The story of Kanaye Nagasawa, a Japanese who left his country illegally at 13 to help create the California wine industry

He left his country at the age of 13 when travel was forbidden and helped create the California wine industry. But politics and prejudice condemned him to oblivion.

An hour’s drive north of San Francisco, rows of gnarled and twisted vines climb in terraces up the gently rolling hillsides of Sonoma County, California, which, along with neighboring Napa, has been one of the world’s premier wine regions 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 regions of France and Germany, curious to see if they would thrive in the sun-dappled temperate climate and rocky soil.

But California might never have gained such viticultural acclaim were it not for a little-known Japanese immigrant named Kanaye Nagasawa.

Born into a family of samurai and smuggled out of Japan’s shogunate, only to become a founding member of a utopian cult and eventually known as the “Wine King of California,” Nagasawa led a life stranger than fiction.

At the height of his influence in the early 20th century, Nagasawa operated one of the largest wineries in California, producing more than 200,000 gallons of wine a year from the vineyards of the 2,000-acre Fountaingrove estate in Santa Rosa.

The “Wine King” helped famed American botanist Luther Burbank teach horticulture, was consulted by Japanese international dignitaries and hosted inventor Thomas Edison, entrepreneur Henry Ford, mountaineer John Muir and other notable figures at his luxurious Sonoma estate.

However, Nagasawa had been all but forgotten when local vintners Walter and Marijke Byck purchased land adjacent to the original Fountaingrove estate to plant vineyards.

When they began researching the area’s history, they discovered a complicated legacy of triumph, prejudice, and loss.

“My mother wanted to reclaim the heritage of our land, and when she heard about Nagasawa, she wanted to tell this incredible story about an important historical figure in Sonoma County that many people aren’t familiar with,” Rene Byck, Marijke’s son and owner of Paradise Ridge Winery, he said.

The fire

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’s descendants, Kosuke Ijichi, Amy Mori, and their children.

The walls featured photographs of Nagasawa and his family in front of their vineyards, entertaining guests at their ornate Fountaingrove mansion and overseeing winery operations.

There were also copies of the winery’s early labels, bottles of Fountaingrove champagne, burgundy, riesling, and pinot blanc, and a large metal can of the “Pure Wine Grape Juice” that Nagasawa sold during Prohibition in the 1920s.

The exhibit’s centerpiece was a long, curved samurai sword that Nagasawa brought back from Japan when he returned for a visit as an adult.

“That sword was important to Nagasawa because when they went to America, they had to cut their hair and give up their swords,” said Mary Ijichi, Nagasawa’s great-granddaughter.

“But my father told me that her uncle said, ‘Our education will be our sword.'”

Now blackened and dented, the sword became a symbol of resilience after the Tubbs wildfire ravaged 36,800 acres in 2017, causing $8.7 billion in damage and destroying 5,682 structures, including Paradise Ridge.

Round Farmer was engulfed in flames. (GETTY IMAGES).
Round Farmer was engulfed in flames. (GETTY IMAGES).

“When we saw where the fire had gone, we knew everything was gone,” said Mary’s sister, Karen Ijichi Perkins.

Also gone was the last remaining structure from the original Fountaingrove estate: an eight-sided barn Nagasawa built in 1899, which locals affectionately called the Round Barn.

It looked like the show’s end until a team of rescuers surveyed the ruins and triumphantly pulled the sword from the ashes.

That was inspiration enough for Bycks and Nagasawa’s descendants to recreate the exhibit as completely as possible from copies of photographs and artifacts.

The sword was back on the walls almost as soon as Paradise Ridge reopened to the public in December 2019, with members of the Nagasawa family present at the unveiling.

19 samurai

Nagasawa’s extraordinary story dates back to 1864 when 19 young samurai from the Satsuma Peninsula in Kagoshima were smuggled out of fiercely isolationist Edo-era Japan on a secret mission to study science and technology in the West.

The youngest of the group, 13-year-old Hikosuke Isonaga, changed his name to Kanaye Nagasawa to protect his family, as it was illegal at the time to travel outside Japan.

And he entered the orbit of a charismatic religious leader, Thomas Lake Harris, who was recruiting followers for his version of ecstatic transcendentalism called The Brotherhood of the New Life.

Thomas Lake Harris became her father figure.
Thomas Lake Harris became her father figure.

Harris took Nagasawa and several of his fellow samurai to upstate New York, where he had 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 strip in the western part of the county in 1875.

“I think Harris was like a father to him,” Perkins said.

“He had left Japan very young and had no family in the United States, so Harris was all he had.”

Harris named the estate Fountaingrove and set about growing grapes, putting Nagasawa in charge of the operation.

Another Eden

The winery soon prospered, but the “Eden of the West,” as the commune described itself, became increasingly rampant, making headlines in San Francisco for its bacchanalian parties that eventually led to Harris’ ignominious departure.

With Harris’ departure, Nagasawa took possession of the property and quickly rose 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 together to all the vineyards and ranches advising on growing grapes and other crops,” Gaye LeBaron, co-author of the book “The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove,” told me.

“People admired him tremendously, as you can see from all the photographs of these great dinner parties he would have in his front yard.”

“He played a major role in the growth of the California wine industry, being the first to market our wine in England and Europe, and he also became an international figure,” LeBaron added, noting that Nagasawa received the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese emperor in 1915.

The end of paradise

All this ended during one of the darkest chapters in California’s history when the government seized Fountaingrove as part of the state’s discriminatory Alien Land Laws, which were instituted in 1913, expanded in the 1920s, and prohibited Asian citizens from owning land or businesses.

Nagasawa, who had no children and was never married, tried to keep the property in the family by giving it to his grandnephew Kosuke Ijichi, a native-born U.S. citizen, and his Japanese-born father, Tomoki Ijichi.

But after Nagasawa’s death in 1934, Kosuke was not of age, and the trustee took control of the property and promptly sold the land.

In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered the forcible removal of Japanese-American “enemy aliens.”

"Japanese, don't stop. This is a white male neighborhood," the sign reads. (GETTY IMAGES).
“Japanese, don’t stop. This is a white male neighborhood,” the sign reads. (GETTY IMAGES).

The Nagasawa heirs, who were still fighting the seizure of the property in court, were incarcerated in internment camps.

Like the approximately 125,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated until after the end of World War II, they lost any chance of recovering their property.

“He suffered twice at the hands of the government, so it would be understandable if he felt some bitterness,” Perkins said of her and Mary’s father, Kosuke.

“But he wanted to impart that to us.”

Indeed, growing up, the Ijichi and Mori children had little knowledge of Fountaingrove or the family legacy.

“We all knew this was 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,” Mary said.

Recovery

It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that it began to resurface, at least locally, when LeBaron began covering it for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper.

At the same time, Japanese media came to film documentaries about the collective legacy of the 19 samurai students from Kagoshima, many of whom had become prominent figures in government and industry after their return to Japan.

But the Paradise Ridge exhibit helped the Nagasawa heirs begin to tell their story again.

“Participating 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.

While the exhibit at Paradise Ridge is considerably smaller than the one before the fire, it is the only permanent exhibit in the U.S. dedicated to Nagasawa (the Sonoma County Museum, which maintains an extensive Kanagawa and Fountaingrove collection, has curated temporary exhibits).

The largest Nagasawa collection is in Japan, where a museum preserving the legacy of the 19 samurai students, the Satsuma Student Museum, opened in Kagoshima in 2014.

All the kings

Just above Paradise Ridge, Santa Rosa established the 33-acre Nagasawa Community Park in 2007.

And on Paradise Ridge, just behind the chardonnay grape plot designated as Nagasawa Vineyard, is a small tea plantation created to connect Nagasawa’s legacy with that of Wakamatsu Tea, which employed some of California’s earliest Japanese immigrants in silk and tea production.

“Much of California agriculture owes its beginning to Japanese immigrants, such as the ‘Potato King’ and the ‘Garlic King,’ as well as the ‘Wine King,'” said tea plantation founder Nao Magami.

He was referring to Japanese immigrants George Shima, whose vast potato harvests led him to become the first Japanese-American millionaire, and Kiyoshi Nagasaki, who became the country’s largest garlic producer.

“But when the Japanese were sent to camps in World War II, all those stories were lost. Now we’re trying to unite the legacies of those California pioneers.”

In 2021, the Wakamatsu group held its first tea ceremony at Paradise Ridge with members of the Nagasawa family in attendance.

But perhaps the best and simplest epitaph for this remarkable man is the one his family added to the plaque in Nagasawa Park, which describes his life in just four words, “Samurai Spirit in California.”