For natural winemaker Hirotaka Meguro, the path to becoming the co-founder of Fattoria AL FIORE, a small winery in Japan's Miyagi Prefecture, has been a winding route. But, like everything in his life, his career developed organically. As he drives towards the winery's snow-covered vineyard, a two-hectare field tucked into the mountains above Kawasaki Town, he describes his plans to build a house on the neighboring plot of land. Since planting the first vines here in 2014, Hirotaka has made this place his home. ‘Every day, I find new beauty in the scenery – the changing of the seasons and the light. I think that everyone would be happier if they could live this way, in nature,’ he says.
Hirotaka had wanted to be a teacher, but he began questioning the usefulness of what he was learning in university. ‘Japanese society was changing in ways that the education system couldn't keep up with. I thought that I could do more for people by going into business,’ he says. ‘What I cared about was making people happy, helping those around me lead rich lives.’
As a student, he started cooking as a hobby, preparing meals for friends. When he saw how much they enjoyed the food, he decided to become a chef. Drawn to the elegance of Italian cuisine, he headed to Italy to learn about the food culture in 2004. It was there that he discovered a ‘love for local culture and local products that was missing in Japan’. Inspired by the concept of slow food, he wanted to bring the Italian passion for maintaining traditions and organic agriculture to his home country and, in 2005, he opened a restaurant called Al Fiore in Miyagi's capital city of Sendai, serving creative Italian food made exclusively with Japanese ingredients.
Looking to the land
This principle of sourcing locally grown produce is ultimately what led Hirotaka into farming. Finding no growers in the area to supply the restaurant with organic produce, he planted vegetables in a field just outside Sendai. After harvests, he kept seeds to experiment with hybrids and heirloom varieties, growing as many as 150 kinds of vegetables. Encouraged by his success with crops, he turned his attention to growing organic grapes for wine, despite the area's lack of winemaking history. After all, neighboring Yamagata Prefecture – just two hours' drive away – was known for wine. Why couldn't Miyagi develop its own distinctive wine culture? ‘I was told that it couldn't be done here, but the only reason it seemed impossible was because no one was doing it,’ he says.
A year after planting the first vines, Hirotaka closed his restaurant to concentrate on viticulture (grape cultivation) and winemaking. A botanical mosaic of 15 grapes, Fattoria AL FIORE's vineyard is a labor of love. From weeding to pruning and picking, everything is done by hand.
Hirotaka uses a natural fertilizer made from fermented leaves and stems. Instead of conventional pesticide or fungicide, he sprays the plants with a small amount of classic Bordeaux mixture – a solution of copper sulfate and quicklime, first developed by French wine growers in the 1800s. The biggest hurdle Japanese winemakers face, however, is the hot, humid climate, which leaves the vines vulnerable to rot. During the critical pollination period of June, heavy rains can wreak havoc, while the typhoon season between July and October brings unpredictable and potentially devastating storms.
Hirotaka grows grapes like pinot noir, pinot gris and malvasia but, to form the blends for each bottle, he sources varieties such as steuben, delaware and muscat bailey A from local contract growers who practice closed-loop agriculture. The purpose, Hirotaka says, isn't simply to buy particular grape varieties, but to support like-minded farmers who share his vision for a more sustainable world. The hope is to encourage the spread of natural farming in Japan.
The blend of each bottle
Inside the winery, which is housed in the gymnasium of a former elementary school, Hirotaka takes a low-intervention approach. The only pieces of machinery in the cellar are a forklift and a heating panel to keep bottles of sparkling wine at a constant temperature of 20ºC as they undergo secondary fermentation.
After picking, grapes are fermented in open containers or clay amphorae (large jars) using the wild yeast present on the skins of the fruit. Fermentation takes place at ambient temperature, and he strictly avoids additives such as sulfur. Hirotaka allows the micro organisms to work in peace before the wine is matured in oak barrels or clay pots. All of Fattoria AL FIORE's wines are unfiltered. ‘The only thing I do is decide when to bottle,’ he laughs, noting that his approach in the cellar mirrors his philosophy as a chef. ‘Instead of choosing what kind of wine I want to make in advance, I consider the condition of the grapes when they arrive. The characteristics of the grapes dictate the kind of wine I make, in the same way that I created different dishes based on the ingredients of the day.’
The labels wrapped around each bottle of wine are made from washi, a traditional Japanese paper, which is colored with natural dyes derived from the fruit and plants that surround the fields. Each bottle is sealed by hand with a mixture of soy wax and beeswax from regional producers. Hirotaka believes that terroir – a term denoting the origin of a wine – should go beyond the soil it comes from: ‘Winemaking is just one part of what we're trying to do. We want to use wine to convey the local culture, to keep these traditions alive.’
Community building has always been part of Fattoria AL FIORE's mission. In 2015, Hirotaka found the ideal business – and life – partner in his wife, Reina. Originally from Yokohama, a city south of Tokyo, she had longed for a life surrounded by nature after spending time in an eco-village in France. While working at an architecture firm, she stumbled upon a magazine column where Hirotaka wrote about his work in Miyagi and she felt an instant connection.
‘I'd been wondering how to attract young people to the countryside,’ she recalls. ‘When I learned that Hirotaka had started a farm that everyone could use freely and wanted to create a winery that would serve as a base for the community, I wanted to be a part of it. Wine brings people of many backgrounds together.’
When Hirotaka asked her to join his venture, the two established the winery with Reina as CEO. As well as overseeing the business side of Fattoria AL FIORE, Reina worked with Hirotaka as a winemaker until the birth of their son, Ryo. Now, she focuses on new projects, including designing the Meguro family home and plans to work with regional producers to build a community space where people can enjoy the business' wines with food, along with art and music by local creators: ‘We want to make a place where people can use their individual talents and help each other lead more fulfilling lives,’ she says.
This article was first published in Courier issue 46, April/May 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.