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Country Gentleman: Sommeliers, panniers, and wine

The horse Yukimaru pulls a plough through a vineyard. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

Nowadays, if you go into a restaurant and order wine, an elegant waiter or waitress will appear at your table to take your order and give advice. They usually wear a small golden badge depicting a bunch of grapes on their collar. This is the sign of a sommelier, a highly qualified wine expert.

A Japanese sommelier from our neighboring winery of St. Cousair, who studied in France, told me that the origin of the word came from a pack animal driver, and that this evolved into the wine steward in charge of choosing and transporting wines and other supplies to be carried to and from the estates of French aristocrats when they visited Paris. As the wines and delicate foodstuffs had to be carried for days, usually in "pannier" bags on horses, the sommelier had to know which wine was to be served in its best condition throughout the journey.

Very few, if any, modern sommeliers know anything about packhorses or panniers, but horses and wine have connections that go way back in history.

My friend Kuze Ryozo and his wife Mayumi originally came to this region of northern Nagano to operate a ski lodge. Mayumi made her specialty, apple jam, and from this humble beginning the St. Cousair Company became an international brand name, specializing in gourmet foods, sparkling cidre, wine, and apple brandy.

Within the past few years, St. Cousair began pioneering a new vineyard here in Shinanomachi, a short walk from my house. Climate change and a decrease in snow cover have made this feasible. They are now planting grapevines that have been grafted onto the stock of wild mountain grapes (yama budo), which is resistant to both cold and disease.

Increasingly in France, Italy and other wine producing companies, and especially in the smaller, family-run wineries with exclusive custom wines, vintners are going back to the use of horses to plow, harrow and rake between the rows of grapevines and to pull carts to load picked grapes during harvest time. Unlike machinery, horses do not compact the soil when they work. Neither do they make vibrations that are harmful to delicate roots. Tending the soil with horses makes for improved soil ventilation and absorption of water. Other benefits come from the ability of earthworms to come to the surface and pull down vegetable matter that they digest, ejecting fine new soil from their guts. Another aspect is the aesthetic side -- who would come and take photographs of a tractor? People love to see horses at work. We have seen this time and time again with our own horses when working in the woods pulling out logs.

A few years ago I submitted a proposal to our friends at St. Cousair that we experiment in using our two horses to cultivate between their rows of vines. With the new Shinanomachi vineyard being so close, the horses can walk to work. Yukimaru and Chachamaru are basically of "dosanko" Hokkaido stock, with body weights of 400 or so kilos, easily big enough to pull a plough or a cultivator.

This past May we conducted a demonstration for staff, invited guests and the media, and the two horses did a fine job. They can easily pull a plough at an adult human's walking speed. To anybody who would say that it is cruel to make horses work, I would answer that horses need exercise, and trained horses enjoy working with people. They like attention, and they love being given special treats. Mind you, we'll have to take great care that they don't develop a taste for fresh, green vine leaves!

Results from wineries using horses indicate that both the quantity and quality of the grapes improves, and that horses have a dramatic effect on wine tourism. Tourists visiting wineries taste the wines and usually go home with a bottle or two.

We look forward to working with St. Cousair, and as both Kuze-san and myself are originally pioneers and formerly outsiders, we want to do all we can to enhance the quality of life and environment of our adopted homes.

May we raise a glass of cheer to all who love wine and horses!

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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