Going crazy for vintage wines

by John Ashburne

Special To The Japan Times

“Wine, the most agreeable of beverages, whether we owe it to Noah who planted the first vine or Bacchus who pressed the first grapes, dates from the beginning of the world …

All men, even the ones we have agreed to call savages, have been so tortured by this thirst for strong liquors, which they are impelled to procure for themselves, that they have been pushed beyond their known capacities to satisfy it.”

So said legendary gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a fellow renowned for his sagacity on matters pertaining to the appetites, la condition humaine, and, of course, the grape.

Brillat-Savarin would have approved of Yoshio Iwata, a man whose dedication to the pursuit of vintage wines and spirits certainly falls within the “beyond known capacities” remit. It is now 23 years since Iwata transported an entire Japanese minka farmhouse from rural Ishikawa Prefecture to the mercantile quarters of his native Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward, and in so doing created Wine Crazy, the finest selection of classic wines and spirits in western Japan.

His family sake-retailing business had existed on the site since 1933, but Iwata set about wholly reinventing the traditional business. He embarked on an intensive course of oenophile self-education, first mastering the Germans, then the French classiques, then the complexities of brandy, Armagnac and port. Though he sourced wines from experienced domestic import houses and occasional high-profile auctions, a method he still employs today, his modus operandi of choice was to visit the chateaux in person.

Over the years some remarkable, and hugely valuable, wines have passed through his capable hands. He retains a fondness for the Bordeaux of the early 20th century, and his eyes sparkle as he recounts “meeting” the masterpieces of 1918, 1924 and, finest of all, the 1940s. That jewel of the Gironde, Chateau Calon-Segur, remains a favorite. Should Iwata be lucky enough to source one of these rare wines today, expect it to set you back something in the region of ¥180,000.

“Alas, it’s all sold” he observes with a wistful smile.

Expense was not, one suspects, his customers’ primary consideration when Iwata founded Wine Crazy in the first year of Heisei (1989), an era that promised to be the age of peace and untold material prosperity. Pushing beyond one’s known capacities to satisfy one’s desires was, after all, the imperative of the time.

Were this a postmodern tale of burst bubbles and pre-Apocalyptic dread, we could expect Wine Crazy to be long gone, its former owner inhabiting the very cardboard boxes in which his priceless vintages were once stored.

In fact The Japan Times finds Iwata in robust and excellent form, enthusing about wine as the phone rings with a substantial order from a famous multi-Michelin-starred crosstown restaurant, eager to impress an important visiting overseas client with an impossible-to-find vintage from his own country. Iwata has the very thing.

Wine Crazy’s customers are as varied as the contents of his cellar, ranging from the aforementioned industry professionals of the high-end Kyoto ryōtei (luxury) restaurants and the proprietresses of Gion’s hedonistic night spots to ordinary townsfolk in search of a special kind of gift.

“Most customers arrive knowing what they want at least in general terms, concerning the country of origin, the grape, perhaps even the vineyard,” explains Iwata. “But when it comes to the vintage,” he adds with a mischievous grin, “you’d be surprised how often it coincides with their own.”

Masayuki Izawa, a local businessman, came to Wine Crazy in search of gifts to commemorate his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, two bottles of wine that would coincide not with his own year of birth but those of his mother and father, Hiroe and Yutaka.

Whilst he was prepared to spend a lot of money, Izawa explains that the transaction wasn’t wholly without anxiety. “Frankly speaking,” he says, “I could have ended up with two bottles of very expensive, unappetizing vinegar.”

Fortunately, the ’36 and ’37 Chateau d’Issan Bordeaux recommended by Iwata proved nothing less than sublime, but Izawa’s fears were not unfounded. Bottle variation is a risk at any time, and aged wines are particularly unpredictable. Wine writer Hugh Johnson goes as far as to say, “It is a near certainty that one bottle in a case of 12 will be a dud: not necessarily corked but just mysteriously below par.” As the trusty adage goes, “There is no such thing as a great wine, just a great bottle of wine.”

Iwata recalls a particularly tension-filled event that he organized at a famed Kyoto hotel some years ago where he opened in succession 10 bottles from the 1945 “vintage of the century” by such prominent vineyards as Haut-Brion, Laffite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild and Latour.

“All safe!” he chortles, still clearly relieved.

One cannot imagine the combined value of the wine that has passed through Wine Crazy since 1989, yet such considerations seem of little import to Yoshio Iwata. He is far too busy enthusing about the wine.

“These,” he says, opening his arms wide as if to embrace every last bottle within his emporium, “are not paintings, they are not sculptures. Wines are not meant to be put in museums. They are meant to be drunk.”

Brillat-Savarin would concur.

Wine Crazy, 15 Sanjobo-cho, Nishinokyo, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu; (075) 821-1208. Open daily 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (tastings to 11 p.m. by appointment). www.wine-crazy.jp.

Iwata’s best buys

Porto Colheita 1900, Niepoort & Co, Portugal, ¥250,000

Sourced by Iwata from the family-run port house, this 111-year-old amber-hued gem suffuses warmth and smoothness.

Brunello di Montalcino, Biondi-Santi Riserva 1955, Italy, ¥94,000

Italy’s most feted red, a Tuscan giant of a wine, from a vineyard south of Siena.

Parent Beaune Les Epenottes Premier Cru de Beaune 2000, France, ¥5,870

For lovers of Pinot Noir, an outstanding Burgundy at a great price.

Bas-Armagnac Prince de Montrouge 1934, France ¥110,000

Top brandy beater — a little rough around the edges, but sublime nonetheless.