In vino veritas
As any wine-sipping oenophile knows, the quality of a wine is influenced, among other things, by the geography, geology and climate of the specific vineyard in which the grapes are grown. The French even have a word for it—terroir—which can be loosely translated as “a sense of place.”
For Jason Mikami (B.A.’92 East Asian Languages, B.S.’98 EECS), whose boutique winery, Mikami Vineyards, produces a handcrafted Zinfandel wine using grapes from his family’s estate in Lodi, California, the terroir of the vineyard is not only evident in his wines, but also in his own journey as a winemaker.
Since the first vines were planted there in the 1800s, Lodi, with its sandy soil and cool breezes, has flourished as a wine-growing region in California’s Central Valley. Mikami’s grandfather, a Japanese immigrant, settled in Lodi in 1895 to work as a laborer in the thriving vineyards. As he toiled among the Zinfandel and Flame Tokay grapes, he passed on his knowledge to his son, who joined him in the grape-growing tradition.
But as the events of World War II unfolded, the family’s life and livelihood were turned upside down. In 1942, the Mikami family was forced to relocate to an internment camp in Rowher, Arkansas, where most of the family stayed for the remainder of the war.
In 1945, the Mikami family returned to Lodi to rebuild their life. At that time, Mikami’s grandfather purchased a small plot from a previous employer and began growing grapes on his own land.
The family worked the land together until 1963, when Mikami’s father purchased a nearby vineyard. The 15-acre vineyard primarily grew table grapes, with only one-third of the vines producing Zinfandel. His father managed the estate almost entirely by hand, pruning and tending to nearly every vine himself.
Mikami was born and raised on the vineyard, where he, too, learned the finer details of grape growing by watching his dad. And while that early experience left him with mixed feelings about the vineyard, “I learned from an early age that hard work and persistence are critical to success,” he says.
Eventually, he left home for Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in East Asian languages. After a stint in technology, he completed an M.B.A. at UC Davis, and then re-enrolled at Berkeley, earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS).
“EECS was an opportunity for me to complete the overall technology foundation I sought,” he says. “Having a Cal Engineering degree, I felt I could take on almost any high-tech challenge.”
After graduating, he returned to the technology industry, working in interactive television. But as his career took off, things were slowing down at the vineyard. The demand for table grapes had been steadily decreasing, and his father’s health had been declining.
In 2005, the family decided to completely renovate the vineyard and grow 100 percent Zinfandel grapes. When his father passed away before the renovation was completed, Mikami began to oversee the vineyard’s operations.
“It was important for me to carry on the grape-growing tradition,” he recalls. “It was a family honor decision. The whole notion of selling the land that my father worked hard to buy and establish was something we didn’t want to entertain.”
Instead of selling the grapes, Mikami hired a vineyard manager and a winemaker to help produce a handcrafted wine. Mikami Vineyards launched its inaugural vintage in 2008, producing 50 cases of Zinfandel sourced completely from 100 vines in the estate vineyard. The wine won a silver medal at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, as well as awards from international wine competitions in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The wines quickly found a following. Mikami Vineyards’ 2009 vintage sold out before the wine was even bottled. Responding to the demand, they will produce around 100 cases of the 2010 and 2011 vintages.
Kian Tavakoli, the vineyard’s winemaker, says that Mikami’s passion for winemaking is evident in the final product. “Jason has been very receptive to taking the necessary steps both in the vineyard and in the winery to producing a world class Zinfandel,” he says. “With three vintages under his belt, I would say that he is well on his way to doing just that.”
Mikami brings the discipline and logic of engineering to his winemaking venture but has no plans to quit his day job as vice president of operations at SugarSync, a cloud computing company. He aims to keep winemaking a small endeavor—growing the business slowly with an emphasis on quality—and build on the hard work of past generations.
“Really, it’s about family and the hope to continue the family tradition,” he says.