Sommeliers ride high on Japan's wine wave

by William Campbell

The last five years have seen an explosion in the number of certified sommeliers in Japan. Certain high-profile Japanese sommeliers have even achieved an almost rock star-like status, an unexpected development in a country where the title of sommelier did not even exist 30 years ago. Despite its lack of an indigenous wine culture, Japan now has more sommeliers than any other country in the world except Italy, says Akio Hayashi, inspector of the Japan Sommelier Association.

The rise of the sommelier is inextricably linked with the recent rise in wine consumption in Japan. Although Japan has long had a sophisticated food culture, not to mention an unbridled enthusiasm for alcohol, until the mid-1990s, wine consumption had languished at a relatively flat annual average of one liter per person.

Then, in 1995, the wine market experienced a simultaneous combination of events that produced a wine boom of “perfect storm” proportions.

The storm began when Shinya Tasaki, then the sommelier at the Hotel Seiyo Ginza, won the World Sommelier Championship, the first Japanese ever to receive the honor. This event generated a tremendous surge in press coverage of wine in general, and of sommeliers in particular. Such excitement could have faded in due course. But Tasaki proved to be a charismatic speaker and canny businessman who lectured widely on wine and knew how to make it accessible to a Japanese audience. His public appeal was so strong that he was engaged to promote luxury products on television, even joining Cindy Crawford as a spokesperson for Rolex.

Around the same time, All Man magazine launched the popular “Sommelier” manga series, chronicling the adventures of Joe Satake, a young and hip, but almost Zen-like sommelier.

“Many wine books of the time were dry and difficult reads,” explains the JSA’s Hayashi. “But the ‘Sommelier’ manga showed millions of people that it was easy to enjoy wine.”

Adds Kenichi Hori, head of the California Wine Institute’s Japan office and editor of the manga series, “There are very few people in Japan now who don’t know what the word ‘sommelier’ means, even if they have never eaten in a restaurant that employs one.”

The final boost to the market came when the media captured public attention with the so-called “polyphenol story,” reporting scientific findings that appeared to show that consumption of red wine is good for your health. By 1998, annual wine consumption in Japan had tripled to nearly 3 liters per person.

Yet the intriguing question remains why Japan now boasts more sommeliers than France, even though French per-capita wine consumption is more than 10 times that of the Japanese.

Makoto Abe, winner of the 2002 Japan Sommelier Competition and director of restaurant “S,” explains that Japanese consumers have a marked need for sommelier advice, given wine’s relatively recent arrival in Japan. “In Europe, people grow up eating regional foods and drinking regional wines, so wine-and-food pairing come naturally. Traditional Japanese food has a broad spectrum of flavors that people are just now learning how to best match with wine. The many alternative cuisines here also vary widely, from spicy Thai food, to traditional French and Italian, to Pacific Rim fusion cooking. Since most modern restaurants offer wines from many countries, the wine-and-food matching permutations are enormous. A sommelier who knows his wine list and understands the ingredients in the dishes served in his restaurant can be of tremendous help to his customers.”

In addition, some observers contend that the sommelier boom is also driven in part by an innate Japanese desire for hierarchy and order. What other country would have developed a detailed protocol for rotating a single bowl of tea, or lectures on the correct 17-step procedure to open a bottle of wine? And the profusion of licenses, ranks and grading systems in all aspects of life seems to suggest a strong need for third-party validation.

Yet there can be comfort in ritual, both for the giver and the receiver. And who could deny the sense of satisfaction in working one’s way up through the ranks of any hierarchy? Yasuhiro Shibuya, restaurant manager of the Intercontinental Yokohama and owner of Bistro Le Cep in Roppongi, points to the rise of the dojo and the professional samurai class around the 10th-12th centuries. “Kendo, ikebana and tea ceremony, to name just a few examples, all have a highly developed -kyu and -dan ranking system, and all share ritualized movements that are themselves a pleasure for those who know their historical connotations. Wine appreciation is in many respects the same.”

As the wine market grows, more sommeliers will certainly be needed, but such practical concerns aside it is dreams of stardom that continue to draw ever-larger numbers of aspiring wine lovers to the profession. In addition to the dapper Shinya Tasaki, in 1998 the “Sommelier” manga was serialized as a television show, starring none other than teen-heartthrob Goro, of tarento band SMAP.

Regardless of motivation, the number of certified sommeliers continues to climb dramatically. At the end of 2001, more than 6,000 people had passed the JSA’s rigorous three-part examination (the study guide alone runs to 700 pages, and had to be split recently into two volumes), and a further 1,700 people took the exam this year. Although results have yet to be announced, if previous years’ pass rates hold, Japan is expected to lay claim to more than 7,000 certified sommeliers by the year’s end.

Perhaps a backlash is inevitable. Indeed, some industry participants suggest that the number of newly-minted sommeliers is out of proportion to the number of restaurants that could afford to hire them. “Still,” adds the Intercontinental’s Shibuya, “even if they end up working as waiters in more casual restaurants, their knowledge and enthusiasm for wine is likely to spill over to a more general audience than might be found in more traditional venues.”

Ironically, this potential “sommelier glut” may help to cultivate the next generation of wine lovers by pushing wine knowledge far beyond its traditional confines of elegant, top-tier restaurants. And according to wine industry analysts, this next generation is likely to be very large.

The Wine Institute’s Kenichi Hori points out that in Japan, sake consumption is five times that of wine, but that it is mostly consumed by those around retirement age.” As the next generation, who typically favor wine and mixed drinks rather than sake and shochu, become prime spenders, wine consumption is likely to grow dramatically, Hori believes.

Who will this next generation of wine lovers look to for savvy advice? Perhaps Makoto Abe is not a bad example. After winning the Japan Sommelier Competition in 2002, he is busy preparing for next year’s Global Sommelier Competition, yet he still works regular hours as director of restaurant “S” in Nishi-Shimbashi.

The low lights, white tablecloths, crystal glasses, and 400-bottle wine list suggest a fine meal, with a commensurate stiff bill. But Abe proudly reveals that he has set the Prix Fixe menu at 3,800 yen, and that every single bottle on the list is also priced at 3,800 yen. His goal is to create an affordable, friendly and high-quality “training ground” for current and future generations of wine lovers, where people will feel free to explore, and professional advice is available. With characteristic understatement for Japan’s grand champion and candidate for Best Sommelier in the World, Abe adds, “Any questions, just ask.”