EYE FOR DETAIL
A Martinborough winemaker tells JOHN SAKER why he ditched the Japanese corporate world for the love of the grape.
John Saker meets the Martinborough-based Japanese winemaker wowing the critics
HIRO KUSUDA’S friends and relations were incredulous. “Hiro is crazy… stupid…” they would lament. They couldn’t believe that the law graduate, who began his working life with computer giant Fujitsu before moving on to the Japanese diplomatic corps, decided in 1996 to pack it all in and take up winemaking. Before long that would mean living with his family in a faraway place they had never head of… Martinborough. In Japan, where lifelong employment is seen as sacrosanct and conformity is king (the emperor will always be the emperor), such a move was left-field, to say the least.
Why indeed? Was he the proverbial “nail sticking out” in Japanese society?
“No, I was a good boy. But I witnessed what could be done in a huge corporation. I knew all about that. I wanted to prove how far an individual could go. I wanted to do something where my personal contribution would directly lead to a better result, to high quality. And I loved wine…”
There may be something else in play. A feeling that life is for living, perhaps? He has a measure of luck to thank for his own existence. Towards the end of World War II, Kusuda’s father was deemed unfit for army service because of a lung defect. That rejection carried with it a surfeit of good fortune. The health check was made at the Hiroshima military base where Kusuda senior would have remained had he been accepted. Five days after he left the city to return home, the Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima and dropped her hellish payload.
Hiro Kusuda’s love of wine kicked in at a young age. He was introduced to it by his brother. In 1980s Tokyo, wine grew in significance in both their lives. Takuya Kusuda translated the first edition of American wine critic Robert Parker’s book on Bordeaux into Japanese. Today, he is a senior lecturer at the biggest wine school in Japan, from which a group of students descend on Martinborough every year to work during vintage at Kusuda Wines.
Younger sibling Hiro charted a different course. It ran through the Rheingau in Germany (where he worked a vintage during a year of travel), through the Nicholson River Winery in Victoria, Australia (where he also worked) and through Geisenheim, also in Germany, (where he took a diploma in oenology).
It led eventually to Martinborough. Arriving in New Zealand in 2001 was the moment when Hiro Kusuda wondered if he indeed might be crazy. With him were his wife Reiko and two small children, son Kensuke and daughter Yuria, just six months old. He was funded by a group of supporters (none of whom have yet had a return) back in Japan. And he had doubts, lots of them. Could he really make decent wine?
Fifteen vintages on and he will tell you that only now is he starting to get a grip on what he calls “the nature” with which he is working. But many others are mightily impressed by what he has
already achieved, some in high places. Influential British critic Jancis Robinson devoted a column in the Financial Times to Hiro Kusuda and his work, describing the wines as “truly exceptional”.
From the beginning, pinot noir has been central to his operation. His first pinots were made from fruit grown on the old, close-planted Muirlea Rise vineyard near the centre of Martinborough, which he leased for a time. These wines, from the 2002 and 2003 vintages, are still remembered fondly by pinotphiles. They set the tone for what was to come – wines of precision, purity and subtlety.
All Kusuda’s wines are made at the winery of his friend Kai Schubert, who was instrumental in helping him get started in Martinborough. Today he has ownership of two established vineyards on the Martinborough terrace, one planted with pinot noir and the other syrah. The only white he makes is riesling, for which the fruit source has changed over the years. Almost every story you will ever read about Kusuda Wines makes mention of the meticulous fruit-sorting process. Harvested grapes run a gauntlet of young Japanese vintage workers. Anything carrying the slightest blemish is rejected. I asked Kusuda if a Japanese eye for detail was necessary for this task, and for others in the course of vintage. Would he get the same result if he used local workers?
“First of all, if I had New Zealand workers I would have to explain everything in English. My English is good but I might still not be able to explain what I want in the right way. But more importantly, I tell these young Japanese my story – how I studied law, worked for foreign affairs and ditched everything to come here. They can understand what that means in Japanese society. In New Zealand what I did is not such a big thing, so there would be a different reaction. Tasting my wines, there are certain traits. They’re hard to explain… it’s something you taste. Wine is not 100 per cent scientific. A cultural influence is no doubt a factor.”
Diplomatically, he adds that he admires the strengths of the two cultures in this regard. “The New Zealand approach is to identify where to put resources and not bother so much with other things. The Japanese try to do everything perfect, and so can sometimes miss the big picture – although that can also be a good thing.”
I recently tasted through the recent Kusuda releases of each varietal. They are all remarkable wines. The 2015 riesling offered round acids and a delicate, even flow; the 2014 pinot had that cherry and spice that is very Martinborough, fine tannins, and needs a lot more time. The highlight for me was the syrah – a dark-fruited, savoury, unhurried, singular expression.
Finding these wines can be difficult. Kusuda makes 1000 cases of all three varietals annually. Fifty per cent goes to Japan, where Kusuda returns to hold tastings a couple of times a year, and 35 per cent to other overseas markets. That leaves 150 cases for New Zealand, spread around a tiny number of retailers (eg Caro’s, Moore Wilson’s), top restaurants (eg Clooney, Cocoro, Noble Rot) and luxury lodges such as Wharekauhau.
And despite pleas from around the world, there are no plans to expand.
“My brother-in-law could raise millions if I wanted to grow bigger,” Kusuda explains. “But it would change everything. I’d have to employ people. Now I do almost everything. I want to say ‘I make this wine’… that’s something I don’t want to change.”