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You might think it’s crazy, but this upstart is serious

by Melanie Campbell-Drane

With all the cultural treasures that Kyoto offers, perhaps few people would have wine in mind when planning their itinerary. After all, in a city with such richness of tradition, wine is a mere arriviste.

But imagine Kyoto’s grace, history and aesthetic of quiet, exquisite detail transposed onto a wine bar. Imagine a place that allows you to experience wine interpreted by a Kyoto hospitality so intimate that it is almost tender in its patience and refinement.

That place exists. It is called Wine Crazy — the name inked in hiragana on lanterns dangling from the tiled roof of an old house. Next to the entrance, a bench is covered in red felt, as if waiting for tea ceremony to begin. It holds a dark magnum of fine Bordeaux.

Step through the doorway’s fluttering noren and enter a white-walled room, its high ceiling spliced by massive timber beams. The floor is a rough parquet of railroad ties and damp paving stones. There’s a handsome antique clock, a Taisho Era lamp with an etched glass globe and a table hewn from a 7-meter oak split in half. The house has been painstakingly restored with natural materials: wood, paper, clay and stone.

In 1933, proprietor Toshio Iwata’s parents founded a sake shop here. They purveyed goods traditionally sold by sake shops, such as salt, miso and soy sauce. By 1975, the old sake shop discounted its wares, struggling to survive against new, bigger competitors. “In price competition, the big company always wins,” says Iwata.

To his father’s chagrin, Iwata discovered wine. “A company’s size does not matter in the wine business,” he reasoned. “You only have to love and drink wine to advise your customers well.” Despite intense, initial skepticism from his family and customers, he spent years gradually transforming the family business.

Rather than defy tradition, Iwata redefined it. In creating Wine Crazy’s environment, he was motivated by an affinity for the wide spaces and tranquillity of Kyoto’s temples and shrines. With expert carpenters, he dismantled a house from Ishikawa Prefecture and rebuilt it here, using traditional craftsmanship and recycled elements.

During the day, Wine Crazy is a destination for collectors of Grands Vins. Its dark, wooden shelves hold a precious library of well-aged wines, with scarce verticals of Bordeaux and Burgundy reaching back to the 1950s and ’60s. Iwata tracks down special vintages for his clients’ birthday celebrations. Rarities bear matching prices — for example: 1967 Ch. Leoville Las Cases (32,600 yen); 1955 Ch. Ducru Beaucaillou (45,000 yen); and 1964 Ch. Gruaud Larose (64,000 yen).

In contemporary times, the costly, long-term aging of wines is becoming increasingly scarce. Most consumers today purchase a bottle to take home and drink the same evening. In this era, Iwata is a man of unusual patience. In addition to the house and cellar, he has a warehouse storing 20,000 bottles. He also takes a long-term view of customer relationships and typically devotes five-six years to learning the tastes of a customer.

The cost of rare wines may be staggering, but that should not keep you away from Wine Crazy. At night, this space turns into a wine bar, with people gathering around the single oak table. Here is the precious opportunity to savor the same hospitality that Iwata accords his old Kyoto clientele — at an affordable price. The Pere Patriarche house wine is 400 yen per glass or a mere 1,200 yen per bottle. A 1,000 yen cover charge includes breads and cheeses.

Every week features five different wines by the glass, such as 1999 Gevrey Chambertin (900 yen); 1993 Ch. Gruaud Larose (1,200 yen); and 1994 Ch. Canon (1,100 yen). Changing half-bottle selections are also offered, including Veuve Clicquot NV (2,700 yen); 1996 Jean Boillot Puligny-Montrachet 1er cru (3,798 yen); and 1998 Dessertaux Cote de Nuits Village (1,600 yen).

While Iwata pours wine, his wife and son stir up home-cooked fare. Selections include seasonal pasta dishes (800 yen); smoked duck (1,500 yen); smoked salmon (700 yen) and artichokes with olives (700 yen). For a unique Kyoto experience, Wine Crazy is hard to beat.