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This wine school gets better with age

by William Campbell

Japan’s oldest and largest wine school, the Academie du Vin, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Something of an institution in Japan’s wine world, the academy has turned out more than 30,000 graduates in its two decades of operation. But rather than rest on its laurels, the school continues to reinvent itself, most recently by hiring Mineo Tachibana as general manager and engaging some of Japan’s top new-wave wine luminaries to teach a series of upcoming seminars.

The academy took its name and inspiration from the original Academie du Vin in Paris. Englishman Steven Spurrier opened that school in 1973 to provide English-language wine instruction to expatriates in France. While Spurrier personally shot to fame after hosting what has become known as the “Paris Tasting” in 1976 — in which a group of upstart Californian wineries beat out France’s best wines in a blind tasting by French judges — the school was eventually sold and later closed.

Then in 1987, a group of investors decided to open a school dedicated to wine in Tokyo based on the Academie du Vin concept.

“At that time, there was no real wine market in Japan and very little information available about wine,” Tachibana explains.

“Academie du Vin was the first school to systematically teach the basics of wine appreciation and was the pioneer in Japanese wine education.”

The school was sold to printing company titan Eiji Tamai in 2000. In a nice full-circle touch, Spurrier remains the school’s official “Principal Emeritus.”

The school’s two foundation courses are known as Step1 and Step2. Each runs for 20 weeks, with a 2-hour lecture each week. Step1 covers all the basics of wine, with a particular focus on the mechanics of how different types of wine are made and the characteristics of each of the world’s major wine regions. Step2 drills further down into regional characteristics (for example, Step1 divides France into Burgundy, Bordeaux and others, while Step2 visits the Loire, the Rho^ne, the Left Bank, the Right Bank, etc.).

Tachibana says that about 20 percent of the students who take Step courses are members of the wine trade, while 80 percent are simply passionate drinkers who are looking to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of wine.

Anyone interested in taking the exams for the London-based Wine and Spirits Education Trust qualifications should note that Academie du Vin and Japan Airlines’ affiliate JAL Academy are the only two schools in Japan certified as official WSET program providers. Those students who pass Academie du Vin’s Step1 qualify to sit the exam for the WSET Intermediate Certificate, while those who make it through Step2 are eligible to attempt the Higher Certificate test.

Perhaps most interestingly for passionate but busy wine lovers, each week’s Step lesson is given 10 separate times, with hours ranging from weekday afternoons and evenings to weekends, which allows those with unpredictable schedules to make up missed classes.

While the Step series and a Japan Sommelier Association exam-preparation course are Academie du Vin’s heavyweight weekly classes, the school also runs nearly three dozen more specialized two-hour seminars held once a month for six months. There are a number of notable new entries in the upcoming April-September semester.

“Logical Tasting,” taught by Hiroki Matsumoto, will teach students to analyze specific component tastes in wine, such as acidity, sweetness, tannins and astringency. Matsumoto’s focus will be on understanding the difference between quantitative and qualitative expressions of flavor, i.e., what does it mean when two wines come back from the laboratory with the same amount of measurable tannins but one tastes smooth and fine-grained while the other tastes harsh and green? Matsumoto writes the popular wine e-newsletter “Barriqueville,” and he translated “The Heartbreak Grape” (the story of Josh Jensen’s quest to make the perfect Pinot Noir) and the classic “Napa” by James Conaway.

Kenichi Hori, perhaps best known as the creator of the “Sommelier” manga series, which went on to become a hit television show, will teach a course on contemporary and controversial issues in the wine world. He has titled it “Pensees” (literally “thoughts”) after the book of the same name by philosopher Blaise Pascal. Classes will include a look at the alleged premature oxidation of some White Burgundies, the controversy over modern- versus traditional-style Barolos and the swing toward (over) ripeness in wine tastes.

Also debuting this semester will be “Exploring the Aromas of Wine,” a course that could be considered the olfactory equivalent of “Logical Tasting.” The text used will be the just-published “Playing with the Aroma Palette” by pre-eminent University of Bordeaux researcher Dr. Takatoshi Tominaga. And the instructor will be none other than former Robert Parker translator Takuya Kusuda, who was the editor of Tominaga’s book. The topic of this course is particularly dear to Kusuda, as a skiing accident once left him without a sense of smell for three joyless years.

Sadly for the less than perfectly fluent among us, all the above courses will be offered in Japanese only, but Tachibana has pledged to increase the number of English-language courses in the future.

In fact, beginning in April, a six-lesson course, “Wine Basics for Wine Enthusiasts,” will be given in English. Taught by simultaneous interpreter and former Michigan resident Yuko Ujita, the seminars, costing a total of 63,000 yen, will cover the basics of tasting wine and growing grapes, and they will teach students to identify the tastes and characteristics of the major grape varietals found on the market today. The price includes all materials and wine. The school hopes to offer intermediate and advanced wine courses in English in the future (please see www.adv.gr.jp for more details, or e-mail them at info-web@adv.gr.jp ).

As for the future of the school, Tachibana notes that the Japanese wine market is much more developed and sophisticated than it was 20 years ago. While he points out that there is now lots of light, “lifestyle-related” wine- [reading] material available, he believes that there is still plenty of need and demand for deeper wine knowledge.

“Personally, I’d like to introduce more real information and real experience into the Japanese wine world,” he adds.

Given that Tachibana has translated some of the world’s more interesting wine titles — including “Real Wine,” “Noble Rot,” and “The Emperor of Wine” — and given that he spent six months working with Paul Draper at Ridge on the 2003 crush and preliminary blending trials — Academie du Vin seems to be in very good hands indeed.

Now we can only hope that the school makes good on Tachibana’s promise and harkens back to their Emeritus’s roots of offering a wide range of wine instruction to expatriates in the world’s lingua franca.