ASHIKAGA, Japan: When Bruce Gutlove holds up his vineyard’s
finest bottle of chardonnay, he sees the clarity, senses the
anticipated crisp taste, and savors the hard summer of tending to his
“Delicious,” he said proudly, as the
director of Coco Farm & Winery. “Hopefully, people will buy
think it is a good bottle of wine, but there is a lot going on behind
the bottle itself that we think about when we measure what we have
Critics in Japan call Coco’s wines some of the
finest made in Japan, a country known for overly sweet, unremarkable
It is a compliment that means more to Gutlove than
the obvious, for the staff of this unique winery is made up of
developmentally disabled and autistic people. More than 100
developmentally disabled people work to create Coco Farm & Winery
Most of them live full-time at the vineyard, which
is also a school for the developmentally disabled. The philosophy is
that hard work and diligence will help improve their lives.
Gutlove expects nothing less. A winemaker from
California, he arrived at Coco Winery as a consultant, planning on a
stay of three months. He had no experience with the autistic or
developmentally disabled. At the end of the three months, he decided to
stay and keep working on the wine.
That was 20 years ago.What made him stay, he said,
were the students. “Seeing the passion and their desire to create
something of worth for other people is very, very impressive.”
As far as the pairing of autism with wine-making, it
is a natural fit. “Autistic people are very detail-oriented. They
the repetitive work and so some of this works very, very well with
their personalities,” said Gutlove.
There are no government statistics on the number of
people who are autistic in Japan, but the Japan Autism Society believes
that number may be more than 1 million.
About 67 million people worldwide are affected by
autism, according to the World Autism Awareness Day Web
There are many schools and work programmes for
autistic individuals in Japan, in addition to non-profit organisations
Coco Farm & Winery is different not only in the
products it produces for commercial sale in Japan, but also in that it
operates with a mix of income from sales of the wine, grants from the
government, donations, and tuition from the families of its students.
The students are paid a “wage” which is
then returned to the vineyard as “rent” for their lodging.
Machiko Ochi, the daughter of the creator of Coco
Farm & Winery, said the success of the vineyard and the students
had been in part Gutlove’s lack of formal training with the
“Bruce considers all of the residents
she said. “This is a big distinction. Treated as equals, the
meet his expectations on the job.”
Creating the chardonnay which Gutlove is so proud of
was not easy, especially in Japan’s harsh climate - too cold in
winter and too hot in the summer. The grapes used to rot on the vine.
The terrain of the vineyard itself is too steep for machinery, so the
students have to tend to the vines by hand.
But Gutlove said the students did not let the
setbacks stop them from meeting his expectations. Even when Gutlove
would get discouraged, the students kept pushing forward.
Hiromitsu Watanabe, 28, is one of those students.
When he first arrived at Coco Farms & Winery several years ago, his
counsellors said he could not communicate with anyone. Today, he is
thriving in his new environment and talking non-stop. He told CNN that
his favourite job was putting on the labels and that he made red wine.
Seeing Watanabe’s turnaround, in addition to
success of his wine, has been what has kept Gutlove firmly rooted in
his adopted land.
“I think everyone is being helped here,”
said Gutlove, “including myself.”
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