John Barbier, the Colorado cook-vintner

“I have never followed a recipe in my life, I’m a man of instinct” 

Born on May 28, 1972 in Arpajon in France, nothing predestined John Barbier to become a winemaker in remote plains of Colorado. And yet… Here is the portrait of an American success story as we like them: a man as manic as discreet, as demanding as generous, primarily Epicurean and vinifying by conviction, to the delight of our palates.

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WINE Explorers : Can you tell us about your unusual career?

John BARBIER : My name is a tribute to John Wayne, my father loved him. In a way the United States and I were made to live together! After my studies in the restoration sector, I joined the army as butler of the General of Bourges. After that, I put my bag on my back, and headed towards Australia and Asia. I have always wanted to travel, to explore the planet. I did everything: from being a waiter in Adelaide, to cooking in the bush, to being a touristic guide. I had to earn my daily bread. This was followed by a period of two and a half years where I furrowed the Caribbean and Bermuda serving on a cruise ship.

WE : How did you start Maison la Belle Vie winery ?

JB : I arrived in the US in 1996. I decided to try my luck there, because traveling opened my mind and gave me a thousand dreams. I chose to work in Aspen (Colorado), a beautiful ski resort. Restaurant work has always fascinated me and I quickly wanted to open my own business for the challenge ahead. I had the opportunity to open my first restaurant in Glenwood Spring in northern Colorado. It immediately turned out well and I opened a second one nearby, in Grand Junction. Maison la Belle Vie came into being naturally and in the continuity of my two other businesses.

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WE : Is wine always related to gastronomy for you?

JB : I grew up on a farm and I love local produce, the history behind it. I also love the French know-how and all that goes with it. Food and wine have been two great friends since forever. My family taught me about life and respect. Being at the table is a very important moment for me, where a good meal is consistent with a good wine, but also with the place and time. Cuisine is a mix between savoir-vivre and how one receives people.

WE : Do you still have time to cook?

JB : I cook when I have friends at home. I take time for them and it’s a real pleasure. I love creating dishes according to the season and especially depending on what I find in my garden. Knowing how to combine the elements of a dish together is an ongoing challenge. Besides, I have never followed a recipe in my life, I’m a man of instinct.

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WE : Why do you defend the concept of “oenotourism“ so fervently? 

JB : For me, oenotourism is all the little extras added to the wine tasting. This is essential today to differentiate one from others in a market as competitive as the wine industry.
My vineyard is small but very welcoming. My guests feel at home and never want to leave. We offer them a charcuterie platter with local ham and sausages, good cheese, traditional baguette, antipasti… We recreate a friendly mindset that people have lost and which everyone wants . We even do dinners on the farm, with very simple and friendly food and wine pairings, in a warm atmosphere. To get back to basics for a more serene life during an evening is very important for our customers who like to say “this is real life.”

We also organize weddings half of the year, often up to two per weekend as the demand is high.

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WE : What do you think of Colorado wines?

JB : The wine industry in Colorado is young. We began producing wine in the early 80’s. After many adjustments and experiments, wines have gradually improved. We have made a lot of progress over the last 10 years, especially with red wines. They are delicious. Today we have reached one hundred wineries throughout the state.
We now have programs that help us to develop and to become more competitive. This teaches us not only to make wine but also to grow grapes in altitude: we are at 1600m above sea level and we must adapt! We cannot plant anything we want, only what the earth wants to offer us.

However, the State of Colorado has seen the financial potential of the wine industry and that’s why a research center was created in order to help us in terms of viticulture but also in the development and marketing of our wines.

WE : What do you hate most?

JB : Snobbery!

WE : Your motto?

JB : Do what we love. Do not drink moonshine wines. Do not keep the most beautiful glasses and dishes only for special occasions.

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WE : Do you have a favourite wine?

JB : Hmmm…my favourite wine. I particularly enjoy wines from B & E Vineyard in Paso Robles(1), especially their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. On the French side, I adore a good Gigondas. And even though I’m not very focused on white wines, I like to open a Condrieu from time to time.

WE : What do you like most?

JB : Sharing a good meal and my favourite wines with friends.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

(1) For more information on B&E Vineyard : http://www.bevineyard.com

Coco Farm & Winery – featuring the 2 Great Ladies of a beautiful project

“We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“, IKEGAMI CHIEKO.

 In our article on Japanese wines we spoke about the Coco Farm & Winery estate, a great example of oenotourism and the integration of disabled workers (the students).

IKEGAMI CHIEKO (à gauche) & MACHIKO OCHI (à droite)

IKEGAMI CHIEKO (à gauche) & MACHIKO OCHI (à droite)


In this article we will focus on this estate started by Noboru KAWATA in 1984 in Ashikaga (Tochigi prefecture) which is today in the good hands of his two daughters : Ikegami CHIEKO, responsible for the Winery, and Machiko OCHI, responsible for the Center.

WINE EXPLORERS : Can you tell us a bit about your background as an introduction ?

IKEGAMI CHIEKO : I was born on the 15th of October 1950. After graduating from Tokyo Women’s University I started working for SOSHISHA, a publishing company in 1972. One day I decided to take an oenology course at Tokyo Agriculture College and found it fascinating. So naturally I joined the Coco Farm & Winery in April 1984.
I have been the Vice Presidente of the Coco Farm & Winery since 1989, and in 2009 I was awarded the titel of executive officer by the Tokyo Agriculture University. I’m also the Chief Governor of COCOROMI GAKUEN (a facility of social welfare) and a member of the Union Japonaise des Œnologues.
MACHIKO OCHI : I’m the second daughter of Noboru KAWATA. I was born on the 23rd of January 1956. At the university I majored in social welfare. I immediatly started working for COCOROMI GAKUEN. And before I took over my father’s position (Chief Administrator of COCOROMI GAKUEN), I worked in vineyard as a grape grower.

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WE : How was the Coco Farm & Winery’s vineyard born ?

IKEGAMI : When Noboru KAWATA (founder of COCOROMI-GAKUEN) was the teacher of a special class for mentally and intellectually challenged junior high school students, he found that his students always looked like they were feeling nervous at their school desks. However they acted very differently in the mountains.
Because their intellectual abilities were impaired, the families of these students thought they could not amount to much. Thus, their developmental needs were not a priority. However, Noboru had a different idea…
For these students, only hard work at the farm could possibly highlight their capabilities. He created the vineyard for the students in order for them to be able to experience the joy of harvesting and to end up in the vineyard at least once a year, to provide them with something that could give them a sense of selfworth.  He wanted them to be able to be proud of what they can accomplish and since there is such a strong link between what ones does and who one considers oneself to be, he wanted them to be able to link themselves in this manner to their occupation.
MACHIKO : Our father chose grapes from many other fruit because it could be turned into wine. He always enjoyed wine for the joy of sharing it.

WE : What are your students doing at Coco Farm & Winery ?

MACHIKO : Students perform a multitude of different tasks throughout the year which includes the following :
1. Putting paper umbrellas around all grape clusters
2. Cutting the grass in the vineyards
3. Pruning
4. Shedding vine leaves
5. Taking care of the young shoots
6. Harvesting the grapes
7. Collecting the pruned shoots
8. Spraying the vineyards with the required chemicals
9. Crushing and pressing grapes
10. Working on the bottling line
11. Assisting packaging for shipping
12. … and so much more !

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WE : Are visitors sensitive to the fact that challenged people are working in the vineyards ?

MACHIKO : Half of the people don’t notice that fact nor do they care about it. The other half is very impressed that they are working in this way.
IKEGAMI : But in the end it is always an exciting thing to work in a vineyard with the aim of obtaining the highest possible quality of grapes, regardless of who tends to the vines.  

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This vineyard in the mountains, North of Ashikaga, is a physical challenge to work in: it has a steep slope of 38 degrees average of inclination ! We tested it, it’s really abrupt. Why did you choose to plant vines here ? “Because at the time it wasn’t possible to obtain agricultural land on flat ground, only on the steep slopes of the mountains“, said Machiko.
However, the southwest exposure offers very good conditions for the ripening of the grapes. And the steep slopes allow efficient drainage of rainwater between mid-June and mid-October. Rather important considering the average annual rainfall of between 1,100 and 1,200mm per year! And for the students this exercise of endurance is very beneficial: “they learn patience, it allows them to work with the seasons and sometimes lead them to improvisation working on sloping land, which is very stimulating“, Ikegami added.
Moreover these are excellent soils for growing vines: a mixture of graphics, basalt and Jurassic shale.

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And when they are not working in the vineyard, the students are involved in transporting the logs, from the farm to the edge of the forest. Because it is here first moistened, then stored in columns of sections aligned in nature – where it will later develop shiitake, the delicious Japanese mushroom that goes wonderfully with soups, meat and fish.

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WE : Oenotourism is highly developed on the Estate. Is it one of the key of Coco Farm & Winery’s success ?

IKEGAMI : From its origen wine has had a very strong connection with food. It must remain something fun for people coming from the vineyard and the cellar, to sit in the restaurant and to order wine. On the other hand, COCOROMI GAKUEN is a center of social well-being in which it is not common to have any fun. So it would be very nice if the many customers who visit COCOROMI GAKUEN do so not only for comfort, but also to enjoy the environment related to the wine.
And we must always keep in mind that a winery shouldn’t only be a cash machine; we must continue to improve wine quality and customer satisfaction above all. Wine tourism is an important point, but it is the general harmony reigning over the domain that is our strength.

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WE : Are you having difficulties working with mentally and intellectually challenged people ?

MACHIKO : They tend to be very honesty, and very rigid. So we always have to behave in the right way. They are fantastic people.

WE : Why do you have such a great diversity of wines in the range ?

IKEGAMI : Coco Farm & Winery always try to listen to the « voice » of the grapes – telling us which wine they want to become.
Also we don’t use cultivated yeast. We ferment only with natural ones. We venerate what the grapes want to be. The number of wines in the range is decided naturally. And we have quite a few products in the range now, mostly made from Muscat Bailey A, Norton, Tana, Riesling Lion*, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Manseng.

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WE : Which are your 2 most successful wines ?

IKEGAMI : Our sparkling wine NOVO, a pure Riesling Lion made in the traditional method champenoise.
And DAIICHI GAKUSHOU (“first movement”), a red Muscat Bailey A – which is one of typical Japanese grape varietals. We use natural yeast, no chemical treatment, just leaving the grapes to do what they want to do. No filtration and a long aging. This wine is the first trial and the first step to Japanese wine growing.

WE : Will you increase the number of students in the coming years ?

MACHIKO : We would like to, but I’m not sure that we will be able to. The current students are getting older and many of the new students have more severe problems. And it’s hard to find staff, many people don’t like this type of work which is rather hard and dirty.

WE : Any new wine coming soon in the range ?

IKEGAMI : I don’t know if we will add a new wine to our range in the near future, but it is possible. “We venerate Tradition and always try Revolution“.

Wine Explorers’cheers,
JBA

 

*Riesling Lion is a crossing between Japanese Koshu Sanjaku x Riesling. With the same parents of the variety Riesling Forte.

For more information : http://cocowine.com