A Mart­in­bor­ough wine­maker tells JOHN SAKER why he ditched the Ja­panese cor­po­rate world for the love of the grape.

Cuisine - - CONTENTS -

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.”

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