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Thinking about Japanese Aesthetics

Thinking about Japanese Aesthetics

A couple of years ago I met Anne Krebiehl MW at IPNC, the International Pinot Noir Celebration held every summer in McMinnville Oregon. Anne talked with me and several other winemakers, and wrote a very interesting article, since published in The World of Fine Wine, that, based on those conversations, explored some of the cultural reasons why we make the wines that we do. She reported my thoughts on winemaking so accurately and eloquently that I kept the link in the news section of this website for almost a year—and it inspired me to expand upon my conversation with Anne about my Japanese heritage and how it has influenced my winemaking.


The image above is from a scroll that has hung in my mother's house for over 50 years, and is at least twice as old as that. I have always been drawn to old things. And not antiques or archaeology (although these things are interesting) but rather things which “show their age” but are still beautiful or compelling.  A simple example—I live in a house that was built in the 1930s. That doesn’t make it terribly old but it’s old enough to have what we like to call character. The things that drew me to this place when I bought it 22 years ago were not so much the old-fashioned features (like the wall alcove for the telephone) but the general patina of age that the place had. It was full of stuff and parts of it were, cosmetically, not in great shape, but it was not hard to see past all that. The hardwood floors, for example, were original. They were (and still are) a little scratched up but perfectly “serviceable,” as they like to say in the real estate trade. The paint on the trim around the windows was similarly a bit nicked up and there were many coats of paint over the years that left the surface with depth and texture that newly painted wood doesn’t have.  My wife also said that it had a good feeling to it, like people had been happy here. That too you can’t get in a new house.


Interestingly, to me at least, this view is reflected in traditional Japanese aesthetics. Although I am genetically 100% Japanese, culturally I am of the generation that, for better or worse, was entirely assimilated into American culture. I don’t speak any Japanese other than knowing a lot of the food words. I have, however, become interested in my cultural ancestry as I grow older, and as my mother grows older. She is the only remaining link I have to the culture of my forefathers and so it is with some urgency that I am trying to learn a bit. I’ve always been dimly aware of the Japanese love of seeming simplicity in art and culture (I say seeming because it is more complicated than that) and the almost cliché view of Japanese art as “minimalist.” But I was not aware until quite recently that my interest in things that have the gravitas of age is quite Japanese. Apparently I have internalized some of that without even realizing it.


I am currently rethinking how I make wine. Others have written about taking a Japanese approach to wine appreciation—looking for something beyond a glossy surface and up front perfection is how some have explained this. But what about allowing this aesthetic that is deeply ingrained in me guide how I make the stuff? For the last 10 years or so, since 2011, I’ve been interested in different aging regimes and in eliminating all but the most indispensible techniques in winemaking—as few additives as possible, and all that—in the service of somehow finding a more “honest” expression of wine. It isn’t exactly “do nothing” winemaking, and in fact sometimes a great deal of work goes into the impression of simplicity, but the goal is to arrive at an end product that is uncluttered and pure. This is all for my own edification; unlike organics and biodynamics, which have a lot of marketing cachet, there seems to be little commercial value in this pursuit other than making wine that I like better.  Which I suppose should help me sell it, but in most ways it seems like a fairly private pursuit.


I have always thought of my Japanese heritage as pretty much irrelevant to my career making wine. It’s been apparent to me that many Japanese dishes go pretty well with wine (unlike other Asian foods, which are often too spicy, sweet or acidic) despite not having evolved in the presence of it as is the case in most winemaking cultures.  There is of course Sake, made from rice but wine-like in many ways, but I am making grape wine, not rice wine. So for many years I just didn’t see a lot of overlap. There certainly isn’t much precedent for utilizing Japanese concepts in winemaking.  I can only think of one: Greg Brewer in the central coast was at one time labeling a series of wines with Japanese Kanji, that were in some way descriptive of the wines. For a variety of reasons he is not longer doing that, although apparently it was received well by his customers. My idea is not to use Japanese names or symbols to label or market the wines, rather to let part of my “Japanese-ness” inform my winemaking in a more abstract way. It won’t be in any concrete, technical way, it will be more aesthetic and philosophical. There is now a pretty well-established wine industry in Japan, making table wines of, apparently (I have not had the chance to taste any) of quite good quality. One of the Japanese wines that intrigues me because it is, as far as I know, indigenous to Japan, is Koshu. Working with a grape that is indigenous to a country that does not have a long-standing winemaking tradition fascinates me. What could I make from it? Would it make good wine here in California or is the climate or the soil wrong?


More promising, to me at least, is re-examining the techniques I use in winemaking from a more consciously Japanese perspective. Not by adopting, for example, sake producing techniques in my winemaking or somehow trying to make my wines taste Japanese, but rather by allowing some of the Japanese concepts about taste, aesthetics and even philosophy that I have already discussed shape the outcome of my wines. I imagine this will lead me to question some of the new world winemaking orthodoxy that surrounds us—there is all kinds of “conventional wisdom” about making wine that could be re-thought. Armed with a little curiosity, and a willingness to make some mistakes, I am excited to see where this will take me.


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