Prefecture in 1983, first to Karuizawa and then we settled in Toumi City in 1991 to engage in agriculture. I moved to Karuizawa at the age of 38, in the prime of my career as an essayist. I worked extensively on my essays, had many interviews, lectures and business trips overseas at that time. I played tennis every day at a nearby tennis club, had dinner with wine, Japanese sake or Chinese Shaoxing wine, and then worked on my essays after dinner with glasses of jin, rum or vodka till the dead of night. Such a lifestyle of excessive drinking, work, tennis or stress led me to vomit blood and become hospitalized at the age of 41. Unfortunately, I developed hepatitis C from the massive blood transfusion I had received, as there were no screening tests for infected blood back then. I quit tennis and drinking for 2 years but suffered from fatigue caused by chronic hepatitis that forced me to reduce my workload.

 Such a life-changing experience made me decide to spend the latter half of my life in a quiet country by field cropping. I started to drive around on weekends with my wife searching for a place to settle in, preferably with a nice view. After a year and a half, we spotted an ideal land and named it Villa d’Est. “Villa” is an Italian word for a farm owner’s mansion in the medieval times. “Est” is a Latin word meaning “here it is!” It conveys how exhilarated we were to find a beautiful land that was to be our final home.

 When I first saw the gentle slope that extended southwestward, I instantly thought French people would plant grapevines. We were fortunate to get a vast land of 3,500 tsubo (or 1.15 hectares), but as it was an abandoned farmland, I found it was too challenging to cultivate it just with my wife. Therefore, we started by planting 500 grapevines on the land of 600 tsubo (or 0.2 hectare). As our land was located 850 meters above sea level with clayey soil, many believed it was unsuitable for wine grapes to grow. Surprisingly enough, we could harvest good-quality Merlot and Chardonnay. We planned to supply our grapes to the nearby large-scale winery to be constructed by a major brewing company and also to develop professional winemakers. I expanded my vineyards and started trainings on winemaking technology and winery management. Unfortunately, the winery construction plan was cancelled after three years of extensive discussions, partly due to stricter restrictions for corporate entry into agricultural sector than today.

 I didn’t want to give up producing wine and set out to establish my own winery. I had to go through a painstaking procedure of obtaining a brewer’s license, meeting legal requirements and securing massive amount of funds to construct the production facilities. At the age of 58, I got a loan worth 100 million yen and constructed the Villa d’Est Winery, together with a restaurant that served vegetables from our garden farm. In 2003, I obtained the winemaking license and opened a shop and a café in 2004. We succeeded in producing high-quality wine, including the 2005 Vintage Chardonnay served for lunch during the Hokkaido Toyako Summit Meeting and the 2007 Vintage Chardonnay that won the gold medal at the domestic wine competition.

 The news attracted quite a few people to move into Toumi City and engage in grape cultivation and wine production. Three wineries have opened in four years. Many of them were elite businessmen of leading companies, medical doctors or IT system engineers with an average age of 40 years. While they had a successful career with happy family life, they felt unfulfilled and chose to start anew in the wine business.

 New entrants attracted to the “Chikuma River Wine Valley East District” aim to produce wine as an agricultural product, based on a 10 to 15-year long-term plan. They lease a farmland, plant the grapevines, get the first harvest in 3 to 4 years and finally construct the winery when they manage to secure the funds. I work towards supporting them to attract many small-scale wineries in this area and eventually to improve the reputation and popularity of this producing area. I believe it will further attract many visitors and revitalize the local economy.

 I represent another company named the “Japan Wine Agricultural Research Center (JWARC),” which aims to assist self-reliant wine production for new entrants. JWARC consists of a winery and an academy that provides practical trainings on the skills and knowledge needed for wine grape cultivation. This project utilizes government funds and subsidies and promotes a lifestyle that coexists with farming.

 I have just opened the Academy and therefore, whether our initiative can be successful or not depends on how many novice winemakers will become skilled enough to get sufficient harvests during the first five years. Let me ask for your generous support. I hope our wine production initiative will contribute to the establishment of a lifestyle based on agriculture and further realize a peaceful and self-sufficient world.