A vineyard under the storm

French winemaker Jean-Marc Brignot moved to a former penal colony in the Sea of ​​Japan for a simple reason: he wanted to be free.

So here we are, in the kura—Internal cellar — a partially renovated space that will soon become the first wine bar on Sado Island, the Barque de Dionysus.

The bar is just one of many ambitious projects by Jean-Marc Brignot on this outpost about thirty kilometers from the west coast of Japan. He’s a winegrower, a storyteller, an exile in a way, and the meal with Brignot this evening has an unusual rhythm: we take frequent breaks between eating and drinking to stroll outside and contemplate the ocean. A storm is beating down on you. You cannot avoid nature on Sado, it is always in your face: sea, forest and mountain merge. After a moment of reflection, we turn our backs on the storm, go inside, and eat again from the enormous Comte wheel he has just brought back from France.

Wine is what brought me to Sado in the first place. The Swedish magazine Fool had written on Brignot, transforming the profile of the winemaker from Jura, France, into a Manga comic strip. It was a fitting exotic treat for a very rare winemaker. In the world of natural wine, and in France in particular, Brignot had acquired a certain unconventional reputation.

Brignot wines are so hard to find these days that they are a sort of unicorn among collectors.

His wines are highly regarded, strictly natural and lately, incredibly difficult to find, they have been a sort of unicorn among collectors. His style of winemaking in France has eschewed modern techniques in every part of the production process, from using biodynamically grown fruit to using a hand crank press to crush the grapes. This is what sets it and other acolytes of ancient winemaking techniques apart from their counterparts who embrace modern technology as a means of perfecting and improving generations of wine-making tradition. “Natural vinification”, for those who practice it, is a way of life and takes on the meaning of a higher vocation. It also tends to piss off those outside of this small subset of producers, who no less feel in touch with the land than their more outspoken counterparts, and bristle at being somehow “unnatural.” ” in comparison.

Jean-Marc Brignot: a winegrower, a storyteller, an exile in a way.

So why did this traditionalist abandon his house to come to a country with virtually no wine tradition? It’s apparent madness: a year and a half ago, he left France, his company and his colleagues just when his cheers were at its peak in order to plant grapes and, eventually, make wine on this isolated island in the Sea of ​​Japan. . His wife is Japanese, yes, but she is not from Sado. Brignot, with his wild hair and dancing eyes, seems like the kind of person who will know something about wine-making here that the rest of us don’t. Maybe this is a place where something truly magical can happen between the grapes, the land and the sea?

The pier on Sado Island, a former penal colony with a unique culture.

It would be a surprise if that was the case. Commercial production of domestic wine in Japan is young, only around 50 years old, and most of what has been produced would not meet international export standards. Before arriving at Sado, I visited a very high end winery in Kyoto Prefecture (a passionate project by a wealthy collector) and tasted wines from regions of Japan. The best way to describe most is inconsistent – some are good, most are firmly rooted in the realm of dignity, and a few border on the unacceptable. At least in what I tasted there was nothing like the constant low price producers in Chile and Argentina, and most of the prices in Japan were much higher. Additionally, despite all the recent popularity of imported wine in Japan, it is still a beer country, with commercial and craft beers making up about half of its alcohol market, according to the USDA. The Japanese still have a long way to go before they even come close to the kind of consumption levels one might find in the West.

A storm is coming. The Sea of ​​Japan can quickly turn from welcoming to ruthless.

It must be said, however, that Sado is no ordinary island. Mention Sado to most people on the Japanese mainland and although its existence is recorded, only one person I have met in my travels has ever been. And even that was only during the summer for an annual music festival hosted by Kodo Drummers, a famous Taiko drum troupe based on the island. Visitors rarely come during the colder months. The Sea of ​​Japan can go from welcoming to ruthless quickly. When the passes close due to the snow, the Japanese defense forces that are housed on the island literally barricade themselves on the mountain like dwarves in a Tolkien novel.

Sado has become a place synonymous with dissent and free thought

Historically, Sado was primarily known for two things: its massive gold mine and a penal colony. The latter seems to have shaped the population of modern Sado in the most profound way.

Over the centuries, Sado has become a place of dissent and free thought – it was first and foremost a lonely rock to which those who disagreed with whoever was in power were exiled. Considering Sado’s status as a penal colony for nearly 1,000 years, from the 8th century to the 18th century, it is fair to say that not all of its original inhabitants were expelled from the mainland solely for reasons of political dissent. However, those who seem to have contributed the most to the abundance of openness, nonconformity, and creative culture on Sado were the poets, Buddhist monks, and masters of the Noh theater. Their influence can be seen in the ancient temples that dot the island, some mimicking more famous cousins ​​in Kyoto, as well as the fact that Sado has a higher percentage of Noh theaters than anywhere else in Japan (about a third of Noh scenes from the country are here).

Brignot and his wife, Satomi, visit one of the many abandoned temples on Sado Island.

There is a palpable sense of distinction from mainlanders – a fierce pride in being a non-conformist. This is certainly the case with the colleagues from Brignot. There was Marcus, the dreadlocked baker from the Bronx with over 20 years on this remote rock, or Alberto, a classically trained Italian actor and mime who originally came to Sado with the dream of becoming a Kodo drummer. . But it’s also true for the Japanese there. Sado is the first place I visited in Japan where people openly talk about personal happiness. It sounds like a simple concept, but it’s rare to hear Japanese people on the mainland speak directly about such things. However, I have heard the refrain over and over again from Brignot and others, “Happiness is great on Sado”.

During a visit to Henjinmokko (which by the way means “pure and hard” in Japanese), a butcher’s shop specializing, among other things, in German sausages, Brignot repeats something that I have heard from almost everyone I have heard of. encountered here: that the experience of exile shaped the Sado subculture into something that in many ways is not at all Japanese. The more Brignot speaks, the clearer it becomes that what led him to Sado had less to do with wine and more to do with life itself.

The dinner includes a huge wheel of Count Brignot who has just returned from France.

Part of it could be how uncompromising Brignot is. Try talking to him about terroir, for example, and he will insist that there is no right way to describe the concept. “Are we going to fight? “He asks,” because we don’t have a definition of terroir? The conversation suddenly turns into a conversation about the orthodoxy and politics of French winemaking. In France, Brignot’s rigorously natural approach (coupled with outspokenness) put him in direct conflict with neighboring winemakers and paved the way for his decision to move to Japan. “If I had been stronger, I would have stayed in France,” he says. “Here I have the opportunity to do it in a peaceful atmosphere. That has no price. He feels free to seek out on Sado what he describes as “the purity that nature can give you”.

It’s a bet on soil, weather and patience

And, for the first time, he has the opportunity to be a pioneer in a place without real wine history, without baggage or orthodoxy. However, with this freedom comes enormous uncertainty as well. He’s just planted grapes, which means it’ll be at least five years before there’s even something to taste, let alone age. It’s a bet on soil, weather and patience; but for Brignot, it became something much bigger than the simple physical act of agriculture or the fermentation of grape juice. On Sado, Brignot told me, he finally feels in his place, which he never really felt, even in his native country.

Jean-Marc Brignot moved away from France, his company and his colleagues as his praise peaked for growing grapes and making wine on this remote island in the Sea of ​​Japan.

It’s my last night on Sado and it’s still raining. We’re riding up into the mountains on a small, single-track road, and I wonder if the dime-sized tires on Brignot’s micro-compact will have mud traction. I also hope that the weather will be good enough that I can take the 5 am ferry to Niigata and continue my journey further north to Hokkaido. Brignot and his wife Satomi put on a unique farewell dinner – we head to Seisuki Restaurant, which has only one table. It is led by Osaki Kuniaki, who trained in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and before becoming a successful restaurateur with three establishments in Australia. Ten years later, exhausted and ending a relationship, he decides to return to Japan. But like so many others I have met here, happiness and acceptance seem elusive on the continent. He did not return to his native Osaka. He came here.

Seisuki Restaurant, which has only one table.

Inside his house, the storm feels far away. Kuniaki and his wife work in the small kitchen preparing a mix of Western and Japanese dishes: seared buri with yuzu chili paste and fresh bread. Brignot brought a selection of natural wines from a number of his favorite European producers. The discussion once again revolves around why and how people ended up here – freedom and happiness again dominate more than they would in conversations in mainland Japan. Whatever the evolution of Brignot wines, this discourse of freedom, it seems, is the true cultural land of Sado. This is the irony of Sado, a former penal colony that now appears to liberate rather than imprison.

Ferry from Sado Island, which connects Niigata.

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