Food & Drink

Chilean wine a hit among Japan's working women

by Aya Takada and Hiromi Horie

Bloomberg

Japan’s swelling ranks of working women have grape growers 10,000 miles away cheering.

Chilean vintners have emerged as the biggest beneficiary of Japan’s booming wine market. Their low-priced, fruit-driven product has found a receptive niche among women in their 40s and 50s, who have helped boost wine consumption to a new record every year since 2012.

“Women drink more as their participation in the labor market is increasing, and their disposable incomes are expanding,” said Naoko Kuga, an analyst who tracks lifestyle changes at NLI Research Institute in Tokyo. “This trend works positively for wine consumption.”

And for Chile. The Latin American nation overtook France as Japan’s top wine supplier in 2015, commanding a dominant presence in supermarkets and convenience stores — fertile ground for marketers targeting women. Vina Concha & Toro SA, the Santiago-based producer of Casillero del Diablo cabernet sauvignons and merlots, reported a 24 percent jump in third-quarter sales volumes to Japan in November.

Japan imported 74.6 million liters of wine from Chile in the 11 months through November, compared with 57.7 million liters from France, data from the agriculture ministry show.

Aeon Co., the nation’s largest supermarket-chain operator, hired wine judge Yumi Kunimi in 2014 to help promote sales through in-store tastings in Osaka, Japan’s industrial heartland.

“Some customers said they’d never tried wine before, and became big fans from the tastings in our shops,” Kunimi said.

Featured lines are typically priced at less than ¥2,000 a bottle and picked by an annual gathering of female sommeliers, wine buyers and consultants as being the most appealing to women, and the best to enjoy with Japanese food, Kunimi said.

On a per-capita basis, consumption of wine from grapes has swelled 50 percent since 2006 to an average of 2.4 liters (81 ounces) a year, researcher Euromonitor International estimates. Still, Japanese consumption is a fraction of the 40.2 liters of wine the average person in Portugal swills in a year and much less than the 8.6 liters Americans knock back.

“Wine consumption in Japan is still four bottles a year per person,” said Kiyoshi Yokoyama, president of Mercian, the wine-making subsidiary of Kirin Holdings Co., and the chairman of Japan Wineries Association. “We have a big potential for growth.”

Midori Saito, a 32-year-old music teacher in Tokyo, said she drinks wine almost every day after work, and chardonnay is her favorite.

“We emptied four bottles in five hours,” Saito said after having drinks with three of her friends in a Spanish-style bar in Tokyo. “We all love to chat over good food and wine.”

Saito is fairly typical of the clientele at the bar Kiyofumi Iwasaka runs in downtown Tokyo. “A majority of our customers are women working in nearby offices,” Iwasaka said. “They come here after work with their colleagues and enjoy drinking with a casual bite to eat.”

Industry stalwart Yumi Tanabe is trying to bolster growth. Tanabe, whose father, Kaneyasu Marutani, founded Japan’s first public winery on the northern island of Hokkaido 54 years ago, is working to double per-capita consumption in the decade through 2020.

Tanabe began the Japan Women’s Wine Awards three years ago to help match wine with Japanese food, and help other women find jobs in the industry. This year’s event attracted 4,212 entries from 37 countries including Australia, Chile and the U.S. The results, decided by more than 400 female judges, will be announced on Feb. 14.

“We’re the only organizer of a global wine competition that selects the best bottle for sushi,” she said, noting that a sparkling wine from Spain won that title last year. Judges said the best pairing with yakitori was a locally made rose from Suntory Holdings Ltd., Japan’s second-largest winemaker.

Chilean wines featured prominently too, with more than a dozen garnering top “double gold” honors, including bottles from Concha & Toro and Spanish producer Miguel Torres SA.

“Japanese favored French wine for a long time, but the trend is changing,” Tanabe said. “Chilean wine is seen by Japanese as affordable and tasty to drink.”

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