The 90-minute drive from Okayama airport to the small town of Tetta in southern Japan takes in beautiful mountain scenery and old villages set on the wide Takahashi River. The last ten minutes are on a narrow road that winds uphill through dense forest and finally vineyards, which are sheltered from the area’s generous rainfall by heavy-duty plastic domes stretched over rounded metal frames. A distinctly modern concrete structure growing out of a small hill disturbs the agrarian landscape and marks the end of the journey.

Coming from a construction background, Ryuta Takahashi had a knowledge of the lime-heavy soil in the region. This was what prompted him to make wine. ‘I used to play with lime as a child and never realized it was something of any value,’ he says as he shows me around Domaine Tetta. Takahashi started the winery in 2009, when he bought a number of local vineyards. Most of the grapes were of a variety best suited for eating fresh, but there were a few rows of wine grapes and Takahashi quickly planted many more. He is now growing six varieties on a modest six hectares surrounding the winery building, which was completed in September 2016. In the interval, he collaborated with nearby wineries to process his fruit, but he is now filling all Domaine Tetta’s bottles at his own facilities.

Throughout Japan, more and increasingly high quality wine is being made, though mostly in the Hokkaido, Yamanashi and Nagano regions. So when Takahashi decided to help revitalise his local community, he thought wine would be a good place to start. He turned to star designer Masamichi Katayama, principal of design firm Wonderwall, to help him create a winery that would also function as a place to enjoy and talk about wine. Katayama’s prime concern was to make the space functional. ‘There are no conspicuous or unnecessary design elements in the building,’ says the designer, also originally from Okayama. ‘I put the necessary functions at the necessary locations, and made use of the sloping site by putting the main entrance at the top layer of the building and the entrance to the fields at the bottom.’

The café looks out over the vineyards. Photography: Senichiro Nogami

The main entrance opens up to a spacious café area, where wine can be sampled and bought. This floor also offers unrestricted views of the production space on the lower levels via a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window, while a small terrace overlooks the adjacent vineyards. A large door on a small, mid-level platform allows for the grapes to be brought directly to the press, where they are crushed. In a process known as gravity flow, the juice runs down through pipes into fermentation tanks on the lower level, half of which is occupied by a large climate-controlled wine cellar. This is where the filled bottles are stored in readiness for shipment. The whole set-up is remarkably simple and the architecture only helps to amplify this.

To avoid the space being too mundane, Katayama introduced Takahashi to businessman Yasuharu Ishikawa, another Okayama local and a prominent art collector. Ishikawa arranged for the donation of a bright yellow and green door, The No, by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone and a series of neon signs, Paris Bar, by Douglas Gordon and Jonathan Monk. The signs light up the production hall, while Rondinone’s door is on display at one end of the wine cellar.

Domaine Tetta’s capacity is around 50,000 bottles a year, but production is currently running at about a third of that. The bottles are branded with witty labels designed by Tokyo’s Naomi Hirabayashi, known for her simple graphic style. The labels feature illustrations of some of the winery’s key staff members, as well as a small panda statue that was found when construction started. The panda now greets visitors as they approach the winery.

Tetta’s first vintage, released last year, features as many as 16 varieties. It’s a large number for such a small operation, but, as Takahashi points out, the winery is so new that he is still experimenting with different grapes, production and ageing methods to establish what works best. He is getting closer to his dream of creating a culture of high-quality, locally produced wine in this corner of Japan. 

As originally featured in the October 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*223)