One of the best things about importing wine is meeting the people who make it. Some have taken over generations-old family businesses. Others came to making wine after doing other things. In those cases, there’s usually some cognitive dissonance between the old and new careers. But even among the occasionally outrageous wine origin stories I’ve encountered, Hideyuki Miyakawa probably gets the award for the biggest swerve in career and life changes.
Hide (pronounced EE-day) as he’s called, is the owner and founder of Società Agricola Bulichella, a farm producing wine and olive oil in the Maremma in southwestern Tuscany, near the village of Suvereto. His road – and I do mean road — from Miebashi, Japan where he was born, to Tuscany, where he now lives, was both unexpected and full of surprises.
In 1960, 22-year-old Hide and a friend decided to take time off from their automobile design jobs and go on a motorcycling trip. Not just your average trip, mind you, but to ride around the world, writing articles for a Japanese publication as they went. They started in southeast Asia, riding through India and Pakistan before hitting the Middle East and then Europe. They arrived in Italy in time for the Rome Summer Olympics, and Hide wrote about the games, basing himself there for a while. Soon after, the two auto designers decided to ride up to Turin and check out the annual auto show.
The Turin Auto Show is a big deal, featuring the world’s finest in automotive design. And since it attracts people from all over the globe, the show organizers try to hire as many translators as possible. The translator for Hide was Maria Luisa (Marisa) Bassano, a young woman from Turin who was studying Japanese. Sparks evidently flew between the two, and despite the presence of combustible material, no one was harmed. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself with that…) Marisa took Hide and his friend around the show and invited them to her family’s home for lunch the next day.
Forget “La Dolce Vita” — in 1960 it was still a big deal for a proper Italian girl to bring a boy she’d just met home to meet the family, and a foreigner no less. Even with his friend along as “chaperone.” But Marisa’s family was charmed by Hide. Marisa soon left to spend a year in Japan for her studies, and her family took Hide under their wing while she was gone. In 1961, Hide went to visit Marisa in Japan, and they got engaged there, marrying in 1962.
They settled in Turin, where Hide began working with Giorgetto Giugiaro and Aldo Mantovani, both well-known Italian auto designers. In 1968, the three men founded Italdesign, a company that designed concept and production cars for many European auto companies, plus cars produced in Asia and the U.S. – including the DeLorean which was used in the “Back to the Future” movies. (Giugiaro is a giant in the world of Italian design, and also created cameras, computer prototypes, office furniture, watches, firearms, and even pasta shapes.)
And then came the wine, or at least the first step toward it. In 1983, Hide and Marisa bought a piece of farmland in the Maremma to use as a vacation property. The land had grapevines and olive trees, and Hide and Marisa quickly saw its business potential. All of the farming was organic, something unusual for the time and the region. In 1992, they began transitioning their lives to Tuscany from Turin and decided to invest more in Bulichella, as the farm came to be known. For help, they hired the Bonaguidi family, who had been in the area for many years and knew the particular soil and climate well, and they also started an agriturismo business at Bulichella, which was then a relatively new concept. In 1997 they completed construction of a new winery, producing all their wines with organic certification.
But the move to Bulichella also led to other changes. The same year the new winery opened, Marisa finalized plans for a philanthropic organization to aid orphans in the Congo. This venture combined a number of influences from her life – her training and work as a special education teacher and a passion for understanding the world and the problems of the less fortunate that her father had taught her from childhood. The experience of being in a multi-national and multi-racial family in what was a relatively homogeneous Italian society also influenced her worldview. It led her and Hide, after having four children, to adopt three more children from Africa. And this, in turn, led to the founding of the non-profit Un Sorriso per Tutti – A Smile for Everyone – that continues today.
Sadly, Marisa died in 2003, and over the next few years Hide began to turn more of Bulichella’s farm and production operations over to his daughter Shizuko. Shizuko splits her time between Bulichella and her family in Turin, and has continued to focus on wine and olive oil. In 2015 she hired a new enologist, Lucco d’Atoma, and his changes convinced Shizuko that she needed new label designs to launch a new phase for Bulichella. Before, the labels had been a simple stylized stand of cypress trees seen throughout Tuscany. Shizuko and the family chose line drawings that convey more of the particular setting and terroir of Bulichella plus a bit of family history. The new look made its debut at Vinitaly in 2018 and Shizuko said it was a truly proud moment for her and her family.
I’ve got lots of great stories about Hide and Bulichella, but the visit Cy and I made there in October 2017 stands out. Shizuko invited us to a big Sunday family lunch. Her husband came down from Turin, and her oldest brother Marco and his family drove from Milan. Hide and his second wife were there too, and a surprise guest arrived – Hide’s motorcycle-riding buddy came up from Rome. There was great food, mostly Italian but with some Japanese dishes too, in seemingly endless amounts.
As we sat looking at the beautiful scenery, conversations around the table switched from English to Italian to Japanese, sometimes all in the same sentence. It seemed unlike anything else we’d experienced. Yet at the same time, it was very much like family dinners at the homes of some of our producers in France. And family celebrations here in the U.S. It was a lovely reminder that the world isn’t such a large place – it’s only a motorcycle ride away.
With 17 hectares of vines, Bulichella grows Sangiovese, Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Montepulciano, Vermentino, and Viognier. The 2017 Tuscanio Bianco ($19), made from Vermentino and Viognier, is drinking spectacularly well right now. So is the 2016 Rubino ($21), which is 50% Sangiovese and 25% each Cab and Merlot. Shizuko told me they named it Rubino for its color. It has a similar formulation to so-called “Supertuscan” wines, although unlike most of that category, it’s aged in second- and third-use barrels. Both of these wines are IGT Costa Toscana, a designation that Hide helped to create (they were previously designated as Bianco di Toscana and Rosso di Toscana). He also pushed for creation of a DOCG Suvereto Sangiovese, and those grapes go into the 2013 Tuscanio Rosso ($35). It’s a beautiful Sangiovese, complex and not too oaky. Bulichella also produces the signature wine called Hide – obviously named for Hide himself — which is 100% Syrah, and a Bordeaux-style Cab and Merlot blend called Colledipietrerosse (Red rock hills). I brought some Hide over to sell, and after pouring it at one tasting sold my entire stock within a month. Colledipietrerosse is one I plan to bring over in the future.
I’ve been recommending Bulichella wines with recipes for a while now because they drink spectacularly well with food. This post’s recipe is another one that will work with any of the three Bulichellas in stock. Roasted Sausages and Grapes is supposedly a Tuscan recipe, since I have seen it in restaurants in Tuscany I’ll just go with that designation! Dishes with grapes are pretty common in wine-making regions of Italy, some with pork or chicken. Cooked this way, some of the grapes stay whole while some burst and release their juice into the sauce. The dish can be made as an appetizer or a main course. For an appetizer, you’ll want to slice the sausages up to use as bruschette. Mashed potatoes, polenta, or cooked farro are great bases to use if you want to serve them as an entrée. Either way, make sure you get really good Italian sausage. It’s fine to use turkey and chicken versions as long as you get ones you’d be happy to eat even without all the grapes and sauce.
I find that I’m less inclined to drink wine outside of meals these days, so if I’m opening a bottle I’ll want to use it in the recipe too, if I can. Although this recipe calls for ¼ cup of red wine, I’d go ahead and use the Tuscanio Bianco if you have it open. And if you’re drinking the Tuscanio Rosso (and I hope you will), go ahead and put ¼ cup of that in the recipe. That way you can tell your guests that you used a spectacular wine in the dish because they’re worth it!
Serves 6-8 as entrée or 12 as appetizer
2-1/2 pounds Italian sausages, (hot, sweet, or a combination) made from pork, turkey, or chicken
2-1/2 pounds seedless grapes (red or white or a combination), washed and stemmed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted plus 1 tablespoon unmelted
6 garlic cloves, peeled and cut lengthwise in quarters
¼ cup dry red wine
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
Serving suggestions: mashed potatoes, polenta, or cooked farro for entrée, toasted baguette slices for appetizer
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Prick the sausages with a fork, then put them in a single layer in a large skillet. Add enough cold water to cover the sausages and bring to just boiling over high heat. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer, partially cover the pan, and poach for 15 minutes. This will remove some of the fat and ensure that the sausages get completely cooked in the oven. Remove the sausages from the water and let them cool for a couple of minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the grapes, melted butter, garlic slivers, and some salt and pepper in a large roasting pan, preferably one that can also go on the stove top. Toss well to mix and set aside.
At this point, you’ll have to decide whether to slice the sausages or not. For an entrée you can leave them whole or cut them in half or quarters. For an appetizer, slice the sausages into about 1/2-inch thick pieces.
Add the sausages to the roasting pan, pressing the sausages down to the bottom of the pan. Put the pan in the oven and roast for about a half hour total. If you’ve sliced the sausages, you’ll want to stir the pan up a few times during cooking. If they’re whole or in pieces, turn them over once halfway through cooking. The sausages should be nicely browned, otherwise cook for a little longer.
Remove the pan from the oven, and use a slotted spoon to remove the sausages and grapes to a bowl or platter. Place the roasting pan over one or two burners on the stove and turn the burners on to medium-high heat. (If you’ve used a ceramic roasting dish, pour the liquid into a saucepan instead, scraping up as much of anything on the bottom of the roasting pan as you can.) Add the wine and balsamic vinegar and scrape up the bottom. Boil for a few minutes to reduce and then add the last tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over the sausages, and serve. Use the bread to make bruschette for appetizers. For an entrée, serve with something to help sop up the juices.