Sommelier believes there’s more to serving up a fine wine

by Sayuri Daimon

Takashi Atsuta knows precisely what his customers need to round out a delicious meal. Good food and wine are essential, but the 63-year-old sommelier believes that good service — with sincerity — also makes a great difference. Being a sommelier is not just a matter of knowing about wines and selecting and serving the best ones to customers, he says.

“Winning a sommelier contest may be important, but what is more vital for sommeliers is to please their customers,” said Atsuta, who became one of the first Japanese sommeliers nearly 30 years ago and is currently head of the Japan Sommelier Association.

His story mirrors the period when Japan’s economy expanded rapidly, catching up with the West. Until the 1960s, not many Japanese traveled abroad and Western culture and cuisine were too expensive for ordinary Japanese.

Atsuta did not initially plan to be a sommelier and it was his yearning to learn about foreign countries that led him to enroll in a training school for sailors. He studied wine as an apprentice steward at the school, but only through reading books and memorizing the labels on empty bottles because there was no wine available.

When his ship arrived in the Chilean port of Valparaiso during his first voyage, however, an officer invited the young Atsuta to dinner and he tasted wine for the first time in his life.

“I couldn’t forget that fascinating taste. Maybe the delicious steak that was served with it reinforced the taste of the wine,” he said. “The kindness of that sailor, the food and the whole environment touched my heart,” he said.

As air travel became more common, however, the era of ocean voyages neared its end. In 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympic Games, Atsuta joined the newly opened Hotel New Otani Tokyo.

“Soon after that, Tokyo began to host various international conferences and I felt that we were not responding to the needs of the increasing number of foreign guests,” he said.

To learn about first-class hotel service and wines, Atsuta departed for Europe at the invitation of a chateau owner in France’s famous Bordeaux wine region. With his help, Atsuta spent four years visiting towns and vineyards across Europe and, upon his return to Tokyo, he rejoined the Tokyo hotel and helped set up the French restaurant La Tour D’argent, where he worked as chief sommelier.

Realizing that he had not returned to Japan to merely sell expensive wines but to promote wine for people’s enjoyment, he left the hotel and opened his own French restaurant — called The Tokyo Grinzing — in Tokyo’s Kojimachi district.

“I wanted to create a restaurant which breaks the myth that wine is a luxury item,” he said. Contrary to the suggestion that he only stocks the most expensive wines, most of those available at his restaurant cost less than 5,000 yen.

“There are many good and inexpensive wines around the world that are not well known,” he said.

Over the decades, the Japanese have come a long way toward cultivating a sophisticated palate and now all kinds of cuisine and wines are available in restaurants in Japan.

“Back in the old days, Japanese people used to say they ate because they needed energy to work, but today, people eat not out of necessity, but to enjoy the meal itself,” he said.

In the last 32 years, the Japan Sommelier Association has grown to boast a 6,400-strong membership from just 20 initially, he said. Japan now ranks second in the world after Italy in terms of sommelier association membership.

However, he laments that Japan’s wine culture is still driven more by manufacturers and advertising firms than consumers.

“They are too devoted to creating a certain image for wine,” he said. “I hope to keep helping people encounter good wine and nutritionally balanced meals, as it is my mission in life.”