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Far East meets West in the vineyard

Japanese people like Oregon wine. I know this because sales to the land of electronics and efficient cars have grown, according to reports from the Oregon Wine Board — and because six people from Tokyo and Osaka told me so.

In March, a group from Mottox, the fifth-largest wine distributor in Japan, flew in to visit Ted Gerber of Foris Vineyards in Cave Junction. The group toured the perfectly pruned pinot noir vines, checked out the wine-storage rooms with cases stacked to the ceiling and stayed the night in one of the vacation houses.

Mottox's top sales representatives have sold about 2,000 cases of Foris pinot noir as well as the Illinois Valley producer's value line, Swallow Cellars riesling and gewurztraminer, since last May. And they want more. Japan is one of the top three importers of Oregon wine, along with Canada and the United Kingdom.

At Foris, the salesmen and women politely pepper winemaker Bryan Wilson with serious questions about terroir and are treated to barrel tastes of 2011 Foris Maple Ranch Pinot Noir (made from clone 777) and 2011 Maple Ranch Pinot Noir (made from clones 113, 114 and 115) that Gerber intends to send to Japan. iPhone calculators quickly convert the vineyards' 1,600-feet elevation to 487.68 meters. "Those are excellent questions," remarks Wilson, before offering answers, which prompt noses to be buried in sales notebooks, hands continuing to log in details.

After a long day of being jostled on rocky vineyard roads, the group is hungry for dinner. They sit at long tables in Ted and Terri Gerber's living room with a dozen of the Gerbers' family and friends. "We have a short window to get them to know us as farmers and a family," says Ted Gerber, before the group flies off the next morning for Santiago.

They all dine on a salad of blood-orange vinaigrette with homemade cornmeal bread and caramelized brioche prepared by chef Kate Dwyer. While each visitor digs into a whole, fresh crab that weighs more than their allowed checked luggage, I ask them for their first impressions of Oregon.

Through an interpreter, Tatsuo Naktsuka of Toyko says he liked Oregon's craft approach to winemaking. Others nod. They appreciate that families grow the grapes and make the wine here, which is different from their expectation of American wines in which, they say, "rich people with other big businesses" pour money into a large operation run by employees. Family-run Oregon, they say, is more European.

This jars me. When I visited Japan a few years ago with a gaggle of state-of-the-art college students, I mostly remember my mouth permanently stuck in the "wow!" position because it is an automation nation.

Taxi doors close without being pushed or pulled. Public garages are a grid of rotating, stacked cubes: Pull up, get out and the car is lifted away in its compartment. Toilet lids elevate on their own; some heat up, and there's a button to make a flushing sound for self-conscious people.

And everywhere there are vending machines. On a street in Kobe, hot cappuccino with cinnamon topping is prepared in the machine while music plays and a screen shows an image of the paper cup being passed around by robotic fingers. At a machine near the 16th-century Himeji Castle, steamy cans of creamed corn pop out of the slot. In Kyoto, it's sizzling french fries and corn dogs. At the cable-car station to Arima Hot Springs, ice cream. More impressive: The machines never ate my money.

So the culture that created zipping bullet trains, push-button love hotels and the companies that make almost everything with an on-off switch — Canon, Casio, Hitachi, Konica Minolta, Mitsubishi, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Sanyo, Sharp, Sony, Toshiba — cherishes hands-on effort?

Then I wake up from the frat-house version of Japan and remember the patience, skill and steadiness required in calligraphy, ikebana and Noh theater. And I speak to Katherine Bryan, owner of Deer Creek Vineyards in Selma, whose mother is Japanese. "The value of family and the effort and care put into family businesses mean a lot to the Japanese," she says. "Japanese consumers support eco-friendly, artisan wineries."

Just as they visit secret, sandy patches in the Oregon dunes to see the explosions of matsutakes 33 days after temperatures dip below 48 degrees and applaud Frog Eyes Wasabi, the team that grows real wasabi near Tillamook, they want to study the Oregon way of making wine.

"We like to know the "… what's the word? Let me look it up," says Takako Osawa, Mottox's New World Buyer and the group's flawless interpreter, as she punches words into her iPhone translation app. "Data."

Thankfully, the Oregon Wine Board, which has been courting Japan since 2005 and hosts tastings in Tokyo, maintains a special Web page with information on Oregon's various soils, geography and farming practices at http://japan.oregonwine.org. Pull out your electronic translator and check it out.

EVENT: Herb Quady is one of my favorite winemakers. He works at Troon Vineyard and his own Quady North, which has an inviting tasting room at the entrance to downtown Jacksonville. He and his wife, Meloney, also find the time to dine with their fans, always at the most tasteful restaurants. Check out www.quadynorth.com for events like the free, second-Friday-of-the-month food pairing with local farmers and chefs, or try to nab a seat at Elements Tapas Bar and Lounge May 21 to taste Quady North's spring releases: 2011 Pistoleta blend (marsanne, roussanne and viognier) ($19) and two 2009 syrahs. Also served that night will be Quady Winery's Essensia orange muscat ($21) from the family's venerable winery in Madera, Calif. Call 541-702-2123 for more information.

TASTED: The Southern Oregon Winery Association held its annual spring tasting at Rogue Valley Country Club a few weeks ago, and 25 wineries poured tastes from their new releases. A few of the most memorable were the whites: 2010 Pebblestone Viognier ($19), 2010 RoxyAnn Pinot Gris ($16.50) and 2010 Serra Vineyards Chardonnay ($24).

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email jeastman@mailtribune.com.