The first vintage of “Vin de Ollage,” a symbol of recovery from the 2011 disaster, released by the Fukushima Ouse Winery in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture (Hirokazu Misaki)

KORIYAMA, Fukushima Prefecture--Toshikazu Hashimoto was as pleased as punch as bottles of wine from his harvest were uncorked and served to more than 100 guests for a celebratory toast.

To Hashimoto and many others, the first wine made in Koriyama entirely from grapes grown in the city represents a sure sign of hope for Fukushima Prefecture, whose farmers are suffering from lingering negative publicity surrounding the nuclear disaster eight years ago.

“It has been three years since we first planted wine grapes. The day has finally come,” Hashimoto, 74, said on behalf of local wine grape growers at an event to unveil the wine in Koriyama on March 5.

The Fukushima Ouse Winery, with input from Hashimoto and other grape growers, named the wine “Vin de Ollage,” which is derived from the local dialect word “o-ra-ge,” meaning “my home.”

The name reflects the hope that residents of Fukushima Prefecture, still reeling from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster that triggered a catastrophe at the Fukukshima No. 1 nuclear power plant, will recommend the wine with confidence.

Prior to the triple meltdown at the nuclear plant, Fukushima Prefecture was one of the nation’s leading producers of fruit, particularly peaches, pears and apples.

But the events of 2011 dealt a devastating blow to the local economy, as consumers worried about the effects of radiation stopped purchasing agricultural and marine products from Fukushima Prefecture.

Hashimoto’s business was no exception. His orchard in Koriyama’s Mihotamachi district experienced a dramatic decrease in visitors for pick-your-own grapes, forcing him to consider closing some parts of his farm.

Then, an offer came. “We want you to grow grapes for wine.”

The overture was from the Fukushima Winery Project, initiated by Mitsubishi Corp. Disaster Relief Foundation in conjunction with the city of Koriyama in April 2015 to support affected fruit farmers trying to overcome adversity.

The project also aimed at establishing a new agricultural business model that manages an entire operation starting from the production of raw materials to processing to sales and distribution in an integrated fashion to improve the value of local brands and agricultural products.

Later that year, the project opened a winery in Ouse, an area surrounded by mountains and located between JR Koriyama Station and Lake Inawashiroko.

The winery began producing cider and liquors using apples and pears harvested in Fukushima Prefecture.

But the most anticipated project was to create a wine made in Koriyama, which the team considered a “symbol of recovery.”

Hashimoto and 15 others joined the ambitious project and started growing wine grapes.

It was an uncharted territory for Hashimoto, who had focused for 45 years on growing grapes to be consumed fresh. But he decided to rise to the challenge in light of the battering local agriculture had faced.

“I have to do something new,” he thought.

Given that European grape saplings for wine are more vulnerable to disease than those for grapes to be consumed fresh, Hashimoto took extra care with his vineyards, paying strict attention to rainfall and pruning.

In September 2018, three years after he planted the first vine, Hashimoto harvested about three tons of wine grapes.

Among the 16 participating growers, six, including Hashimoto, successfully had a vintage, and collected about six tons of grapes in total.

The fermentation process finished in November, and the winemakers spent a month or so to determine the blending.

In late December, Hashimoto tasted the very first red wine produced in Koriyama. He was impressed with the mellow aroma and thought its tartness and sourness were well-balanced.

“Tasty. This will do it!” Hashimoto was convinced.

The team was determined that the wine label should represent Koriyama as well. A line drawn at the center of the label symbolizes Asaka Sosui, a waterway that brings water from Inawashiroko to Koriyama and is designated by the Agency for Cultural Affairs as having Japan Heritage status.

The label also depicts six hoes interlaced to resemble a windmill, signifying a tailwind to promote new agriculture, as a hoe symbolizes early pioneers and farmers.

The first vintage produced 3,500 bottles of Rose that sell for 2,500 yen ($22.72) a bottle, including tax, and 600 bottles each for red and white, which are available for 2,700 yen a pop, including tax. They were all released March 10, the eve of the eighth anniversary of the triple disaster.

Bottles of Rose are sold at department and retail stores in Koriyama, including a shop at JR Koriyama Station. But the red and white wine are only available at the winery’s store.

At the March 5 uncorking event, grape growers and supporters of the winery gathered to raise a toast for the new beginning.

Hiroshi Sasaki, 47, the head vintner at the winery, noted that the wine making started from scratch after the disaster.

"Many people have put all their creative and laborious efforts into this wine, which has bottled our hope for recovery,” he said. “I want to keep our hope alive and continue to make this wine with farmers. I hope that as many people as possible will drink it.”

Hashimoto echoed the sentiment and promised the assembled revelers, “We, the growers, will keep working hard to grow very good grapes and produce quality wine at the winery.”