Personal touch to create wines that wow critics
At the end of each summer a band of volunteer wine students and sommeliers fly in from Japan and descend upon a small corner of Martinborough.
Their mission: pick, sort and process nearly 3 hectares of wine grapes, gently lifting, placing and trimming each precious bunch by hand.
It's a long, involved process, but for winemaker Hiro Kusuda, of Kusuda wines, it's well worth the effort.
"It's trying to push the boundaries," he says over coffee at his Hawkins Rd villa.
"We are very gentle with our picking, we pick and place the bunches into the baskets, never drop them, you can't be rough with them. And then we carefully cut any imperfections with special scissors from Japan.
"We tell the [volunteers] how important it is and they understand what we're trying to do. Hopefully it makes a difference."
According to a growing consensus of international wine critics, fans and merchants, it clearly is.
A glowing Jancis Robinson article in The Financial Times in 2009 got the ball rolling, and just last week Kusuda received a request from the 300-year-old London wine merchants Berry Brothers and Rudd to stock his wines.
Writing in the Wine Spectator two weeks ago, renowned American critic Matt Kramer lavished praise on a Kusuda pinot noir, calling it "sheer remarkableness".
"Kusuda brings in 50 Japanese pickers at harvest, and he described . . . the most rigorous and extreme berry-sorting that I've ever heard of," he wrote.
"The result? Suffice it to say that you can taste the difference. The future!"
But although Mr Kusuda is now reaping the rewards of his rigorous attention to detail, the life he leads is far from the one he led as a young, increasingly disaffected professional.
He started his working life as a lawyer for Fujitsu in Tokyo - "there were 400 people on one floor, and no walls" - before moving on to a diplomatic role in Sydney in 1992.
It was there he decided to pack it in and follow his passion for wine.
"I just thought working in such a big corporation, and the government is really the biggest corporation, is not for me. I decided to challenge my life . . . I wanted to test myself and see how far I could go."
In 1996 he travelled to Germany to first learn the language then study viticulture and oenology.
As part of his thesis he went to Martinborough in 2000 where he met Kai Schubert , a well-respected boutique winemaker at Schubert Wines.
A chance to lease a block of vines from Muirlea Rise led to a permanent move to New Zealand in 2001, with Mr Kusuda producing his first commercial vintage in 2002.
"It was really tough," he says.
"You can imagine a guy who has worked in a high-rise building in Tokyo and then had years at a university, there were lots of things very different from in books.
"I had no idea how to drive a tractor, I didn't know the word smoko."
Production and Mr Kusuda's reputation started to rise, but the harsh and unpredictable New Zealand weather meant in 2005 he produced not a single bottle.
Today Mr Kusuda and his wife, Reiko, are enjoying Wairarapa life with their two children, Kensuke, 17, and Yuria, 12. The children are growing up as Kiwis but the Japanese language is "mandatory" at home.
"We really like it here, we don't miss Japan - apart from maybe the sushi."
Kusuda Wines has 1.6 hectares of pinot noir, 1.2ha of syrah, as well as a smaller amount of riesling.
That makes up to 10,000 bottles a year - some years as little as 600 cases - which puts him at the lower end, "but not the smallest", of New Zealand winemakers.
As he targets the high end of the market, he says there must be something "unique to the wine". "My wines retail for $85 to $90 a bottle, so it has to be able to convince the palate.
"I think that for me if one in a thousand people - or even one in the thousand or more - is convinced then it should work. And I want to be small, I don't want to be bothered by investors."
This summer has been particularly good for the grapes, with months of hot sunny weather easily coping with several days of rain just before harvest.
"I always say that you can control a lot of aspects of wine but some things are just in the hands of nature," he says.
"But if it goes well, we can end up with really good wine. And maybe my great-grandsons will be sipping my wines in 60 to 70 years."
The Dominion Post