She studied wine in Germany, and after training there, she started her own winery in Oregon. It’s rare enough to find a Japanese person running a winery, and even more rare to find the gem that is a female winemaker.
Given that Akiko originally wanted to be a journalist specializing in alcoholic beverages, it makes you wonder, what led her to go to Germany and study wine? What made her want to try out her newfound wine know-how in Oregon? We interviewed Akiko to find out her philosophy on wine and to learn her dreams.
“German beer was already well-known in Japan. At the time I had this weird fantasy that I had a better chance of getting famous in Japan if I studied wine instead. I could be the big German Wine expert in Japan!”
NWhat made you want to learn about wine?
AkikoI wanted to be a journalist and report on the world of alcohol, so after I got out of college I worked for about two years as an editor for a culinary magazine called “Ou-sama no Kitchen” (The King’s Kitchen). We picked a topic every month to report on, and went to restaurants that offered food that fit the topic and asked them how they made it, which was a fairly unprecedented idea for a magazine. But it didn’t sell very well, so publication got discontinued. Right about then, my husband Chris moved to Germany for work and I went with him, thinking it would be a good chance to learn more about alcohol, especially beer. My interest in beer came from a part time job that I had as a student at a bar that was specialized in “beers from all over the world.” I got to try lots of different beers there. Craft beers are popular now, but back then in Japan it was rare to find such a wide variety of specialty beers. On top of that there was little information available about foreign or craft beers. I had to buy books to do my own research. That’s why I naively thought that I’d be able to learn more in Germany.
※At work in a vineyard in Rheingau. The building above is Schloss Johannisberg, a prestigious winery with a chateau considered by many to be one of the best five in Germany.
I went over to Germany, and while I was attending a language school I searched for universities where I could study beer. I found one in Berlin and one on the outskirts of Munich, which were both far from Duesseldorf, where Chris and I were living together. They were too far away to visit Chris on the weekends if I were to live in either city on my own.
While all this was happening, I met the fiancé of a good friend of mine from the language school. He was both a businessman and a winery owner on the side. He told me that there was a school in Germany where I could study wine. I looked it up and found that the school was close enough for me to visit Chris on weekends. I also chose wine over beer, because German beer was already well-known in Japan. At the time I had this weird fantasy that I had a better chance of getting famous in Japan if I studied wine instead. I could be the big German Wine expert in Japan! (laughs)
“The most important asset I gained at that school was that it put me in an environment where I was in contact with those people at the top of the industry in Europe, which made me want to make good wine myself.”
※Making sparkling wine (Sekt) for a college “Sekt project”
NHow was life at the wine school in Germany?
AkikoIn order to study at the school I attended, you had to have at least half a year of experience training at a winery before you enrolled. In my case, that same friend’s fiancé told me, “You can come work at my winery. I’ll take care of you.” I did an internship at his winery while studying for my German exams. In the fall of 2003 I was accepted into the Viticulture and Enology Program at Geisenheim University.
After I enrolled I was lucky enough to meet Jonas, who became a very good roommate.. He helped me with my studying and I also met a lot of people at the parties he put together.
Believe it or not, about 30% of the students at that university came from families who owned wineries. Sometimes you’d meet sons or daughters from the top German Wineries at one of Jonas’s parties. The most important asset I gained at that school was that it put me in an environment where I was in contact with those people at the top of the industry in Europe, which made me want to make good wine myself.
“As we were about to move somewhere else, I remembered learning from class at the wine school that there were some high-quality Pinot noirs being made in Oregon in recent years.”
N Why did you choose Oregon for making wine?
AkikoAfter I graduated from the wine school, I got married in Virginia and lived there for a few months, but I didn’t really mesh there. As a result we ended up moving somewhere else. When you think wine, you obviously think California, right? But Chris pleaded with me to give it up, because it’s so expensive there. (laughs)
That’s when I remembered learning in a lecture at the wine school that there were some high-quality Pinot noirs being made in Oregon in recent years. Also, I had worked at wineries in Germany that actively made Pinot noir, so I thought, “I’d probably be able to find work in Oregon, since they make Pinot noir there. Also, it’s north of California, so it’s probably nice and cool there, like Germany.”That summer we literally packed up the truck and drove out here with absolutely no prior knowledge or research about Oregon.
“I started making my own wine here in 2013.”
N When did you start making your own wine in Oregon?
AkikoI started making my own wine here in 2013. The first thing that took me by surprise was how hard it was to obtain the grapes to make the wine. It’s really hard for small wineries like us to get our hands on grapes. From a vineyard owner’s standpoint, it makes more sense to sell their grapes to a well-known winery than a minor one, because that way the word of their brand spreads faster. That, and minor wineries only make purchases in small amounts. It’s better to sell to a large winery that will buy lots of grapes every year. To solve this problem I started by buying grapes from an acquaintance of mine named Jeff who owns a vineyard.
Of course, I didn’t stop at just buying grapes from him; I made a special request and started doing most of the vineyard management –from pruning to harvesting- by myself.
AkikoAs for the wine production facility, I didn’t have my own, but rather I rented a portion of my friend Tom’s winery and made the wine there. But in 2014 I increased production and it was enough such that it was getting cramped there. At the end of 2014 he said, “Akiko, I’m sorry, but there isn’t enough room for both of us?” (laughs)
It’s only natural that things would get a bit claustrophobic when there’s wine made by two people in a building meant for one. So I was like, “Okay, sorry! I’ll be going now,” and made up my mind to move to a different winery before the harvest season of 2015.
Big wineries have places where they rent out space and machines for making wine as a business. So I moved into one of those. There are quite a few people like me who make their wine in rental facilities with rental machines.
“Part of the process is sorting out the bad grapes from the good ones, and long story short, we had to do quite a thorough job of sorting in 2013.”
NWhat was the hardest part of making wine?
AkikoIt was really tough when I first started out in 2013. That year, I was also working at another winery. I made the mistake of thinking I’d be totally fine working both jobs, because the amount I was making by myself was small. That fall there were heavy rains before the harvest, and some of the grapes that we were picking were in bad shape. Part of the process is sorting out the bad grapes from the good ones, and long story short, we had to do quite a thorough job of sorting in 2013. That hard work is an important reason that I think we were able to produce a quality wine that year. We tossed out a whole lot of grapes. But we had to, because we weren’t about to compromise the quality of our wine. I decided to start working exclusively on my own starting the next year.
“It’s okay to leave the soil itself in its pure natural state, because it will ultimately lead to the creation of a good wine.”
NMany wineries in Oregon are making active efforts to promote sustainability and eco-friendliness. Is there anything you do to that effect?
AkikoI still don’t own my own vineyard, so it’s hard to experiment and research new environmentally conscious methods actively. I am doing what I can to research and make that effort within the restricting situation that is renting a vineyard. Last year I stopped using herbicides. But that was more because I wanted to make my wine taste better and improve the quality than because I was thinking about the environment. However, as I’ve been reading books and doing other research on topics like biodynamic and organic farming and ecosystems, I’ve started to think that it’s okay to leave the soil itself in its pure natural state, because it will ultimately lead to the creation of a good wine. I want to keep the soil in its natural state, and maintain livable conditions for the microbes and small animals.
AkikoThere’s a lot of credibility to what the soil scientists are saying about grapes growing with lots of potential thanks to the organisms that live in the ground. I’d like to branch out and experiment with different things, but in my current situation it’s easier to experiment with the wine making part of the process.
“Balance is very important, when it comes to wine.”
NWhat kind of wine do you aim to make?
AkikoI want to make a wine that will make an impression, that you won’t get tired of drinking.
Although if you asked me how I’m going to make that impression, it’s not that easy to give you a precise answer. Balance is very important, when it comes to wine. If there’s a good balance, you won’t get tired of drinking it. A wine with a good balance is one that doesn’t have just one part of the taste that sticks out, but rather features all the elements in a pleasant way. Which I believe is what would make an impression.
I feel like I have to establish a certain style that somebody out there will like, and become a fan of my wine and say, “I like Shiba Wichern’s wine because it’s got this style.”
“I’m constantly devoted to test-tasting, sampling and inspecting the condition of the wine in my lab. Quality control is very important.”
N So you’re still exploring your own style?
AkikoRight. I can’t say that this is absolutely it.
It’s still only been three years since I started making my own wine, so I honestly haven’t decided on one style that I think is absolutely the one, and I’m still in a trial-and-error stage. I’m experimenting with a lot of things.
For example, I always have multiple fermenters of Pinot noir at Shiba Wichern. Each fermenter contains different percentages of whole clusters (grape berries are still attached to the stem), which can add to the complexity of the taste. If you make it 100% with whole cluster fermentation, there’s no compensating for it if the effect comes out too strong. Every year I try something experimental and if it’s good, I’ll keep doing it the next year. I’m also making an effort to cut down on the amount of SO2 I use to prevent oxidation and control microbe activity. But it’s not enough just to cut down. Doing so comes with risks, and I’m constantly devoted to test-tasting, sampling and inspecting the condition of the wine in my lab. Quality control is very important. I keep inspecting and quality controlling as I grapple with new ideas.
“It’s my dream to have my own vineyard and winery, but there are some other things I’ve been thinking I need to do in the future.”
NWhat is your vision for the future?
AkikoMy dream right now is to get my own vineyard, and build my own winery.
Essentially, I want to do the work to grow the grapes myself, so that I can do it all my way. With a rental vineyard, I don’t have complete control as far as management is concerned. I think it’d be best if I had my own vineyard. Most of the wineries in Germany have their own vineyards and they’re able to raise good grapes and end up with good wine. When you have different people growing the grapes and making the wine, they have different objectives. The main objective of the people who grow the grapes is to sell a lot of them. The main objective of the people who make the wine is to make high quality wine. My ideal for making wine would be to raise excellent grapes in my own vineyard, and ultimately make excellent wine with them, just like in Germany.
AkikoAnd it would be nice to even have my own winery. When you rent space at another winery to make wine in, you can’t do it all the way you want, which has been really frustrating at times (the right side of the room pictured with the barrels is the space Akiko is renting). To achieve this goal in the long term I need to establish a good reputation for my brand by making good wine that customers appreciate. Once I’ve done that, I can go to a bank with my business model and hopefully convince them to finance the building of my very own vineyard and winery. But it’s going to take years to achieve that, so I’m getting pretty far ahead of myself talking about it. (laughs)
Akiko It’s my dream to have my own vineyard and winery, but there are some other things I’ve been thinking I need to do in the future.
I want to help collect wines from places that are small and unknown but make interesting wine, not just my own, and introduce them to Japan. At this point, the wines that are being exported to Japan are mainly from relatively large-scale wineries. But there have been more small makers recently. And a lot of the wines from those wineries are reasonably priced and memorable.
The grapevines in Oregon are young compared to the ones in Europe. The oldest ones alive in Oregon have only been around for about 30 to 40 years. As they grow in age, I think the wines in Oregon will become even more interesting. I have high hopes for Oregon as a production center for wine.
Selling wine to Japan is not as much of a dream as something I feel like I have to do as a representative of Oregon. In order to make it happen, it’s very important to get more people familiar with Oregon, and I think the recent Portland craze that’s happened in Japan is going to be very good for Oregon’s wine industry. It would be great if we could pass on the word about Oregon’s wines and get people interested enough to think, “Burgundy isn’t the only obvious place to get Pinot noir from; Oregon’s pretty good too.” As a Japanese person, I’m pretty sure it’s up to me to introduce Oregon wine to Japan.
Born in: Tokyo, Japan
After working as editor of a culinary magazine, she moved to Germany and trained in grape growing and making wine at Geisenheim University. Upon graduation, she moved to Virginia, then to Oregon. She accumulated experience at three different wineries in Oregon, and founded Shiba Wichern Cellars in 2013 with her husband Chris.
“Shiba Wichern Cellars”
TEL:+1 (503) 883-9142
Please contact in advance for a tasting session.
※ Also for sale in Japan starting this winter! Contact the winery for more information:
Writer by Fumiko, Photos by Fumiko, Translator by Andy, Editor by Ryoma / Shunsuke
〜Special thanks go to Chris Wichern & Akiko Shiba〜