Making Fine Wine In Ashikaga, Japan, Is an Uphill Battle

But a Surprising Young Crew, With Down Syndrome And Autism, Is a Big Help

ASHIKAGA, Japan -- When an American named Bruce Gutlove started work 10 years ago at Coco Farm & Winery here, he met cultural barriers as deeply rooted as the vines he was hired to fortify.

The small winery, 90 minutes by train from Tokyo, was run by managers who spoke little or no English. His 60 workers were chosen from a nearby school for the mentally disabled and have conditions ranging from autism to Down syndrome.

Then there was the vineyard itself. The vines grew on a hill in a canopy style imported from China 900 years ago, rather than in the more familiar hedgerow style. The slope was too steep for mechanical harvesting, and the grapes -- a tart, uninspiring variety called the Koshu -- had to be wrapped in little bags as they grew, to protect them from the damp climate.

"They asked me how to improve the yield, and I suggested a chain saw," says Mr. Gutlove, who holds a master's degree in oenology from the University of California, Davis. "But it's not easy for a 32-year-old to tell people they should drop a system that's been in place for 900 years."

A decade later, Coco Farm's annual yield has increased from 12,000 to 200,000 bottles, and the winery is producing a growing variety of more-sophisticated wines, including a dry sparkling wine. But like the hill on which the Coco Farm vineyard grows, it was a tough climb.

Mr. Gutlove was recruited by Noboru Kawada, the teacher who owned the winery and craved a foreigner's advice on how to make better wines. "It was to be a six-month assignment," says Mr. Gutlove, who was born in New York and now speaks Japanese.

The first step was to win the respect of his workers, many of whom are now adults, having arrived at the school as teenagers when it first opened in 1969. Mr. Gutlove spent the first few years living at the school, which was founded by Mr. Kawada on the principle that vigorous work is better than medication and confinement, the fate of many mentally disabled people in Japan.

In a way, the Italian American fit right in. "There's not a big difference between being a foreigner in Japan and being mentally disabled," says Mr. Gutlove. For their part, the students were eager to make the school's only foreign resident feel at home. During their monthly shopping day in town, they would stop at the local McDonald's, buy dozens of hamburgers to go, and pile them up on Mr. Gutlove's doorstep. "They assumed that because I'm an American, I eat hamburgers all the time," he says.

The monthly hamburger run was suspended at Mr. Gutlove's request. But students continued to fuss over him. An autistic student who sat next to him at meals, for example, would often rearrange Mr. Gutlove's chopsticks and wooden bowls so they conformed to Japanese dining etiquette.

Such attention to detail is a characteristic of autism and a requirement for some Coco Farm tasks, such as applying labels to bottles. Some students have mastered the winery's bottling line, which requires a worker to add empty bottles to a fast-moving mechanical line and remove filled ones at precise intervals. The first time that student Hideki Shimizu worked on the line, says Mr. Gutlove, he would focus on a single bottle on the machine -- until it and a dozen others cascaded onto the floor. Mr. Shimizu, who has Down syndrome, now does well operating the machine on his own.

At harvest time, 30 students per shift take on the vineyard. They pluck bunches of grapes from the vines and put them in yellow containers, pretty much ignoring the severe pitch of the hill and the stunning view it affords of the winery below them and the hills that rim the Ashikaga plain. The pace is steady, and there is little banter among the students as they fill the containers and carry them to a nearby truck. Occasionally, however, the student known as "Shatcho" -- which means manager in Japanese -- will bellow instructions to his counterparts.

"It's in his blood," says Bill Campbell, a Tokyo wine importer and a regular Coco Farm visitor. "His father is a famous stage director."

Turning the students into a reliable work force was one thing; overhauling Coco Farm's antiquated production techniques was quite another. Only after a painstakingly subtle campaign has Mr. Gutlove, who has worked for such California wineries as Robert Mondavi and Cakebread Cellars, persuaded Coco Farm's managers to introduce new production methods and make sophisticated wines typical of California and Bordeaux, instead of the sweet wines that dominate Japan's wine industry.

"This is something we never would have tried without Bruce," says Machiko Ochi, the vineyard manager and Mr. Kawada's daughter. "In Japan, people are afraid to discuss new things because it may hurt someone's feelings," she says, "but since Bruce arrived, I've learned to change my opinions."

Problem No. 1, according to Mr. Gutlove, was those little bags around the grapes. Ms. Ochi and her father said the covers prevented the grapes from rotting. Mr. Gutlove dissented: "I want to see the grapes when I look at the vines so I know whether we should spray or not." The dispute was resolved in a very Japanese way: through compromise. The bags were replaced with tiny umbrellas.

The real showdown, however, was over the very soul of the Coco Farm collection. Mr. Gutlove wanted to produce dry wines, and to bolster his cause, organized a tour of California's Napa and Sonoma valleys in 1995 for 300 people, including most of his student workers and their families. It wasn't easy to arrange. Most of the students didn't have passports. The group needed to be exempted from certain U.S. immigration procedures -- filling out visa forms, for example, and sitting for interviews.

Mr. Gutlove recalls only one minor crisis during the trip. While he was checking the group in at the hotel, a few of the students started taking off their clothes in the lobby. (Public nudity is common at the school, so some students are more comfortable out of clothes than in them.)

"Aside from that," says Mr. Gutlove, "everything went smoothly."

The visit to Napa's sun-drenched, gentle hills and elegant hedgerow vines had the desired effect on Mr. Kawada and his daughter, and the Coco Farm collection now boasts a chardonnay and a chenin blanc-like table white, in addition to the sparkling wine. Domestic critics are taking notice. Coco's table white, according to a local wine guide, "goes well with shrimp balls."

Mr. Gutlove says he has no plans to return to California. Making a truly excellent wine, he says, can't compete with the satisfaction of watching his charges develop pride in their work. A few years ago, for example, the parents of Mr. Shimizu, who had just been promoted to the bottling line, arrived unannounced to ask their son to spend the weekend with his family at a nearby hot springs. But Mr. Shimizu refused: The winery needed him to help fill a large run.

Mr. Shimizu's father was moved. "I never thought this could happen," he told Mr. Gutlove later while sipping wine at the tasting room. "My son is too busy for me."