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First harvest of table grapes – the ‘king of fruit’

Divine table grapes that herald the start of a brand new industry in Hawke’s Bay have been coming off vines in Maraekakaho.

It is the first harvest of Greencollar, an innovative Japanese company determined to expand the currently tiny table grape industry in New Zealand. Greencollar featured in The Profit in early 2023. The harvest follows a complex and intricate growing process.

Just one bunch per shoot is selected to stay on the vine, with the rest of the flowers carefully removed. Each of the remaining bunches is hand-thinned three times to increase fragrance and sweetness, covered by delicate paper, and further protected by a little umbrella shade. That level of care and attention reflects that for Japanese, the grape is the ‘king of fruit’.

A bunch is often beautifully gift-wrapped and presented to show gratitude, or to wish someone season’s greetings. While growing the world’s best seedless table grapes is the prime aim, the company is also focused on ensuring the company’s employees have a work-life balance that is not typical in Japan.

Hastings-based chief executive Shin Koizumi is passionate about grapes, but he is equally passionate about people having meaningful work balanced with opportunities for leisure that enhance their lives.

“For 30 years I worked in an office as a typical white-collar worker, commuted on a packed train, meeting after meeting, then I went home late at night just to sleep.  I was searching for a new lifestyle where I wasn’t white-collar, nor blue-collar. I wanted to work under the blue sky and sun, that’s when I founded green-collar.”

The passion for grapes come from time spent helping his grandparents harvest fruit in Yamanashi prefecture.

“When I was a child, I used to help harvest grapes and cherries at my grandparent’s house in Yamanashi prefecture. I remember the air and the sun, and I also remember taking fruit home with me to take to school, which made all of my school friends very happy.

“What we are doing now, growing grapes in Hastings and in rural Japan, brings together all of those elements – beautiful fruit, a wonderful lifestyle and making people happy.” At a harvest celebration at the end of March, more than 100 guests gathered at the Maraekakaho Road vineyard, including Harvest celebrations Ambassador Designate Makoto Osawa from the Japanese Embassy in New Zealand.

Mr Koizumi told guests that the siting of the business in Hawke’s Bay came about almost by a “miracle”.

“If I had not met Mr Hiroyoshi Okayama and travelled to New Zealand; and if I had not met Mr Tetsuya Higuchi when I visited New Zealand, none of this business would have started.

They are my greatest supporters which I truly appreciate.”

Following the first annual harvest the focus will then go on to preparing the two- and three-year-old vines for next summer, and planting more to grow the business across 20 hectares. It will take until about 2029 for the Hastings property to reach 100 percent growth.

The fledgling industry has traditionally played second fiddle to wine grape growing in this country, but Japanese-based Greencollar is determined to change that. Within five years, it will have greatly increased the number of hectares currently devoted to table grapes in New Zealand (about 30 hectares).

The company’s grapes will sell locally and be exported to Japan. Mr Koizumi says the Hastings venture complements an eight-hectare vineyard the company has planted in Japan, where the harvest runs from July to September.

“Hawke’s Bay has the perfect growing conditions for our grapes, with beautiful soil, long sunshine hours, and the right temperatures. It is also has the perfect lifestyle for myself, for my wife Kumiko, who has an active role in the business, my teenage daughter who is at college here in Havelock North, and our small team of dedicated staff who help us grow our premium grapes.”