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Exec Balances Careers with Vineyard, Uber

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Jason Mikami and Mitzi Onizuka at the San Francisco Wine Competition.

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Jason Mikami is a modern-day Renaissance man who is proving that it’s possible work for a major corporation while also tending to his family’s 123-year-old enterprise.

Mikami, 48, is somewhat of an enigma. He currently serves as head of efficiency, site reliability engineering, for global transportation giant Uber, and holds degrees in computer science, electrical engineering, and Asian languages from UC Berkeley and an MBA from the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

As accomplishments go, that would be more than sufficient for most people. But Mikami had another calling — a winery with roots that reach back to 1896 when his grandfather Teruichi Mikami emigrated as a teenager from Hiroshima and landed in Northern California.

Teruichi knew little about grape-growing but soon learned that Lodi’s mild climate and low humidity made the area ideal for producing high-quality fruit. Eventually he married, and he and his wife, the former Mitsuyo Shintaku, settled in Lodi and had six children.

Jim Mikami at Rohwer, Ark.

On Dec. 7, 1941, everything changed. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered World War II. Nearly 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them American-born citizens, suddenly came under suspicion and were removed from the West Coast. The Mikami family was among them. They were forced to abandon their home and business and were shipped off to an American concentration camp in Rohwer, Arkansas.

When the war ended in 1945, the Mikami family returned to Lodi but had to live in a friend’s barn while they tried to rebuild their former lives. By the late 1940s, Teruichi was able to buy a 30-acre property and re-establish the family business, supplying premium grapes to California wineries.

In 1958, Teruichi’s eldest son Matsuto “Jim” Mikami was ready start his own family. An arranged marriage led him to a young woman, Aiko Ninomiya, a hibakusha who had survived the bombing of Hiroshima. A few years later, Jim purchased the property where the Mikami Vineyards stand today.

Jim cared for the vineyards almost singlehandedly while instilling in Jason his values — hard work, passion, and perseverance. As Jason grew into adulthood, he turned his attention to technology and pursued higher education. Sadly, Jim’s health began to fail, compelling Jason to gradually take over the vineyards. Jim passed away in 2005 at the age of 84.

Jason Mikami at Mikami Vineyards in Lodi. The winery is known for its Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.

In 2004, Jason made the bold move to transition from growing premium grapes to producing fine wines. To help with the new direction, he hired experienced winemaker Kian Tavakoli, who had been part of Napa Valley’s two most respected wineries: Opus One and Clos du Val.

Mikami wines are made in small batches (about 400 bottles per year per wine) to maintain high quality. The wines can only be purchased directly from Mikami Vineyards through their website, https://mikamivineyards.com/. Earlier this year, Jason announced the release of the Mikami 2016 Petite Sirah, which joins the vineyards’ Zinfandel and Rosé.

Mikami Vineyards has produced multiple award-winning, handcrafted wines with fruit sourced from their sustainably farmed vineyards. The Mikami Zinfandel was named Double Gold winner in 2013 and 2014, and Gold winner in 2012 and 2015 at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

“I am humbled to have received these awards,” comments Jason, adding that his wife and business partner Mitzi Onizuka Mikami has played a key role in the vineyards’ success. Together with their daughter Kate, 11, the Mikami enterprise continues to be a family affair.

Jason advises young entrepreneurs: “Be willing to wear different hats. You’ve got to be thinking about the accounting, the legal aspects. How am I going to do the selling of this product?

“Make sure you have some vision of how you’re going to reach your goals,” he emphasizes.

Behind the Mikami label, there exists a family saga that is rich with history worthy of being carried forward into the next generations. For Jason, the goal has always been to become the embodiment of the principles passed down from his grandfather to his father to him — hard work, passion, perseverance.

Learn more about Jason’s rise in the technology field at https://www.zentokufoundation.org/).

 

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