Wine is enjoying an increased popularity in Japan, renown for producing amazing rice wines (sake), beers and whiskies. There are trendy wine bars opening in Tokyo and the Yamanashi and Shinshu areas are home to numerous wineries. The wine making techniques were acquired abroad and perfected in Japan, producing some of the most delicious wines I have ever tasted to date.
But did you know that Japan’s first wine maker actually started right here in California? Yes, the first Japanese national to reside in the United States full time was also known as the Wine King of California and the Samurai Winemaker.
Kanaye Nagasawa, born Hikosuke Isonaga in1852, was a prominent California winemaker. He was born in Kagoshima, Japan and was a member of the Satsuma clan and the son of a samurai. At age 13, he along with a handful of other students was smuggled out of Japan and sent to the United Kingdom to learn about Western customs. He changed his name in order to protect his family, as Japan was closed off to the world during this time and leaving the country was punishable by death.
Nagasawa was too young to attend university and instead was sent to Aberdeen, Scotland, where he lived with the family of Thomas Blake Glover and attended school. While in Scotland, he met an English nobleman named Laurence Oliphant. Oliphant took Nagasawa to New York where he joined Thomas Lake Harris’ influential utopian community, the Brotherhood of New Life. While the other students who left Japan with Nagasawa returned home, he stayed with Harris and eventually followed him out to California.
Nagasawa was 23 years old when he arrived in California. Here, Harris established a community in Santa Rosa which he named, Fountain Grove. The ranch encompassed 2,000 acres and the famous winemaker, Dr. John Hyde, was asked to come to plant grapes and instruct Harris’ disciples in viticulture.
After Hyde departed, Nagasawa became the winemaker and produced wine for the Brotherhood of New Life’s store in New York City. He was responsible for introducing California wines to the international community, including Europe and Japan. The wine he produced won several medals and was widely marketed.
Harris left Fountain Grove in 1891, after a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote several articles asserting that the commune leader was a charlatan. Harris died in 1906 without ever returning to Fountain Grove, and Nagasawa took over the estate.
He became the top wine producer in California and has been described as “the Robert Mondavi of his time.” Through the Prohibition Era, he could not produce wine but came up with an ingenious way of preserving his vineyards by producing grape juice and cooking sherry.
Nagasawa lived into the early 20th century, enduring growing anti-Japanese sentiment in America. Following his death in 1934, his estate was passed on to his niece and nephew. However, following the signing of F.D.R.’s Executive Order 9066 in 1942, his heirs lost their land. His descendants were incarcerated throughout the war years in Japanese American internment camps and Fountain Grove was confiscated by a trustee.
Today, the lands lost by Nagasawa’s heirs are worth millions, but his descendants who were still living in 1988 received a mere $20,000 for compensation.
The property eventually became a cattle ranch and later was zoned for residential development, although several hundred acres still remain planted. Nagasawa’s round barn remains as a landmark in Santa Rosa and a 33-acre park was named in his honor in 2007.
Visitors to Santa Rosa can view an exhibit devoted to Nagasawa at the Paradise Ridge Winery, situated in the area of Nagasawa’s original Fountain Grove Winery and sample the excellent chardonnay from their “Nagasawa Vineyard.” The Fountain Grove Winery ceased operations in 1940 and sat neglected for many years. The walls were overgrown by vegetation and covered with graffiti. Sadly, rather than being preserved for their historical significance, the original buildings were finally slated for demolition in 2015.
Following Nagasawa, many Japanese immigrants arrived in California and faced both unbelievable adversity and incredible success. Today there are over 300,000 Japanese Americans in California who contribute and give life to the diversity enjoyed by the state and it can all be traced back to the pioneer, Kanaye Nagasawa.
Paradise Ridge Winery web page: http://prwinery.com/
Address: 4545 Thomas Lake Harris Dr, Santa Rosa, CA