Winemaker uncovers post-disaster potential of Minamisanriku

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Sasaki Michihiko is a newcomer to the city of Minamisanriku in northeastern Japan, but he has fallen in love with the community and is already recruiting people to join him. He hires for his company, an innovative winery whose collaborative business model is helping to unlock the city’s potential after a decade of rebuilding following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Waves measuring up to 15 meters engulfed Minamisanriku, leaving more than 800 dead or missing. The city, like many others, was in ruins and its population dropped by almost 40%.

Sasaki lived in Shizuoka Prefecture and worked for a major musical instrument manufacturer at the time, but he put his life on hold to volunteer in the nearby town of Kamaishi, which was also hard hit by the disaster.

Helping with the recovery effort had a profound effect on him. “I felt a lack of human communication in my work, and I felt collaborating with others was more fulfilling,” he recalls.

Locals launch winemaking initiative

In 2014, Sasaki moved to Sendai, where he joined a glassware business. The line of work deepened his interest in wine, and in 2017 a new opportunity in Minamisanriku stung his ears.

The city authorities had just launched an initiative to attract winegrowers to the area. They saw it as a way to cultivate abandoned land, diversify local industry and generate tourism. The idea was a perfect match for Sasaki’s budding passion.

By 2019, he had joined the initiative and was working to turn his dreams into reality. Just a year later, his own business, Minamisanriku Winery, was up and running on an ocean-view site.

Sasaki Michihiko is a newcomer to Minamisanriku.

Ideal conditions

Sasaki says the local climate is perfect for what he does. The mountains experience large temperature variations from day to night, which is ideal for growing grapes.

“When you go to a wine tasting, you always talk about the terroir – the characteristics of an area, and also what kind of local ingredients go with the wine,” he says.

Sasaki employs four people. All but one are also newcomers to the area. He recruits volunteers in the fall, when the harvested grapes are aged in barrels. Throughout the year, it produces a dozen different wines.

Sasaki grapes await the fall harvest.

The collaborative approach revives industries

The winery also has a restaurant. Naturally, the dishes celebrate local produce, including octopus and premium Sendai beef.

Sasaki’s cuisine focuses on local ingredients.

Minamisanriku’s famous oysters are another menu staple. Local industry was devastated by the tsunami, and Sasaki finds new ways to help it recover. He works with oyster farmers to store his wine underwater, a process believed to aid the maturation process. They believe the idea could even generate tourism.

“When people like Sasaki come from elsewhere and point out what is good in Minamisanriku, it rubs off on people who grew up here,” says oyster farmer Goto Shinya. “It becomes a great source of motivation.”

Wine stored under water.

Local chef, local products

Sasaki’s chef is, fittingly, a local boy. Sato Masato lives in Sendai, but his job brings him back to his hometown, where he takes on the challenge of creating a menu to pair with wine. “I think we have to come up with unique and local ideas,” he says. “We have received a lot of support, and it’s time to return the favor by promoting the charms of Minamisanriku.”

Sasaki and his team have many other projects in the works, including a project to sell processed foods made from coho salmon, another of Minamisanriku’s specialties.

In many ways, Minamisanriku Winery is a hub for local industries that need a boost. “People and producers here come together through our wine, and serving it helps connect locals with visitors,” says Sasaki.

“If we increase the number of people moving here and creating new jobs over the next 10 or 20 years, then that will be our real focus.”

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