Japan’s top sommelier has plenty of bottle


At midnight Wednesday, Prince Hotel sommeliers marked the release of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wine with celebrations underwater at the Epson Shinagawa Aqua Stadium at its Shinagawa branch, and on the snow at its Karuizawa ski-resort hotel.

In October, Kazuyoshi Kogai, who heads the sommeliers of the Prince Hotel chain and the Japan Sommelier Association, became the first non-European to be chosen as president of Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI). He says he feels high expectations from the other member countries but already has plans for the organization.

“During my three-year presidency, I would like to improve the quality of sommeliers around the world by establishing a training system whereby they can be sent for an on-the-job training at overseas restaurants or hotels,” 61-year-old Kogai tells The Japan Times. “Training will cover all the aspects of the sommelier’s job, from wine-tasting skills to service, procurement and wine-cellar management.”

Founded in June 1969 in France, and today with more than 40 member countries, ASI aims to develop and promote the sommelier profession worldwide. Its main activities include holding a biannual general meeting and organizing the international World’s Best Sommelier Competition once every three years in a different member country.

Kogai wishes to develop an organization based on continental groups to improve partnership and communications among member countries. He will also entice countries from the African and Australian continents, which have no current members, to join the association.

As chief sommelier for the Prince Hotel chain, Kogai has been visiting wine-producing countries for the past 20 years in search of undiscovered wines to serve at the hotel.

“When I purchase, I always look for wines that are good quality, reasonably priced and produced by a passionate winemaker. (Those qualities) make me confident that they will sell,” Kogai says. “Recently, I’ve been finding good bargain wines in the southern France region.”

Many of his wines are only available at the Prince Hotel chain. The wines are labeled “Kazuyoshi Kogai Selection” and are priced from around ¥5,000, including tax and service charge — not a bad price for such select wines. The wine list currently consists of French wines and Cava (Spanish sparkling wine).

Kogai’s first taste of wine was at a restaurant in Yokohama in 1965 when he was a young man. “It was a Sauternes, a sweet dessert wine from France, and it was very tasty. I haven’t had anything so delicious before. After that I bought a book of wine and learned about sommeliers.”

He joined the Ginza, Tokyo, branch of renowned French restaurant Maxim’s de Paris in 1969, then worked at Maxim’s original store in Paris for a year from 1973, before returning to the Tokyo branch until 1982, when he joined the Prince chain. “My days at Maxim’s taught me everything about the skills and service of the sommelier. We had great customers and wines from around the world.”

A wine-tasting dinner hosted by Kogai is held six times a year at branches of the Prince Hotel nationwide. Tasting dinners are priced around ¥12,000 to ¥15,000, including tax and service charge.

“The purpose of this tasting dinner is to increase people’s interest in wine. We want to introduce affordable good-quality wine, with different types of dishes, from French and Japanese to Chinese cuisine,” Kogai says.

“I wish that someday there will be a wine bottle in every home in Japan, and that people will enjoy drinking wine daily and casually.”