A Moment

Mie Ikeno

Curiosity is the secret ingredient in this Japanese winemaker’s sought after bottles.

HER CULT WINES sell out minutes after release. They’re not available in the United States, Europe, or China, nor can they be shipped there. In fact, with such a limited production, they’re scarcely available in Japan. But if you’re in Japan during Mie Ikeno's annual June and December releases, a bottle of structured pinot noir or honey-hued chardonnay, individually bottled and hand-wrapped with a label featuring a whimsical cat, will only set you back around $50. After all, like a lot of winemakers, Mie Ikeno isn’t in this for money. She’s in it to make excellent Burgundian-style wines on the sunny slopes of Japan’s Mount Yatsugatake — and her creations are something of a beautiful mystery, even to her.

“I wanted to study winemaking in Burgundy because many of the wines that I found so impressive, honest, and delicious came from there,” she tells me while we walk through the vineyard, our feet crunching atop the volcanic soil. “Being Japanese, I had no idea that a wine from the mountainous region of Yatsugatake in Japan could be regarded as a traditional French style. Of course, I wanted to make use of my winemaking education in France, but I didn’t believe I could make a Burgundy wine in Japan, which has a completely different terroir, and it was foolish to even hope to do so.”

But that’s exactly what Ikeno has done. Her winery, Domaine Mie Ikeno, is in the Yatsugatake Mountains, two hours west of Tokyo in Yamanashi Prefecture — Japan’s oldest and best-known winemaking region — but just a few miles from the border of Nagano. Her vines are cradled in an exposed southeast-facing ridge located at 2,460 feet, high enough to be considered a high-altitude wine by European standards. I visited her there on a cold, sunny day in February of 2020, just before the global pandemic. The winery is not open to the public and there are no signs to it from the main road. As I walked through a thicket of bamboo groves and scrubby pine from the driveway, I spotted Ikeno cloaked in a magenta puffer jacket working the vineyard. Behind her, the specter of snow-capped Mount Fuji loomed on the horizon. It was a view that resorts and hotels would kill for.

Japanese wine? Yes, it's a thing. Not saké. Not plum wine. It’s believed that in A.D. 718 a monk named Gyoki brought Koshu grapes to Japan from China, around the same time Buddhism and Chinese kanji were introduced. Today, 16 of Japan’s 47 prefectures are in the business of winemaking, with thousands of individual farmers growing numerous species of grapes for some 250-plus wineries — including those owned by Japan’s gigantic and highly competitive beverage companies Suntory, Kirin, and Asahi. Japan boasts developed wine trails, tasting rooms with automated wine dispensers, family-friendly, wine-themed resorts like Risonare Yatsugatake, managed by Hoshino Resorts, and even tour operators like Remote Lands creating customized tours of Japanese wine country. The industry has become extremely competitive, with Japan’s knack for improving foodstuffs so highly regarded that vino powerhouses in Italy, France, and California are taking notice.

Her creations are something of a beautiful mystery, even to her.

Japanese winemaking only began in earnest in 1870 during the Meiji Restoration, when the island nation opened up to foreign foods and ideas. This first wine boom was dominated by the Koshu grape, which was thought to be a unique European varietal at the time. But recent evidence suggests it’s a hybrid of Europe’s vitis vinifera and an East Asian wild Vitis species. Many wine experts today will tell you that dry, neutral Koshu wines are the best to pair with Japan’s umami-rich cuisine — and the only wine to serve with sashimi. But as usual, these rules beg to be broken, and debate and research continue about the origins of the Koshu grape. Ikeno, who studied wine in Burgundy and holds a D.N.O. (Diplôme National d’Œnologue) from France’s University of Montpellier, ignores all that. She is part of a small handful of Japanese winemakers who have decided to forgo planting Koshu grapes altogether, focusing instead on other varietals. Ikeno grows three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir, and merlot.

Ikeno was born and raised in Komoro city in Nagano Prefecture, located in the middle of Japan. Growing up, she had a friend who worked at the region’s only winery, so unlike many Japanese, she was intimately familiar with the idea of wine from a young age. After graduating university, she became a magazine editor at a Japanese publishing company, where she met prominent cultural figures, artists, and business moguls. Over the years, these interactions made her contemplate what she wanted to do with her own life. “I knew I wanted to work with nature, philosophy, and culture. For me, wine is the intersection of these three things.”

Her methods follow traditional Burgundian organic and sustainable processes, like gravity flow and moonlight harvesting. And it’s this attention to detail that makes her wines so sought after. “My grapes are grown, as they should be, with as little effort as possible, to preserve the nature of the terroir. We don’t use herbicides or chemical fertilizers. The wine is unfiltered and unclarified, and sulfites are kept to a minimum. We rely on gravity alone without any pumps,” she says, showing me around her cavernous, modern facility. “The labels are also applied by hand, one by one, so mass production is not possible; but this allows me to put my heart and soul into each bottle.”


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Ikeno is one of the few female winemakers in Japan, and the only female vintner I met during a week-long tour of the country’s vineyards. Many of the male winemakers I met were 60- and 70-year-olds who’d planted vines during the wine boom of the 1960s. Most of them told me about their wines with a mixture of mansplaining and hubris. Unlike the cooperative whisky industry in Scotland or winemaking in Napa or Burgundy — where winemakers regularly tell you the tide rises when their businesses support one another — Japan suffers from fierce competition. Tight-lipped protectionism is rampant among the country's big beverage companies. Fortunately, Ikeno rejects this and has a slightly softer approach.

“I myself do not have a strong sense of gender, age, or nationality. When I started the winery in 2007, I remember that there were a few women who took over their family businesses. But I was the first woman to start a winery by cultivating a vineyard from scratch,” she continued. Winemaking started in Japan in 1870, but women were not allowed to enter the industry. Even saké-making remained a man's world until somewhat recently. “We had to wait until 1980 to have our first female toji (saké master.) But in the last decade, more and more women are becoming active as winemakers in Japan. I’m very happy to be a part of that.”

Like all winemakers, Ikeno is keenly aware of her terroir, a fertile, volcanic soil that’s often said to be the secret weapon of Japanese viticulture. When looking for a location to plant her vines, she hit the jackpot. Her soil is made of volcanic ash that erupted from Mount Yatsugatake, which has both drainage and water retention properties. Since the vineyard is on a slope, excess water drains off — a key landscape element in Japan where it rains a lot. But the slope also receives 2,400 hours of sunshine per year. It’s one of the sunniest places in Japan. During the growing season, easterly winds begin to blow in the afternoon, drying out the grape leaves and keeping mildew away. What’s more, there’s also a huge temperature difference between day and night, and the environment is blessed with a high level of acidity and sugar accumulation.

In recent years, many Japanese winemakers have begun to plant Spanish grape varietals due to climate change. “Japan's harvests are being affected by climate change, which is getting more noticeable every year,” says Ikeno. Typical rainfall is around 40 inches per year, with June and July normally constituting rainy season. But the Pacific Ocean’s rise in temperature is causing more tropical cyclones to develop during fall harvest, resulting in heavier, prolonged rains and more severe typhoons. “The biggest challenge with climate change is making the right decision about what to grow and when and how to grow it,” she says, echoing the sentiments of winegrowers across the planet.

If that weren’t challenging enough, Japan’s wine industry was hit especially hard by the pandemic. Alcohol sales in restaurants were banned. And even when they are eased, barriers and restrictions add uncertainty. “Since Japan did not take lockdown measures, the lingering effects of the pandemic continue to cast a huge economic shadow, especially on the dining, tourism, and hospitality industries,” Ikeno tells me in a follow-up interview via email.

But unlike many other local wines, her wines require zero marketing and sell out regardless of global events. “We’ve never done any advertising because there isn’t any need. Customers who like our wines will buy them next year. My biggest market is repeat customers, mostly Japanese clients and foreigners living in Japan. I am incredibly grateful for their support because all of my wines sell out instantly. But for that reason, they never make it overseas.”

Domaine Mie Ikeno also goes by the French name Les pas du chat (Traces of cat tracks). “When I was looking for a plot to turn into a vineyard, I came across the current land when it was still deserted. The setting sun on the mountain brought out the skyline and I was in awe of the still beauty of this place. But when I looked down at my feet, I noticed many cat tracks, and I realized it wasn’t deserted at all. So I fell very much in love with the cats who had made this beautiful land their home, and I used them as a motif. The black cat on my label actually represents me, who was and is equally fascinated by this place,” she says, a reminder that curiosity is an important and often overlooked element in modern oenoculture.

“My winery is only 14 years old, so I’m still learning so much. The forest of wine is deep and endless, and the deeper you go, the more mysterious and fascinating it becomes.”

Domaine Mie Ikeno does not usually accept visitors, but will occasionally holds events or tours that are announced on their website. Bottling releases are usually announced in June and December, and bottles can be shipped within Japan only. Ikeno’s wines can be found at several restaurants and hotels in Japan. Ikeno plans on making a sparkling blanc de blanc wine in the next few years.

Where to Find Mie Ikeno’s Wine

Writer Adam H. Graham recommends three restaurants across Japan where — if you’re lucky — you can try Mie Ikeno’s highly coveted wines.

  • Sazenka

    Chef Tomoya Kawada seamlessly marries Chinese and Japanese cuisine at this 3-Michelin-star restaurant in Tokyo’s international Minami Azabu neighborhood. Wine and tea pairing menus available.

  • Otto Sette, Risonare Yatsugatake

    Hoshino Resort’s family-friendly brand Risonare runs this sprawling wine-themed resort perched high in the Yatsugatake Mountains. Dozens of Japanese wines are available by the glass at Otto Sette, one of four restaurants on-site.

  • Sushi Zai

    This Edomae-style sushi restaurant is an intimate and exclusive sushi counter in Tokyo’s central, bustling Shibuya neighborhood. The 20-course meal includes saké or wine pairing alongside creations like Sakura trout and golden sea bream.

  • Sazenka

    Chef Tomoya Kawada seamlessly marries Chinese and Japanese cuisine at this 3-Michelin-star restaurant in Tokyo’s international Minami Azabu neighborhood. Wine and tea pairing menus available.

  • Sushi Zai

    This Edomae-style sushi restaurant is an intimate and exclusive sushi counter in Tokyo’s central, bustling Shibuya neighborhood. The 20-course meal includes saké or wine pairing alongside creations like Sakura trout and golden sea bream.

  • Otto Sette, Risonare Yatsugatake

    Hoshino Resort’s family-friendly brand Risonare runs this sprawling wine-themed resort perched high in the Yatsugatake Mountains. Dozens of Japanese wines are available by the glass at Otto Sette, one of four restaurants on-site.

Our Contributors

Adam H. Graham Writer

Adam H. Graham is an American food and travel journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. He typically spends a few months every year in Japan, and recently spent several weeks visiting Japanese vineyards in several different prefectures.

Rinko Kawauchi Photographer

Born 1972 in Shiga, Japan, Rinko Kawauchi is a photographer who lives and works in Tokyo.

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