Shinya Tasaki: Sommelier supreme


Shinya Tasaki was a teenager when he made his first solo trip to France in 1977. Even back then, he was so eager to learn about French food and wine that he visited as many wineries as he could — only to be turned away from most. But his determination kept him from giving up — and now nobody will turn him away, because Tasaki has become one of the world’s best-known sommeliers.

At the age of 17, Tasaki began working as a chef in Tokyo, but burning to learn more about French food and wine, at 19 he moved to Paris to attend a sommelier school. Tasaki returned to Japan in 1980. At age 25, he won the third annual Concours du Meilleur Sommelier Japonais en vins et spiritueux de France (The Best Japanese Sommelier Contest for French Wines and Spirits). Twelve years later, in 1995, he became the first Japanese to win the International Sommelier Association’s World Best Sommelier Competition.

Coincidentally, that was about the time Japanese began acquiring a taste for wine. Suddenly, liquor shops found space for it on their shelves, wine bars opened and even traditional izakaya (Japanese pubs) began adding wine to their menus. Tasaki was in the right place at the right time.

Within a few years, as the author of dozens of books and the subject of magazine and television features, Tasaki became a household name. Now, as the owner of a wine bar, a French restaurant and a school for sommeliers, he is on a roll. However, Japan’s “Mr. Wine” has other passions, too, and two years ago he opened a shochu bar. He freely admits that he loves drinking both shochu and nihonshu on his days off.

With homes in Tokyo and France, too, Tasaki’s time is certainly at a premium. Recently, however, he relaxed for an hour to give The Japan Times his views on wine and much else through the eyes of a world-class sommelier.

What made you decide to become a sommelier?

When I was a chef, I read about Paris’s restaurants and learned that service plays a large part in the world of French cuisine. Instead of becoming a cook, I decided to be the person who serves customers directly. However, wine was a problem: I was underage and unable to drink it, but I had to know about it in order to make recommendations and properly serve the customers.

The more I studied books, the more I realized that there was just too much I needed to learn. In order to master this field, I had to go to France. So I went and stayed there for about three years. I wanted to become licensed, so I entered a school for sommeliers. I never actually planned on becoming a sommelier, but since wine is a major part of restaurant service, I decided to study it.

When you first went to France, as a Japanese person wanting to become a sommelier, did you meet any resistance?

People shut their doors in my face. The school didn’t, of course; it was the wineries. In those days, Japan was not recognized as a wine-importing country. There were hardly any wineries that welcomed me warmly. Most treated me like I was a nuisance.

But when I returned to France after gaining the title of top sommelier in Japan, people began to treat me differently. Around that time, French food and bistros had become popular in Japan, and chefs of French cuisine were starting to open their own restaurants. And, of course, with this movement, wine imports increased dramatically. That was when people began to notice that Japan was a very large market for wine imports — their attitudes toward Japan, and toward me, changed completely.

During your school days in France, was there anything in particular you did to improve your skills?

At that time, I read all the books I could to learn as much as possible. Of course, they were all in French, so I had a book in one hand and a dictionary in the other, and it would take me days to read one single page. What took me a couple of years to learn can be accomplished in a week now. I had no one to teach me how to study or what to study, so I did what I could: read. I couldn’t afford to buy wine, so the only tasting experience I got was at the school.

Do you feel that your sense of taste and smell are more sensitive than most people’s?

You usually become more sensitive. But it is of no use to be able to detect a scent that nobody else can smell. Instead, you should be able to explain why a person finds a particular kind of wine or food delicious. Just having a sensitive tongue and nose is not especially important for this job — and if you need a detailed analysis, there are some terrific devices that are more accurate. I do have an acute sense of smell, though. For example, when passing by someone I can tell whether he or she had garlic for lunch! (laughs)

How much detail about a wine can you assess from one tasting?

I can tell what kind of grapes were used, in what kind of environment they were grown, the climate, something about how they were processed, whether the wine is high quality or not, and how mature it is at present. That’s about it. By combining all of that, it might be possible to name a certain brand, but it is extremely difficult. There are a couple million different wines around the world, and it is impossible for one person to taste all of them. However, I can tell which area of what country a wine is from, and what year it is.

Is it true that the more you pay, the better wine you get?

Not exactly. The wine law in Europe is just a matter of separating high-quality wine and table wine. Originally, A.O.C. [Appellation d’Origine Controlee] was a guarantee of quality given to wines from certain locations that surpassed a certain standard. But it is very difficult to determine which is better and so in France, the A.O.C. system is collapsing. They are now trying to introduce A.O.C.E. [Appellation d’Origine Controlee d’Excellence], a stricter quality designation, but it’s still no guarantee that the wine will be good.

A.O.C. is important, though, for establishing a relationship of trust between the winemaker and the consumer. There are various rules and regulations concerning labeling, and the labels allow consumers to trust what is inside the bottle. But Japan does not have these regulations. Some labels say that a particular wine is from a certain prefecture, but the grapes are actually from all over the country.

Many countries are now creating good wine. In there any country making wine that’s as good as French?

I don’t think there is an exact equal, but that’s because I think that any country — be it France, Italy or Spain — creates its wine differently, depending on its history, tradition and climate. Then again, due to the globalization of information, when a certain wine is said to be good, people everywhere try to emulate it, so there may be similarities.

But the fact remains that winemaking is based on its ingredients. It is important to cultivate the kind of grapes that match an area’s unique natural features and climate. The winemaker’s mission is to take those grapes and create the best wine possible. You cannot compare France, Italy and Japan, and say which country’s wine is better.

Take rice. Japanese people say that Thai rice isn’t good, but Thai people think that their rice is much more delicious than Japanese rice. A third party can’t compare and decide which is better. It is up to the person who is going to consume it to choose freely. That goes for wine as well.

What do you think of those cheap wines sold at discount shops and convenience stores?

Wine can be enjoyed in various ways, according to “TPO” [time, place, occupation]. It doesn’t matter whether the wine is cheap or expensive, as long as the person who drinks it has a good time. Other alcoholic drinks, such as nihonshu and shochu, are the same: The best sellers are the cheapest kinds in paper packages.

Is most of the wine in Japan imported?

Actually, it’s only very recently that the volume of imports exceeded domestic production. This, however, does not mean that the grapes used in domestic production were cultivated in Japan. For example, wine imported in a large tank that was blended in Japan, or grape juice that was imported and then fermented here, all have Japanese labels on them and are regarded as domestic wines. In that sense, it is very difficult to get an accurate figure. France is still the No. 1 importer of wine to Japan.

Does Japan have the potential to become a major wine-exporting country?

Although the quantity is still low, there are high-quality wines being made in Japan and very recently, Japan started exporting its wine. Two companies, Suntory and Mercian, are doing it at present. It is, however, difficult for other countries to import Japanese wine because there are still complications. For example, some companies still use 720 cc bottles. Japan has no wine laws, so when consumers look at the labels, they usually don’t find any useful information about where the grapes came from or what’s inside the bottle.

In terms of soil and climate, does Japan have what it takes to make good wine?

There are 300 wineries already making good wine here, so yes, we can. But because it is so humid, wine can’t be made the same way here as it is in Europe. But through trial and error, a Japanese style of cultivation has gradually been established.

In other countries where they make quality wine, growing good grapes is the first step, but for a long time in Japan, the people who grew the grapes and the people who made the wine were separate. Increasingly, though, people here are doing everything themselves.

Is there an ideal environment for wine-making?

That is difficult to say. It used to be said that wine can only be made in the areas between 30 and 50 degrees North, and 20 to 40 degrees South. But in reality, even in the most southern part of New Zealand, where penguins live, wine is made. The same goes for northern Europe, in places like Norway and Sweden. Kilimanjaro is right on the equator and wine is being made there.

What does it take to be a good sommelier?

A sommelier’s job is not just opening a bottle of good wine and pouring it for the customers. If that was the case, anyone could do it. I think that a sommelier needs to be someone who can provide the best service to the customers.

Our customers are Japanese, and we must be able to know and choose what these Japanese people want to drink. Instead of learning the names of small farms in France, a Japanese sommelier should know everything about all of the beverages that are made in Japan — from all of the types of mineral water and tea to juice and liquor.

As a Japanese sommelier, what is your future goal?

I think I need to think about what a Japanese sommelier should be like within the context of Japanese culture. I used to think of a sommelier as a goodwill ambassador, who acted as a liaison between Japan and France. Many people still think that way, but it’s wrong-headed. We are not working for France; we are working for the customers who pay for our service, here in Japan. And that is why I think that the wine culture here should be distinctively Japanese.

Maybe in 50 years from now, Japanese people may be munching on dried sardines while drinking red wine as if that is the most natural thing in the world. If that were to happen, it would be interesting.

In the last decade, wine has become popular — especially among young women — on account of its healthy polyphenol content. Do you think this boom will eventually fade?

No. Wine consumption has doubled since 1995, and though it’s said to have peaked in 1998, it is difficult to be sure, because the amount is calculated after tax is paid in Japan. The fact is that in 1998, too much wine was imported and some was carried over to the next year. That caused a slight decline in the consumption figures.

Those who were only interested in the health benefits eventually drifted away from wine, but now, izakaya pubs, sushi bars, tempura restaurants and just about everywhere stocks wine.

So, do you think that wine has become a part of Japanese culture?

I wouldn’t go that far. It has become a fixture in large cities like Tokyo, but there are still a lot of areas in Japan where wine hasn’t spread yet. But as the Westernization of food proceeds, so will the spread of wine. And as the younger generation of wine-lovers matures, they will introduce it to their children. In this way, I believe that wine will spread naturally, gradually becoming a part of Japanese culture.