Celebrating France-Japan relations with a toast

by David Chester

The peaceful town of Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture might not be Japan’s most international city, but Jean-Pascal Noirault, 30, and Mikiko Kurumada, 29, are determined to change that.

Jean-Pascal Noirault and Mikiko Kurumada, founders of Wine-and-food.com

Founders of the Web site Wine-and-food.com, Noirault and Kurumada have recently returned from taking 15 people (10 from Koriyama) on a personalized tour of the vineyards of Bergerac and Bordeaux, where, as connoisseurs know, some of the world’s finest wines are produced.

But why Koriyama? It’s Kurumada’s hometown, Noirault is her husband and selling French wine is their business — rather, it has become their business.

Eight years ago the couple met in Paris. Kurumada was studying French cooking, with a dream to open her own patisserie upon returning to Japan. Noirault was training to be an export sales manager for the Sara Lee Corporation.

It was love at first sight. It was also the beginning of a five-year struggle to convince Mikiko’s parents that this was one international romance which could stay afloat.

“Cultures will ultimately clash,” warned Kurumada’s mother. But letters, long-distance calls and tearful airport goodbyes finally made it clear that sometimes cultures can complement each other as well. With her parents’ blessing, Kurumada and Noirault were married in 1997.

The newlyweds settled in Tokyo and decided to establish an import business. They started by trying to sell hand-finished flatware from Barenthal (the second largest stainless flatware manufacturer in France) and tableware from Royal Limoges (the oldest porcelain factory in France) to top hotels and restaurants.

Sales, though, were far from brisk. Not only was the competition formidable, most food and beverage companies did not feel the need to update their dinnerware for at least five years.

After several lean months, Noirault decided to enter the even more competitive, but faster-moving world of French wines. (He did have some knowledge — his uncle is Paul Brunet, a top sommelier, twice elected best sommelier in France.)

Kurumada’s father, head of Fukushima Haizen, a temp agency for hotels and restaurants, found the couple their first customer, the Hananoyu, a luxury resort in Bandai Atami, near Koriyama.

Response was extremely positive. But after being introduced to other potential customers, the couple realized the small-town nature of Koriyama did not contribute to the same sophistication about wines as Tokyo, with its considerable number of French restaurants and French-trained sommeliers.

To help quell the quandary over which wine best complements a meal, they held seminars and tasting parties for both the food and beverage industry and the public.

Apparently a lot of taste buds were awakened as the couple were quickly rewarded with orders from restaurants, hotels and department stores all eager to feature their Chateau Pagnon wines (from Velines, near both Bordeaux and Bergerac).

While they were happy their business was growing, they realized the best way to expand their customers’ horizons was to take them directly to the source. Says Noirault, “To really get to know a country, you have to get to know the people and what they eat and drink.”

To that end, the couple did extensive research to ensure that this hardy group (11 women and four men, all over 50 years of age) had a thorough French wine and food experience.

Four leisurely days were spent visiting different chateaux in Bordeaux and Bergerac seeing how the wine grapes are harvested, stored and fermented.

Needless to say, sampling all the different wines was one of the main highlights.

“Suddenly the language barrier and cultural differences disappeared,” Noirault recalls. “When people were enjoying the wine, there was an automatic camaraderie.”

The wine definitely posed no problems, though some of the members were hesitant about eating the “rich” French food for the six-day journey (which included a side trip to see the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux).

But, says Noirault, everybody enjoyed it, and the majority of them want to come back. Not just for the food and wine, he says, but because they were able to “communicate” with the French people, without knowing a word of the language.

In fact, there was something more than just the desire to introduce Japanese people to the pleasures of fine French wine.

“We wanted to offer them a chance to experience ‘the real France’ — the people, the countryside — not, like most tours, just rushing around from store to store.”

It seems the folks from Koriyama agree: The next tour has already been scheduled for September 2001.

With their wines now sold at fine hotels and restaurants throughout Koriyama and making inroads in Tokyo (they are featured at TAK, a fine wine bar in Roppongi), the idea of opening a patisserie is no longer part of the future picture.

But that’s OK, says Kurumada, who, with the popularity of their wines and the response to the tour, now wants to open a restaurant.

“She’d definitely be the chef,” says Noirault. Then, smiling, “While I work the cash register.”