(06-17) 04:00 PDT Ashikaga , Japan -- Bruce Gutlove was working as a wine consultant in St. Helena in 1989 when he got the call that changed his life forever, even though at the time he said, "No, thanks," and hung up.
Gutlove's friends, Matt and Fred Cline from Cline Cellars in Sonoma, had sold some grapes to a school for mentally disabled people in Japan, and had visited there to see how they planned to make wine. The Clines made some recommendations to the school's founder, who asked if they knew someone who could help make the necessary changes.
"My name came up. I'm not sure why," says Gutlove, 42. "Maybe it's because my friends thought I should spend time in a mental institution in rural Japan."
After Gutlove said no on the phone a couple of times, the school sent someone to meet him in San Francisco. He was moved enough by the interest in him to agree to help with one harvest at the school, which is located about an hour north of Tokyo by train.
"I liked what I was doing in Napa," says Gutlove, who had worked at Cakebread Cellars, Robert Mondavi Winery, Trefethen Vineyards and Merryvale Vineyards before going into consulting. "I said I would stay for six months."
He's been there ever since.
Gutlove was impressed by the mission of Noboru Kawada, who founded Cocoromi Gakuen near the city of Ashikaga in 1969. Kawada wanted to give mentally disabled Japanese a future beyond the way society then usually treated them -- by "giving them a lot of drugs and putting them in a room somewhere," says Kawada's daughter, Chieko Ikegami.
Kawada and Ikegami put their "students" -- most are adults, but Cocoromi is officially a school -- to work on clearing the hill behind the facility to grow grapes, as well as on various other agricultural projects.
"It's a good life lesson," Ikegami says. "You work hard all summer and you can taste the fruits in the fall."
A classroom in the fields
The school teaches students to be more self-reliant and agriculture is a big part of that. One goal is to move students into off-campus apartments. The school now has 90 students on campus and another 40 in Ashikaga in group homes.
In 1984, Coco Farm and Winery -- the name is short for "Cocoromi" -- was formed as a separate company for legal reasons, because a school cannot sell wine. Coco Farm has a vineyard right behind the facility where it grows grapes with student labor and it also buys grapes. Coco Farm, which neighbors the school, also grows and sells shiitake mushrooms.
Coco Farm has 20 full-time employees, most of whom are not mentally disabled. The students do all the remaining tasks and are paid for their work.
"Sometimes we'll have 40 students in the vineyard during harvest," Gutlove says. Before he arrived, there was no true winemaker.
Gutlove moved into a dormitory with the students in 1989 and quickly learned their idiosyncrasies had both advantages and disadvantages.
"Harvest is a bit chaotic," Gutlove says. "You're carrying 8 kilos (about 17 1/2 pounds) down the hill. Someone will fall and roll down the hill and knock over the next person, and they'll fall. Grapes go everywhere."
However, he and Ikegami say there are no better workers for some of winemaking's more monotonous jobs.
"If you give a student a task, once they understand it, they never get bored," Ikegami says. "One boy stands on the hill all day long waiting for crows. When a crow comes, he rings a bell."
In bottling, at first Gutlove was frustrated by workers who would label every bottle upside-down, or make a small tear in the same corner of every label. But then he learned to find the right person for the right task.
"They have a lot of endurance," Gutlove says. "They'll pull the bottom two leaves off every cluster. It's very boring, very repetitive. They do it with enthusiasm."
Gutlove says the students are also superb at quality control, watching 2, 200 bottles go by per hour and catching any one that contains minute amounts of cork dust.
"Two students go through 150 to 200 tons of grapes a year, taking out even the smallest amount of rot," he says. "They're very good at it."
Ikegami says it's difficult to get the students to take a day off because they love to work. And she says with their money, they often buy Coco Farm wines, which are available in local stores as well as some stores in Tokyo, and by mail order. Today they hold their own against other Japanese wines, which are generally a sorry lot.
But community spirit was the reason most people bought Coco Farm wines when Gutlove arrived. He says he and Kawada made an early agreement that "we would not use the fact that mentally disabled people were making it as an excuse for poor wine. (Kawada) was happy about that."
Japan's weather has long frustrated attempts at growing world-class wine grapes. Beyond cold winters, humid summers that don't cool off at night, high winds and year-to-year unpredictability, there's a month-long rainy season in the middle of summer that both drenches the vines during flowering season and fosters a cornucopia of mold.
"If you look at the data on humidity and temperature, this is not like anywhere else," Gutlove says. "The most immediate thing I can come up with is the East Coast of the United States, from Virginia to Missouri."
Moreover, Japanese consumers are willing to pay high prices for table grapes, making wine grapes an uninviting proposition for most farmers.
Quality of grapes was poor
"When I first got here, I couldn't believe the poor quality of grapes," Gutlove says of fruit Coco Farm bought from outsiders. "Not ripe, ripeness was uneven, rot. After the first harvest I went down and talked to the growers. It was not a pleasant time. Finally I came to understand they were growing only table grapes. The ones that weren't good enough to be table grapes, they were selling to us as wine grapes."
Gutlove says he told a group of farmers to reduce their yields, change varieties from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to something better suited to the weather and spend more time in their vineyards pruning and fighting rot.
"They took my translator aside and said, 'Take him out of here,' " he says, laughing.
Though he has a bachelor's in plant physiology from State University of New York-Stonybrook and studied in the master's program in enology at UC Davis, Gutlove says his focus in California was always winemaking, not grapegrowing. However, after he met his wife-to-be, Ryoko, at a party in Tokyo in 1991 and realized he would be spending more time in Japan than he thought, Gutlove began seeking grapes that would adapt well to Japan's weather. He also moved out of the school dormitory.
He currently makes sparkling wine with a blend of Riesling Lion, a hybrid grape developed by the Suntory Group beverage company, and Koshu, a grape unique to Japan that is well-adapted to the conditions yet neutral in flavor. Though expensive at 6,000 yen per bottle ($55), the 1998 Novo demi-sec sparkling wine is Coco Farm's best product, crisp and yeasty, with high acidity balancing the 3 percent residual sugar. An earlier vintage of this wine was served at a G-8 Kyushu-Okinawa Summit in Nago Cityin 2000, the first time a Japanese wine was served at such an occasion, Gutlove says.
Coco Farm's best still wine is made from Kerner, a hybrid grape grown in Germany and Austria that Gutlove says was created in the 1950s. The 2002 Cocoromi Series Kerner ($18) smells and tastes fresh and grassy, with a hint of tart apple -- like a Sauvignon Blanc without the mineral notes.
Winemaker can experiment
Among the winery's 15,000 cases of wine produced per year, Gutlove also makes wine from oddities like Muscat Bailey A, a hybrid of red Muscat with the American table grape Bailey. He's experimenting in the hillside vineyard beside the school with the Missouri red-wine favorite Norton, as well as Tannat, which seems the most promising. The wines are hit-or-miss. But though he says he misses Napa Valley, not least for the quality of grapes, Gutlove says he has no plans to move on soon.
"I've been asked time and again why I'm still here," he says. "It's the students and the teachers. Just to see the way that they work. The energy and enthusiasm they put into it. Winemaking has consumed my entire life. Everything about it I love, on so many levels. In my darker times I think it might be self-indulgent. I was raised in a Christian family. To be able to be involved with something like this is perfect. To be able to do what I love and help people overcome obstacles."
After all, Cocoromi means "challenge."
Though Gutlove would like to find U.S. distribution, Coco Farm wines are not currently available here, but the winery is open to visitors in Japan. For information, go to cocowine.com.