Food & Drink | VINELAND

A guide in wine is a friend indeed

by William and Melanie Campbell-Drane

It’s a story we’ve heard dozens of times before, in slightly varying versions. An acquaintance who does much corporate entertaining decided to treat a few office-mates to a late meal in Daikanyama. After an under-10,000 yen bottle of red, the sommelier suggested that they might like an unlisted Shafer Cabernet, which they enjoyed so much that they had a second. The pleasure quickly dissipated, however, when he received the bill and found that the Shafer had cost him 45,000 yen. Per bottle.

But this time, the story took an unexpected turn. Our now-poorer friend went on to relate how at a recent client dinner at Stellato, he asked the sommelier which of two whites would go best with their appetizers. Much to his surprise, the sommelier suggested a different wine altogether; not only was it cheaper, it was also a stunning match with their food.

By the end of the evening, they were specifying style and price, and the sommelier brought out mystery wines in decanters, revealing the bottles only after they’d finished drinking them. What had started out as a short, staid business dinner ended up as a long and raucous evening where everyone left extremely happy.

Tokyo has no shortage of sneering, penguin-suited automatons in the wine-service side of the restaurant business, so we were intrigued by our friend’s story and decided to investigate. The sommelier in question turned out to be Ned Goodwin, an Australian native who has worked at Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris, Veritas in New York and Michael’s in Santa Monica, a shortlist of some of the world’s top restaurant wine destinations.

Goodwin explained that his interest in wine and food began in Sydney when he was 13, and his parents’ stove broke. They were about to move house, so the family decided to eat out during the interim rather than buy a new stove. Multiple delays in the move meant that for the next year-and-a-half, dinners revolved around what Goodwin describes as a series of “small, esoteric ethnic restaurants,” all with BYOB policies. Goodwin’s father had worked as a cellar-hand at an Australian winery moving to Europe for 15 years, and the bottles on the table spanned a range almost as wide as the food.

Goodwin’s culinary education was interrupted by a year at a Fukui Prefecture high school as an exchange student, but soon after he was accepted at the American University in Paris. To put himself through school, he worked in various wine bars at night and led the occasional Japanese tour group during the day.

After brief stints at the Australian Wine Center in Sydney and Michael’s in Santa Monica, Goodwin moved to New York and landed a job at Veritas, in the midst of the Wall Street boom years. The Veritas wine list boasts 3,500 different items; Goodwin describes it as the Encyclopedia Britannica of wine. Veritas’ policy (“and thank God for it,” he says) was that the sommeliers tasted every bottle before serving it. Goodwin claims to remember every wine he’s ever tasted, good or bad, and what food he had with it, so the Veritas years were “mind-blowing.”

After a freak accident that shattered his wrist, Goodwin decided to leave Veritas and decamp to the south of France for the summer. Drinking rose from the local co-op (“half a Euro per liter, bring your own empty Evian bottles”) revitalized his sense of joie de vivre, says Goodwin, and reconnected him to the tradition of wine on the table as an inherent part of everyday life.

A chance contact with Kozo Hasegawa, CEO of Global Dining, led to Goodwin’s return to Japan at the start of this year, to assume the unlikely position of corporate sommelier for the Global Dining empire. Hoping to infuse a bit of that joie de vivre into a large wine program, Goodwin began with the Zest and Monsoon restaurants, cafe destinations not generally known for their wine lists.

To complement Monsoon’s mixture of Vietnamese and Malay food, Goodwin decided to add a bone-dry Jim Barry Riesling from the Claire Valley region of Australia, as well as what he describes as a completely unadulterated, 100-percent pure Sauvignon Blanc from Domaine Garreliere that has enough acidity to cut through even the hottest dishes. Zest was a bit more challenging, but he is enthusiastic about a Mourvedre made from 80-year-old vines in the south of Spain.

Goodwin is currently revamping the list at Global Dining’s flagship restaurant, Stellato. Following the trend in New York and London, the list is organized according to flavor profile, rather than country and grape. A diner who chooses fish carpaccio, for example, could look to the “Zippy & Bright” section, while something from the “Ripe & Spicy” page might better accompany a peppercorn steak.

Although he’s often ensconced in the head office, Goodwin works the floor at Stellato on Thursdays and Fridays. He’s happy to talk about the list all night, but when there is a degree of rapport and trust established, he will gladly bring decanted wines to the table on a no-names basis (within pre-agreed price guidelines), just as he used to do at Veritas.

Our poorer-but-wiser friend was won over by this unexpected, fortuitous twist to his wine adventures on the Tokyo restaurant scene. Perhaps this consumer-friendly wine approach may become a trend, rather than a rarity.