Preserving Honor

June 1, 2018 • Feature, Homepage Feature, In-depth

Zinfandel grapes seen in the Mikami Vineyards in October 2012. (Photo: Jason Mikami)

For Jason Mikami, his Mikami Vineyards produces more than award-winning wines — it’s all about carrying on a family legacy.

By Kristen Taketa, Contributor

For years, Jim Mikami cared for each of the more than 5,000 grapevines in his Northern California vineyard himself.

He tractored the land. He irrigated each row. He pruned every vine. If Mikami hadn’t suffered a fall from a ladder that paralyzed his body, he may well have continued single-handedly cultivating his vineyard into his 80s.

Jason Mikami, circa 2008 (Photo: Jason Mikami)

“With the exception of harvest, everything was done with his bare hands,” said Jason Mikami, Jim Mikami’s son. “I think he was just really attached to the fact that he could produce something and see the fruits of his labors, literally. I think that’s what kept him going.”

It’s this attitude, which echoes gaman, or persevering through the seemingly unbearable, and shōganai, or enduring with dignity, that underlies not just the history of Mikami Vineyards but also of the Japanese American Mikami family. It’s what helped get them through discrimination and violence in World War II, and it’s what helped build their strong, award-winning vineyard.

Unlike his father and his grandfather, Jason Mikami doesn’t need the vineyard to make a living — he’s worked with computers and technology since the rise of the dot-com movement, and he now manages an engineering team at Uber. However, he also grows grapes and makes wine to carry on a family legacy. He does so to preserve what he calls “family honor.”

“The real reason for doing this is really about family,” Jason Mikami said. “It’s more of a labor of love and doing something that ties back to my dad and my grandfather.”

The Mikami family first set its roots in America in 1896, when Jason’s grandfather moved to the U.S. from Japan and settled in the farming town of Lodi in Northern California. Like other immigrants, he came here looking for a better life.

The elder Mikami knew nothing about grape-growing, but he took it up because grapes were the hottest crop to grow in Lodi. About 14 years later, Jason’s father, Jim, was born, destined to follow in his father’s footsteps and take up grape farming.

Then, WWII arrived at their doorstep. He didn’t own any land by that time, but Jason’s grandfather had just bought a brand-new car. The family hadn’t kept the car a month before they were told to abandon it and nearly all their other possessions and move to an internment camp, located 2,000 miles away in Rohwer, Ark. A local California family let them and other Japanese American families store some of their belongings in a barn, so they wouldn’t have to give up everything.

Jason Mikami’s mother, Aiko (Photo: Jason Mikami)

Jason’s mother, Aiko Mikami, meanwhile, was becoming a victim of the war on the opposite side of the world. Aiko Mikami was living in Hiroshima when, in 1945, Americans dropped an atomic bomb on the city. The force of it burned her and buried her in debris. She made it out alive, but her brother did not.

After the war, Jim Mikami returned to Lodi and lived with a few other families in the barn of the local family that had held on to their leftover belongings.

The Mikamis bought their own vineyard for the first time in the late 1940s, a 30-acre property that Jason Mikami’s uncle’s family currently owns.

In 1958, Jim Mikami married Aiko through an arranged marriage. She joined the Mikami family in Lodi, which was a small and rural town compared to her bustling home city of Hiroshima. The fact that she was moving to a country that had killed her brother and scarred her body did not fail to pain her and her family, Jason Mikami said.

But she was determined to bring to America her passion for the Japanese arts, including tea ceremonies, the shamisen and ikebana, Jason Mikami said. Even though Lodi turned out to be much smaller than she thought, Aiko Mikami did end up teaching many people in the Central Valley, even helping to found a tea ceremony group in San Francisco, Jason Mikami said. In that way, she, too, like her husband, embraced the spirit of shōganai.

Jim Mikami bought the current family vineyard in the 1960s, shortly after marrying Aiko. The vineyard is about 15 acres and was first built in 1902.

When Jim Mikami took over the small farm, only two varieties of grapes were already growing there — about one-third were Zinfandel wine grapes, and two-thirds were the then-Lodi-famous Tokay table grape.

Tokays were a Lodi specialty. They contained seeds, had crisp reddish-yellow skin, had “full, fruity flavor” and were one of Lodi’s most popular grapes near the early 20th century, according to the Lodi News-Sentinel.

But over time, seedless grapes superseded Tokays in popularity. Tokays became hard to find in Lodi because customers just didn’t want them anymore, according to the News-Sentinel.

The Mikami family barely made any money with Tokays, Jason Mikami said. Jim Mikami was one of the few Lodi growers to hold on to Tokays. He never swapped Tokays out himself, partly because it would’ve been financially difficult for him to do so, Jason Mikami said.

Jim Mikami, paralyzed by his fall from the ladder, grew weaker in health into his 80s. While he did, the vineyard he had toiled over and cultivated with his own hands fell into disarray. The vineyard had become a wild grassland of yellow brush that had swallowed the vines and rows.

Around the time Jim Mikami passed away in 2005, it was up to his son, Jason, to decide what to do with the vineyard.

Jason Mikami cleared away the brush, carved out neat rows, dug a sustainable irrigation system and planted young, new vines. He replaced all the Tokay grapevines with Zinfandels, a highly popular California grape. He dedicated a small block of the vineyard to making wine.

The decision to only grow one grape variety at first was intentional.

“The concentration and the flavor profiles of the wine will be somewhat diluted if you’re trying to produce too many grapes,” Jason Mikami said. “We try to manage the fruit load and maintain a good balance between fruit and vine health.”

Here’s how Jason Mikami explains the philosophy behind the type of wine his vineyard aims to produce:

“Lodi is oftentimes known for ‘big wines,’ and what ‘big wines’ means is very fruit-forward, jammy, pretty high in alcohol, packs a big punch in your mouth, which some people do like … . But what we try and produce is something more balanced, meaning that it has some acidity to it, so that when you’re drinking, you’re not overwhelmed by alcohol but sort of have a more lively taste through the acidity. You’re not trying to overwhelm the senses.”

Jason Mikami also said that, unlike some other wineries, he avoids trying to produce tastes with heavy oak or smoky undertones.

“We farm in a completely sustainable, biodynamic fashion, where you look to sustain the vineyard forever,” he said.

That means growing a very small number of varieties of grapes — while the vineyard has specialized in Zinfandel the past few years, Jason Mikami also has a dry rosé and is debuting a petite sirah later this year. The vineyard is small, producing only about 300 cases.

Sustainable practices also means limiting the use of pesticides and the number of times a field is tractored. Jason Mikami avoids tractoring too much because it either creates dust and scatters dirt, or it compacts the soil.

He also uses French oak barrels to age the wine. “Everything is done in a very much artisanal winemaking fashion,” he said.

The Zinfandel 2015 captured a gold medal in the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

The Mikami Vineyards’ most recent Zinfandel, a 2015 wine, was aged in these barrels for about 20 months. What resulted was a wine with a “deep, dark-red color with a black-cherry red hue,” “aromas of red and black fruit” and “wild bramble, roasted coffee and subtle vanilla notes,” as it is described on the vineyard’s website. “On the palate, the wine is soft, but held up with an upright tannic structure, and delivering flavors of blackberries, cocoa and dried herbs.”

The Zinfandel 2015 was award-winning, capturing a gold medal in the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Like every other Zinfandel that Mikami Vineyards has produced, the 2015 wine sold out.

How did he learn all this about growing grapes and winemaking?

Jason Mikami was not only taught by his father, but he also took viticulture courses at the University of California, Davis. He’s been working with wine for 13 years.

For the vineyard’s success, Jason Mikami also credits his winemaker, Kian Tavakoli, who also studied at Davis and has worked at prestigious Napa Valley wineries Opus One and Clos du Val.

As an award-winning winemaker, graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and successful technology start-up leader, Jason Mikami’s life looks starkly different from that of his parents. But he still makes sure he keeps his Japanese American heritage close.

He has taught his 10-year-old daughter a lot about the history of her family, including her grandparents’ experiences during WWII. He also takes her to Japanese language school on the weekends, and she plays basketball in a Japanese American league. Jason Mikami also has been active in his local JACL chapter, including attending fundraisers and other events.

“I really do think the Japanese American community is a dwindling community in terms of just pure numbers. I have a strong desire to continue to talk about our history,” he said. “As I’m getting older now, there is a lot to be said about wanting to do more for your community.”

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