Ashikaga, Tochigi


COCO FARM & WINERY began in 1958 when vineyards were cultivated in the mountains of Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. The land was cultivated by local junior high school students who attended a special school and their teacher, Mr Noboru Kawada. The winery was created so that people with intellectual disabilities and other people from all walks of life could demonstrate their abilities and vitality.

Later, in 1969, Kokoromi Gakuen (run by the social welfare organisation Kokoromirukai) was started at the foot of these vineyards to support adults with intellectual disabilities.

It took another two years after the initial cultivation to plant Muscat Bailey A and Riesling Lion (White grape variety that is a cross between Riesling and Koshu Sanjaku) vines on the steep 45° slope. This eventually became a sparkling wine with secondary fermentation in the bottle, which was used to toast the G8 meeting in Okinawa, Japan, in 2000.

The head of the school, Mr Kawada, initially wanted to make wine in the vineyards with people with disabilities. However, the social welfare organisation was not granted a licence to produce fruit wine, which was necessary to turn grapes into wine. In 1980, Mr Kawada and others who agreed with his idea set up a company, COCO FARM & WINERY, which was granted a fruit wine production licence in 1984 and began making wine.

One of the key figures in the subsequent history of the winery is Mr Bruce Gutlove, who is currently a director. He has produced many famous wines using Japanese grapes and has been a driving force in bringing Japanese wine to a world-class level.

Left: Mr Bruce Gutlove and Mr Toyoichiro Shibata (current head of winemaking) with people from Kokoromi Gakuen.

He, who had previously worked as a wine consultant in California, joined the winemaking team at the winery in 1989 at the request of Mr Kawada.

They promised that they would not set any restrictions that this is sufficient because the wines are made by people with disabilities, and that they would put their best efforts into making good wines, regardless of who the winemaker is.

This promise is the foundation on which the winery's current attitude of respecting nature, working happily and aiming for the best wines has been formed.

The winey has taken on various challenges and has continued to produce wines that have been adopted for numerous international conferences and international flights, including the Kyushu-Okinawa Summit in 2000, the welcome dinner for former British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017, and the luncheon at the Apostolic Nunciature in Japan in 2019.

Mr Hideki Ishii is currently the head of viticulture. A native of Tochigi Prefecture, he joined the winery in 2009. He works with the students and staff of Kokoromi Gakuen with passion, cultivating grapes in his own vineyards, including a vineyard cultivated in the 1950s.

The head of winemaking is Mr Toyoichiro Shibata, who joined the winery in 2001 and learned the cutting edge of winemaking and the essence of wine from Bruce. He is renowned for his careful winemaking, which is close to nature, as if he is watching over the fermentation by the action of wild yeasts and wild lactic acid bacteria.


The winery's five own vineyards are located in Ashikaga and Sano in southern Tochigi Prefecture. The total area of the vineyards is approximately 6 ha. Including private fields in Hokkaido and Yamagata, the total area is about 20 ha.

In addition, they work with contract growers in Hokkaido, Yamagata, Nagano, Yamanashi, Gunma, Saitama and Tochigi to produce wines from 100% Japanese grapes, using wild yeast and nestled in nature.

Ashikaga's own vineyards are made up of shale, which is 20-100 cm loam mixed with gravel and composed of clastic rocks, chert, basalt and melange, into which roots can penetrate. These rocks were formed during the Jurassic period when rocks accumulated at the bottom of trenches and were pushed up by tectonic movements.

Grapes firmly rooted between Jurassic rocks are a characteristic of their vineyards. The wines made from grapes grown in vineyards with this particular parent rock have a depth that cannot be felt in other areas.

Annual rainfall is 1100-1300 mm; the wettest season is from mid-June to mid-July, and also from mid-September to mid-October. Average annual temperature is 15.1°C. The pruning winter has a strong gusty wind.

The average slope is 38°. The upper slopes are steep at 42°. This allows for good drainage, and the south-west facing and sunshine provide favourable conditions for the grapes.

This steep slope has not only been good for the growth of grapes, but has also played an important role in training the body and mind of children who, because of their disabilities, were overprotected.

As vehicles and large machinery cannot enter these steep slopes, everything has to be done by human hands. Nowadays, the world's natural winegrowers say that the best fertiliser for the vineyard is the farmer's footsteps. Heavy vehicles and machinery trample the soil hard with their weight, crushing the pathways for water and air.

The people here pick up and remove individual insects from the vineyards, carefully wipe and remove diseased leaves and grapes, and shade each bunch of grapes. This painstaking work, which has to be done by hand due to the steepness of the slopes, may be the key to producing fine wines.

In the vineyards, they grow grape varieties indigenous to Japan, such as Muscat Bailey A, Riesling Lion and Shokoshi (Created by crossbreeding various mountain grape varieties), as well as grape varieties imported from Europe and around the world, such as Petit Manseng, Norton, Tannat, Vignoles and Albariño.

All are wine grape varieties that are well suited to the climate of the northern Kanto region, withstanding high temperatures and humidity well. Through this export, they hope to be able to thank the people of Europe with a report saying, "Thanks to you, we have produced this kind of wine".


Fermentation in the winery is carried out with wild yeasts and wild lactic acid bacteria. The winemakers listen carefully to the grapes, which tell them "this is the kind of wine I want to be", and make the best use of their natural flavours.

At the winery, malolactic fermentation is also often carried out naturally by wild lactic acid bacteria. Wild yeasts are used to bring out the natural flavour of the grapes and produce fine wines. They want to make the most of the invisible power of micro-organisms and the potential of healthy grapes from healthy soil.

Wines made naturally are fermented at different times: nouveau (new wine) is harvested in August and bottled two months later, while some wines continue to ferment well into the following spring and others are undergoing malolactic fermentation. Some wines are quietly aged for a long time in barrels in the cellar.

From building a cellar which is cool in summer and warm in winter in the mountains, to wood-burning stoves using forest thinnings and pruned grape branches, to digging hand-pump wells in the vineyards, to installing solar power and reusing skins and seeds after the wine has been pressed, the winery is committed to making wine that incorporates nature, both in terms of facilities and the environment.

“Put all your energy into something that will disappear.” Mr Kawada left these words. The daily breakfast, lunch and dinner are gone when you eat them. The wine that is prepared every autumn also disappears once it is drunk. In the face of the great forces of nature, human beings are powerless and can do only a little. But he wants to do the little that he can do to the best of his ability, without sparing any effort.