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All-female wine award targets girls of the grape

by Melinda Joe

Before the tasting commenced at the inaugural Sakura Japan Women’s Wine Awards in Tokyo, the judges were reminded to remove their lipstick. The competition, organized by the Wine and Spirits Culture Association (WSCA), is the first in Japan to feature an all-female panel of assessors. Over the course of four days, the event brought together approximately 200 women in the wine industry from around the country.

While gender has no influence on tasting skills — a sharp palate is a sharp palate — organizers of the competition reason that female wine professionals are in a better position to understand the preferences of female consumers.

The competition received 1,900 entries from 33 countries (including 150 entries from Japanese wineries), giving the Sakura awards the added distinction of being the largest in Japan. The impressive turnout demonstrates that wineries have recognized the importance of courting the ladies.

Wine consumption in Japan has tripled in the past 20 years, with women driving the market. A 2010 survey conducted by Vinexpo revealed that 42 percent of the Japanese women interviewed responded that they drank wine more than twice a week. Among the 17,300 sommeliers certified by the Japan Sommelier Association in 2012, 47 percent were women. Women also account for 63 percent of JSA-certified wine experts or advisors.

I’d been invited to judge on one of the four days, and upon my arrival I was relieved to discover that each panel was to evaluate only four flights of wines, with an average of 10 items per flight. We had almost an hour to assess each flight. This was vastly different from my last experience as a taster, when I joined London’s International Wine Challenge as an associate judge last April. The pace in London had been somewhat intimidating — with each panel tasting roughly double the number of wines in the same amount of time. At the Sakura Awards, chairperson and WSCA president Yumi Tanabe encouraged us to go at an easy pace but “evaluate the wines rigorously.”

The wines were categorized into 50 groups according to varietal. As at many wine competitions, the entries were judged by blind tasting and scored on a 100-point scale. Points were given for appearance, aroma, flavor and overall impression, but one of the key factors determining the score was how representative the wine is of a particular grape varietal. At the Sakura Awards, judges were also asked to discuss the types of Asian cuisines that would match the most highly rated wines.

Entries receiving 80 points or higher will receive silver, gold or double-gold medals over the coming weeks, and the wines with the highest scores will be awarded the Diamond Trophy in March. There will also be special awards including for cost performance, best wine for special cuisine, best wine made by a female winemaker and best label design.

The Diamond Trophy and other special awards will be presented on March 4, the first day of the Foodex exhibition at Makuhari Messe in Chiba. But you can get a sneak peek and view the winners of the silver, gold and double-gold medals at www.sakuraaward.com on Valentine’s Day.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.