An hour’s drive north of San FranciscoGnarled, twisted rows of vines terraced their way up the slopes of the gently rolling hills of Sonoma County, Californiawho, together with his neighbor, Napa, was one of the main wine regions of the world for more than a century. Many of the region’s first commercial vines were planted in the mid-1850s, by European settlers experimenting with varieties from Bordeaux and other popular wine-growing regions of France y Germanycurious to see if they would thrive in the sun-dappled temperate climate and rocky soil.
But California may never have won such viticultural acclaim if it weren’t for a little-known Japanese immigrant named She married him. Born into a samurai family and smuggled out of Japan’s shogunate, only to become a member founder of a utopian cult and eventually known as the “California King of Wine”Nagasawa led a life stranger than fiction.
At the height of its influence in the early 20th century, Nagasawa operated one of the largest wineries in California, producing more than 200,000 gallons of wine per year from the vineyards of the 2,000-acre Fountaingrove estate in Santa Rosa.
The “King of Wine” helped the famous American botanist Luther Burbank to teach horticulture, was consulted by international Japanese dignitaries and received the inventor Thomas Edisonto the businessman Henry Fordto the mountaineer John Muir and other notable figures at his lavish Sonoma estate.
However, Nagasawa was all but forgotten when local vintners Walter and Marijke Byck they purchased land adjacent to the original Fountaingrove estate to plant vineyards. When they began to investigate the history of the area, they discovered a complicated legacy of triumph, loss and loss.
“My mother wanted to reclaim our land inheritance, and when she heard about Nagasawa, she wanted to tell this incredible story about an important historical figure in Sonoma County that a lot of people aren’t familiar with,” she said. Rene ByckMarijke’s son and owner of Paradise Ridge Winery.
We were in the small family winery, looking at an exhibit that the Bycks first opened in 1996 with the help of the Sonoma County Museum, and Nagasawa descendants Kosuke Ijichi, Amy Mori, and their children. On the walls were photographs of Nagasawa and his family in front of their vineyardsentertaining guests at his ornate Fountaingrove mansion and overseeing winery operations.
There were also copies of the first winery labels, Bottles of Fountaingrove champagneburgundy, riesling, and pinot blanc, and a large metal can of “Pure Wine Grape Juice,” which Nagasawa sold during the Prohibition in the 1920s.
The centerpiece of the exhibit was a long, curved samurai sword that Nagasawa brought back from Japan when he returned to visit as an adult. “That sword was important to Nagasawa because, when they left for America, they had to cut their hair and give up their swordssaid Mary Ijichi, a great-granddaughter of Nagasawa. “But my father told me that his uncle said: ‘Our education will be our sword,’” she added.
Now blackened and dented, the sword became a symbol of resilience, after the Tubbs wildfire burned 36,800 acres in 2017causing damages of US$8.7 billion and destroying 5,682 structures, including Paradise Ridge.
“When we saw where the fire went, we knew that everything was lostsaid Mary’s sister, Karen Ijichi Perkins. Also gone is the last remaining structure of the original Fountaingrove estate: a eight sided barn that Nagasawa built in 1899, affectionately referred to by locals as the Round Barn.
It certainly seemed like the end of the display, until a team of rescuers examined the ruins and triumphantly pulled the sword from the ashes. That was enough inspiration for the Bycks and Nagasawa descendants to recreate the exhibit as completely as possible, from copies of photographs and artifacts. The sword returned to the walls almost as soon as Paradise Ridge reopened to the public, in December 2019, with members of the Nagasawa family in attendance at the grand opening.
Nagasawa’s remarkable history dates back to 1864, when 19 young samurai from the Satsuma Peninsula in Kagoshima, were smuggled out of the fiercely isolationist Japan of the Edo era, on a secret mission to study science and technology in the West. The youngest of the group Hikosuke Isonagaaged 13, changed her name to Kanaye Nagasawa, to protect her family, as it was illegal to travel outside of Japan at the time.
And he entered the orbit of a charismatic religious leader named Thomas Lake Harriswho recruited followers for his version of ecstatic transcendentalism called The Brotherhood of the New Life. Harris took Nagasawa and several of his fellow samurai to upstate New York, where he founded a commune on the shores of Lake Erie.
Nagasawa came to Sonoma at age 25, when its leader decided to move the community to a 600-acre rural fringe in the west of the county in 1875. “I think Harris was like a father to him. He left Japan very young and had no family in the United States, so Harris was all he had,” Perkins said.
Harris named the estate Fountaingrove and set out to grow grapes, putting Nagasawa in charge of the operation.
The winery soon prospered, but the “Eden of the West”, as the commune described itself, became increasingly riotous, making headlines in San Francisco for its bacchanalian parties that eventually led to Harris’s ignominious departure. With Harris gone, Nagasawa took possession of the property and rose quickly, to become a respected and pivotal figure in the state’s nascent wine industry.
He also became the first Japanese citizen to live permanently in the United States.
“He and Luther Burbank used to travel to all the vineyards and ranches together, giving advice on growing grapes and other crops,” said Gaye LeBaron, co-author of the book. The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove. “People admired him very much., as you can see in all the photographs of these great dinner parties that you would have on your front lawn. He played an important role in the growth of the California wine industry, being the first to market our wine in England and Europeand he also became an international figure,” LeBaron added, noting that Nagasawa was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese emperor in 1915.
All of this came to an end during one of the darkest chapters in California history, when the government seized Fountaingrove as part of the state’s discriminatory Alien Land Lawswhich were instituted in 1913, were expanded in the 1920s and prohibited Asian citizens from owning land or businesses.
Nagasawa, who had no children and never married, tried to keep the property in the family by giving it to his great-nephew. Kosuke Ijichiborn locally and therefore a US citizen, and to his Japanese-born father, Tomoki Ijichi. But after Nagasawa’s death in 1934, Kosuke was not of legal age, and the trustee took control of the property and quickly sold the land.
In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered the forcible removal of Japanese American “enemy aliens”. The Nagasawa heirs, who were still fighting the seizure of the property in court, were imprisoned in internment camps.
Like the approximately 125,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated until after the end of the Second World War, they lost all possibility of recovering the property. “She suffered twice at the hands of the government, so it would be understandable if she felt some bitterness,” Perkins said of her and Mary’s father, Kosuke. And he noted, “But he wanted to impart that to us.”
In fact, during their childhood, the children Ijichi and Mori had little knowledge of Fountaingrove or the family legacy. “We all knew that this is where my father and aunt grew up, and we went to see it a couple of times, but we didn’t really know the history,” said Mary.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that it began to make a comeback, at least locally, when LeBaron began covering it for the newspaper. Santa Rosa Press Democrat. At the same time, Japanese media reached filming documentaries on the collective legacy of the 19 samurai students of Kagoshimamany of whom became leading figures in government and industry upon their return to Japan.
But it was the Paradise Ridge exhibit that most helped the Nagasawa heirs begin to tell their story again. “Participate and contributing photos was positive for my father; It confirmed that the Bycks were sincere and that preserving history meant something to them,” Mary said.
Although the exhibit at Paradise Ridge is considerably smaller than the one before the fire, it is the only permanent exhibit in the United States dedicated to Nagasawa. (the Sonoma County Museum, which maintains an extensive collection of Kanagawa and Fountaingrove, curated temporary exhibits). The largest collection from Nagasawa is in Japan, where a museum preserving the legacy of the 19 student samurai, the Satsuma Student Museumin Kagoshima in 2014.
Just above Paradise Ridge, the city of Santa Rosa established the Nagasawa Community Park, of 33 acres, in 2007. And on Paradise Ridge, just behind the chardonnay parcel designated as Nagasawa Vineyard, there are a small tea plantation created to connect the heritage of Nagasawa with that of Wakamatsu Tea, which employed some of California’s early Japanese immigrants in silk and tea production.
“Much of California’s agriculture owes its beginning to Japanese immigrants, such as the ‘King of the potato’ and the ‘King of the garlic’, as well as the ‘King of Wine,’” said the founder of the tea plantation, Nao Magami. He was referring to Japanese immigrants George Shimawhose vast potato harvests led him to become the first Japanese-American millionaire, and Kiyoshi Nagasaki, who became the largest garlic producer in the country.
“But when the Japanese were sent to camps in World War II, all those stories were lost. Now we try to unite the legacies of those California pioneers”, he added. In 2021, the Wakamatsu group held their first tea ceremony at Paradise Ridge with members of the Nagasawa family in attendance. But perhaps the simplest and best epitaph for this remarkable man is the one his family added to the plaque in Nagasawa Parkwho describes his life in just four words: “Samurai Spirit in California”.