Rating, ranking — and ruining? — Japanese sake

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

On Aug. 31, the Wine Advocate, a publication started by the influential U.S.-based wine critic Robert Parker, released its first “official” ratings guide to sake with reviews written by Chinese critic Liwen Hao. Parker, who gained fame for creating the 100-point scoring system widely used to rate wines, applied the same evaluation standards to sake. Although Parker did not review the sake himself, the popularity of the Wine Advocate led many in the industry to predict that the list would help boost sake’s global appeal.

The report caused an immediate stir. Within 24 hours of its release, demand for the 78 brews on the list of top scorers — those which received scores of 90 points or higher — skyrocketed. According to an article in the Financial Times, sake suppliers were inundated with orders from wealthy collectors, high-end hotels and restaurants. Limited availability of bottles such as Kameno-o Sannen Jukusei from Niigata Prefecture has driven prices up, and the gap between supply and demand has thrown some brewers into a quandary as to whether or not to increase production.

While all of this sounds like good news for the sake business, the guide generated controversy after wine writer W. Blake Gray reported that, shortly after the release of the Wine Advocate’s scores, a newly established sake exporter based in Tokyo called The Taste of Sake began selling the guide’s brews online.

“The top-rated sake, given 98 points by the Advocate, was offered by The Taste of Sake for $160 a bottle on the day the ratings were released (it previously sold for $45 from the brewery),” Gray writes on his blog, The Gray Report. “Within a week, that price was up to $5,000 a bottle.”

The Taste of Sake’s uncanny timing — along with the fact that its portfolio consisted entirely of sake gleaned from the Wine Advocate list — prompted Gray and others to question whether the two companies had any connection.

The Taste of Sake’s website has since been removed. The Wine Advocate’s editor-in-chief, Lisa Perrotti Brown, later responded on Gray’s blog that the publication is “investigating the facts behind these allegations,” and added that she was “not surprised that an opportunistic company was set up to take advantage in increased international interest in sake as a result of the report.” The issue has yet to be resolved, and the topic has sparked a debate among the sake community about the validity of rating systems.

In early August, I wrote in this column about how sake competitions and rankings can serve as useful guides to new consumers, but the Wine Advocate incident raises serious concerns about that. It is highly unethical for institutions that rate products to be involved in distribution and sales — thus profiting directly from their scores. Although the Wine Advocate has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing, the situation illustrates the need for greater transparency in the field of sake reviewing.

Elliot Faber, author of the book “Sake: The History, Stories, and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries,” notes that the Wine Advocate scandal “is a catalyst to a lot of changes coming” to the sake industry.

“Critics have to earn the trust and respect of the public,” he says. “Consumers should be wary.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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