“A man’s approach to drinking is totally different from a woman’s: Men think about color, what grapes were used, compare the taste and consider its place of origin. Women think about what kind of food a wine will go well with, where we might like to drink it, the kind of company it’d be good to drink with — whether it’s a wine to drink with a lover or a friend.”
I’m in a bar chatting with Mayumi Eguchi, aka Yoppawriter (drunken writer) — one of Japan’s top alcohol writers — about what it’s like to be a successful woman in the world of wine. (Eguchi’s latest book, “Eating, Drinking and Getting Wasted in China,” was published this September by Nikkei BP.)
More women than men drink wine in Japan: A survey by JapanGuide.com showed that 40 percent of Japanese women drink wine once a month compared with 31 percent of men. Does this reflect the numbers of women employed in the wine industry itself? According to Japan’s sommelier association, out of the 12,431 of qualified sommeliers in this country, 6,014 are women: That’s just over 48 percent.
But what is the picture higher up? Is it easy for a Japanese woman to make it in the wine world? And what skills do you need for this work? To answer these questions, I interviewed a sommelier, a wine buyer, a wine writer and a winemaker to ask them about their experiences as women in the industry.
“I think we are more sensitive to taste and smell and we enjoy eating and drinking more than men,” says Yoko Sato, a winemaker for Freixenet in Catalunia, Spain, when asked why more women than men enjoy wine in Japan. “We are also more curious about trying new things.”
Yuka Kudo, sommelier for Ginza Kojyu restaurant, has the same opinion.
“Wine is a drink that stimulates intellectual curiosity. That too is something that Japanese women, who are curious when it comes to study, find attractive in wine,” says the sommelier.
If you’ve gained an interest in wine, and are serious about it, the next logical step is to become certified as a sommelier.
“If you have five years’ experience in the food and drink industry, then you can try for the sommelier qualification,” says Kudo. “Compared with countries in Europe, where you have to have both experience and a recommendation, I think the qualification in Japan is relatively easy — regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.”
If you aren’t willing to spend all that time training on the job, the other option is to go and study at a wine college. Wine buyer Miyuki Ishibashi studied wine first at EVI Wine School in Tokyo.
“After going to wine school, I knew that in France there are many exceptional wines, so I chose to continue to study wine in France,” says Ishibashi, who continued her education in Beaune, France, at the Centre de Formation Professionnelle et de Promotion Agricole (CFPPA).
All of the women spoken to felt it was necessary to go overseas to learn more about wine. Kudo thinks that although it’s not necessary to formally study wine abroad, it’s important to go to gain experience.
“For communication and collecting information, language skills are very important,” says Kudo. “You might not need to study overseas, but it is important to go and see wine-producing regions overseas.”
One of the highlights of the job, of course, is the opportunity to travel.
“The best thing about my job is that I go to France for work about once a year and meet a lot of people working in the wine world,” says the wine buyer Ishibashi, who admits to being a passionate Francophile.
Ishibashi and others find that in their experience — both inside and outside of Japan — the balance of Japanese wine buyers and importers tilts toward men.
“Just attending the California Wine institute tasting today, it looked as if men account for 60 to 70 percent of jobs in the service industry and 75 to 80 percent of jobs with importers or distributors,” guesses Toshie Nakashima, manager of the Japan Wine Challenge.
“In my company, about 20 to 25 percent of importers and buyers are women,” says Ishibashi, and Eguchi paints a similar picture in the world of wine journalism. “In terms of real wine specialists who write exclusively about wine, there are probably only about 10 people in Japan, and out of those, just two or three are women.”
The wine-maker Sato feels she is definitely outnumbered, but sees that as a positive thing.
“Because we are the minority, you can give new thoughts and create new styles. It’s a big opportunity for women,” she says. As a Japanese woman, Sato found herself perfectly placed to create a wine called Oroya, which she designed specifically to be drunk with sushi. “It has been a big success. We originally started producing 10,000 bottles, and now production has reached 100,000 bottles.”
Eguchi’s experience has been similarly positive.
“I’ve never experienced discrimination,” says the writer. “In fact, quite the opposite. I’ve found that being a woman has been an advantage. Winery owners are usually men, so if a woman turns up, they’re quite pleased. They ask me to have a drink with them and really open up because it’s a refreshing rarity having a woman around.”
So what’s the reason for the shortfall in numbers of women at the top of the profession? For one, having a family and being a sommelier at the same time can be quite tough.
“If you work at a restaurant, the hours are long, and you have to work till late in the night. So, to be honest, I think it would be quite difficult to manage both the work and raising children at the same time,” says the sommelier Kudo.
However, it’s not all bleak. Wine buyer Ishibashi has found her employer willing to be flexible.
“If I want a family in the future, it’s possible in my company,” she says. “We have an excellent system for maternity leave.”
With so many positive comments from these women, who all insist they have never experienced discrimination, obviously there is another reason that there are so few women at the top of the wine industry.
‘In the Japanese workplace, women are in the minority. It’s a man’s world and drinking used to be exclusively a male thing,” says Eguchi. “Traditionally, women didn’t drink, although recently they’ve begun to drink much more. As a consequence, there are real opportunities for women to become writers in this field.”
Eguchi warns, though, that there is one downside to the career she has chosen to pursue.
“The great thing about this job is that I can drink as much as I like,” she says, adding, “the worst thing about the job is that I can drink as much as I like.”