Food & Drink

Bringing little-known New York wines to Japan

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

Running to the west of the center of the city of Fukuoka is the wide, tree-lined boulevard of Keyaki-dori. An upmarket part of town, spots on the street rarely come up for renewal; once a shop has its prized location, it clings to it for all it is worth. So it is a pleasant surprise to find fresh noren curtains and a regalia of iwai hana (celebration flowers) outside a newly opened store.

“New York Wine” reads the text across the noren, a statement of purpose that poses more questions than it answers. New York? Wine? In Fukuoka?

Behind the counter stands Brian Dorfman, 46, dressed simply but stylishly. Around him is a highly curated and exclusive selection of wines, liquors, ciders and beers from his native state of New York.

“I studied at Ithaca College in upstate New York,” says Dorfman. “I very quickly learned that Ithaca was a hippy, liberal town in the middle of farmland. And one of the most amazing things about it, aside from the beauty of the place, was this Finger Lakes wine trail that all the kids were talking about.”

It would be three years before Dorfman was legally able to enjoy the trail, but the impression it left on him was immeasurable. “At the time, maybe 1992 or 1993, there were some exceptional wineries out there using European grapes. But by and large, the produce wouldn’t stand up against European bottles,” Dorfman says. “However, there were 20 or 30 wineries in the region and tastings were either free or cost maybe a dollar, so it was a great time for us as students.”

After graduating, Dorfman moved to Manhattan to start a boutique architectural firm that designed acoustic spaces. However, the tie to upstate New York remained and the Finger Lakes region became an escape from the city. “I worked really hard and saved up some money, and bought a little piece of land on Lake Cayuga, where I’d camp with a bottle of wine and a little fire,” Dorfman says.

In the late ’90s, Dorfman upgraded his accommodation and bought a house in a small town called Aurora, also on the edge of Lake Cayuga, and began to spend as much of his time in the area as possible, becoming a hobbyist wine collector and taking courses at local colleges and online.

Fast forward to the mid 2010s and an introduction to Japanese sake led Dorfman to visit Tokyo and Fukuoka in order to study the drink. “After that, I returned to the States and realized I wanted a change in career,” Dorfman says, “I thought ‘perhaps there’s something I can do with wine and nihonshu.’

“During the early 2000s, many of the wineries in the Finger Lakes had started producing award-winning bottles,” Dorfman continues. “So, in 2015, I started a company in New York with the sole purpose of importing products from Japan and exporting produce from the Finger Lakes.”

In starting his company, Dorfman saw the opportunity to move abroad and so, in June 2016, made the decision to base the company’s Japan operations out of Fukuoka, with his partner in New York managing a separate, U.S.-based company.

With Fukuoka’s startup visa, Dorfman had just six months to establish his business. “I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it was going to be when I started out,” says Dorfman. “Between applying for licenses, setting up shop and renting an office and storage, six months went by very quickly. The documentation for the liquor license alone was about as thick as my leg.”

Eighteen months into operation, however, and things have begun to settle down. Dorfman opened his premises in December 2017, and there is a steady flow of visitors through the shop. A Japanese staff member helps with the sales, but Dorfman chats avidly with customers about each bottle, its origins, production and why he chose it for the store.

The main problem now is keeping the store in supply. “It’s just over three weeks door to door if I’m shipping produce,” says Dorfman, “First it’s trucked from New York to California and then shipped to Moji Port in northern Kyushu.”

The most popular so far? According to Dorfman: “The Andromeda IPA beer has proved the star. I’ve had to stop giving out free samples because we’re running low on stock.”

New York Wine Traders can be found online at newyorkwinetraders.co.jp.