by Anne Pinckard
When I first heard that my uncle, who lives in Chiba-ken, was working in the wine business I was a bit dubious.
Hmmm.... Wine? In Japan?
I had good reason to be skeptical. In 1997, during my grand tour of northern Japan, a family friend from Akita-ken took me to a local winery for a tasting. I could barely swallow the sip that I took. It was sharp and acrid with a bouquet of kerosene. It tasted as if someone had simply made a cocktail by mixing rubbing alcohol and grape juice.
My curiousity was awakened. How could people want to drink what I had? I asked my uncle to elaborate. I told him I had tried Japanese wine, and indicated my surprise that more wineries were being established.
His business, started in 1998, is still young. He works to import wine manufacturing equipment into Japan for the native wineries. It was rough getting started, he related, but recently he has been hard-pressed to meet up with the current demand for wine equipment and knowledge. Japan is thirsty for the secrets from estabished European wine makers. In the past year alone, he has traveled to Napa, Italy, France, and Germany, in search of the best equipment and techniques for his Japanese customers. He asked me eagerly if I knew anybody in the enology department at U.C. Davis. When I said no, sorry, he was disappointed. "But I really need to know someone there," he pleaded. Already, he was making plans to return to Italty to check out a state-of-the-art bottling machine. "Do you speak Italian?" he asked hopefully.
Japan's burgeoning wine industry seems counterintuitive for a number of reasons. First, vinyards are very space intensive. Cultivation of this luxury item will take away valuable land that might be used for growing more substantial food products. Secondly, wine grapes typically prefer a temperate climate and have a number of problems associated with growing in a semi-tropical one. In Europe and the United States, growing wine grapes is frequently a delicate balance between the weather and the maturity of the grape. An unsuitable climate will yield inferior grapes that may be prone to more molds and rots. he wine market is competitive, dominated by France, Italy, and California, supported by Australia, South America, and Africa. Is there a niche for a new wine producer, one not associated with a tradition of wine making?
But practical considerations aside, the concept of a wine industry and wine appreciation seems incongruous to Japan's culture. Wine (from grapes, that is) developed as a Western phenomenon, and over the centuries, the food culture has evolved to be complemented with grape-derived wine. What better way to wash down a cheese plate of Selles Sur Cher, Camembert du Normandie and Formes Sauterne but a with big bold bottle of wine? Or what accompanies a classic italian pasta better than a rich Chianti?
Asian food has long confounded sommeliers who try to pair food and wine. However, during the Asian fusion craze of the 1990's, chefs began to be more creative and adventurous in their pairing. In the bustling pan-asian San Francisco, Asian-inspired restaurants such as Betel Nut offer elaborate wine lists. The Slanted Door, a popular, upscale vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, states: "Believe it or not, wine, not beer, is ideal with Vietnamese food. You have to throw traditional Mediterranean wine pairing ideas out the window. Ingredients such as nuoc mam (fish sauce), peanut sauce, and caramel sauces require a different approach."
The problem is that the sour, salty, and spicy flavors of many Asian dishes, particulariy from the Southeast, take the grape right out of the wine. Karen McNeil-Fife, wine reporter of Sunset magazine, has played with Asian food and wine pairing. She shares the results of her experimentation in the June 2000 The Wine Guide section of Sunset Magazine. Strong asian flavors "rob [the wines] of their fruity characteristics, and make them taste bitter, oaky, or two high in alcohol." The remedy is to choose fruity, sweet wines, low in tannic acid. Rieslings and Gewürztraminers are an obvious and easy choice, since their sweetness and lightness are compatable with a variety of complex flavors. Japanese cuisine, which has flavors that are more subtle, are more difficult to pair. Most wines would drown out the deilcate flavors of, say sushi or miso soup, while the German ones would be too cloying and sweet. Who should we turn to, but , the king of all drinks, champagne? Fresh sushi, seasoned gently with soy sauce and wasabi, is a perfect pair with an extra dry bubbly, suggests Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible.
My curiousity about Japanese wine deepened. If my uncle's business was booming, then enough new wineries are being started or old ones expanded. But I was confounded. I knew how delicious Japanese food is. I could not believe that the industry could thrive on the unpalatable japanese wine I'd tasted. After all don't the Japanese have some of the most discerning tastes? What of o-toro and kobe beef? And maybe Westerners haven't developed a palate for it, but sake is an incredibly subtle, sophisticated, and refined drink. There are sake connoisseurs in Japan just as there are wine connoisseurs in the western world. There's no doubt that many Japanese people have a passion for fine drink.
In fact, they've taken to wine with a passion - in 1995, Shinya Tasaki became the first Japanese sommelier to win the coveted title of "Grand Sommelier Du Monde." The Japan Sommelier Association now has some 18,000 registered sommeliers (according to Wine Access Magazine, courtesy of Canada On-Line Explorer (Canoe) news and information network) Many marketers mark this achievement as the beginning of the increase in wine consumption. Around that time, the Tokyo Wine Society was established. The society holds wine tastings every month, which are open to the public. Half the participants are foreigners, and it is an opportunity for people to develop their palates and share their thoughts about wine and food. As always, eating is a cultural matter. With wine, it is a cross-cultural one.
The Tokyo Wine Society tastings are probably a fairly upper-crust affair, however. At 11000 to 13000 yen per person, I imagine the average Japanese worker couldn't afford to attend regularily. It wasn't until 1997 that wine gained wider popularity. According to the 1997 CNN article Japanese wine drinkers seeing red by May Lee, that year marked a surging increase in per capita wine consumption in Japan, both of domestic and foreign origin. The author of the article attributes the increase in wine sales to a sudden and massive increase in cheap but good wine, appealing to a larger market. In 2001, an informal survey conducted by Japan-Guide evidenced the fact that wine had become more popular in Japan than even sake, Japan's native rice wine.
It turns out that women are the ones who are drinking most of the wine. In the same survey , 41% of the female participants indicated that they drank wine regularly. Orlando Wyndham, an Australian winery, attributes their profitable Japan exports to "fashion-conscious young Japanese women" (from Business Asia magazine:Wine Travelling Well Japanese Market"). No longer content in their traditional roles as dutiful wife or daughter, women have begun to feel the power of their yen. "Japanese women increasingly are spending money on themselves - buying not just the predictable cosmetics and clothes, but also cars, computers and condominiums," reports Mutsuko Murakami in the article "It's my party and I'll buy if I want to" published by Asia Weekly. This is the new feminist and consumerist movement in Japan. Women are using their money on themselves, forcing the male-oriented markets to adapt and reflect their needs and desires. It is an exciting time of change, as women use their yen to buy recognition as a powerful market force. There is an established "boy's club" for men to drink sake and beer with coworkers. Unable or unwilling to participate in that culture, Japanese women may be reaching for wine to create a feminine drinking culture of their own.
And who should come dashing onto the scene but the charming Joe Satake? Joe Satake is the hero of the popular manga series "Somerie". No ordinary sommelier,in a single episode, Joe will out-taste a French master of wine, solve a murder mystery, and make the ladies swoon. Joe Satake is part of the new culture that has arisen around wine, and clearly appeals to young women who can fantasize about the romantic and exciting life that he leads. He is at once sophisticated, heroic, and sensitive.
Despite the evidence of a thriving market in Japan, wine exporters remained sketpical. They were concerned that the popularity of wine would go the "way of the tiramisu". This ill fated dessert suddenly surged in popularity when in 1990 it was featured in Hanako, an influential women's magazine. Nobody could get enough tiramisu- every restaurant worth going to served tiramisu, and people just couldn't seem to get enough of it. And then, equally abruptly the tiramisu was abandoned for the next big thing, and became forgotton. Fearing a similar fickleness about wine, marketers nervously point to a decrease in sales after 1997. Some wine merchants, however, see this decrease as a potential boon. People who previously did not drink wine were encouraged to try it because it was so cheap and available. Consequently, a wide variety of Japanese people have now developed a taste and sensibility for wine.. Now that that introductory wave is over, wine merchants can begin introducing more expensive and higher quality wines.. In fact, according to Inside the Japanese Market:a wine market, industry overview by Kevin Sinclairin Wines and Vines, wine drinking in Japan has experienced a net increase over the years. Japan has been eyed by many as a market ripe for the harvest. Sapporo, ready to tap the potential revenue, signed a deal with the Australian winery Beringer to begin distribution of their wines.
But can domestic Japanese wines compete with imports? Even the notorious Two Buck Chuck is preferable to the wine that I had tasted. I had assumed that the industry was young and that it would take a while for wineries to perfect techniques in order to produce a more palatble product. However, it turns out there is a long tradition of wine making in Japan. The father of wine is the venerable Kawakami Zenbe, who started a winery back in the Meiji era (1890). Kizan Winery is another establishment, with its roots back in the 1940s. It was in 1947 that the Yamanashi University founded the institute for enology and viticulture The institute is dedicated to working with local vinyards to create fine wines, starting from the most fundamental, genetics of plants to the techniques of viticulture and enology..
Despite my hesitation to bathe my tastebuds in sweetened kerosene again, I was tempted to give Japanese wines another try. I asked my friend, who works in a local specialty wine store here in the San Francisco Bay Area what he knew about Japanese wineries, and whether those wines were available here. His reaction was much like mine, surprised but also curious. "Wines? In Japan?" was his reply. Japan's wine-producing industry is far from being well known.
Nevertheless, my curiousity now prompts me to revisit a local winery during my upcoming trip to Japan, just to see if things have improved since the last time 'round. Though I might be subjecting myself to a similar, sweetened kerosene experience, I would like to give Japanese wines another chance, After all, if there's good wine to be had, I'll be the first to drink it!
Posted by Anne Pinckard at 2004年01月16日 16:28