Celebrating the Tokyo weekend with a glass of natural wine

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

Jose Moya (a.k.a. “the Spanish Hipster,” a moniker that refers to both his country of birth as well as the name of his food blog) is, to put it mildly, a natural wine snob. As a purveyor of natural wine, he has a professional interest in the topic (as well as high standards).

Moya travels to Tokyo frequently, and every time he breezes through town, he is keen to explore the city’s funky wine dens. Last Saturday, we planned to meet for a late-afternoon drink at 4 p.m., but when I sent him a bar suggestion, he replied tepidly: “The place looks cool, but I don’t see many natural wines.”

He punctuated the text with an emoticon denoting sadness or disappointment.

I was in a quandary. The preprandial timing of our rendezvous presented a serious snag. While the Japanese capital has more than its fair share of venues specializing in natural wine — a broad category that carries no legal definition but refers generally to wines produced with minimal use of additives, both in the vineyard and in the cellar — most of them are restaurants that close between lunch and dinner service.

Fortunately, some of Tokyo’s best natural wine stores also have tasting areas that function as bars, where you can order a glass or pop a bottle from the shop for a corkage fee. The retail operating hours would solve the timing issue, and browsing the shelves would keep whoever arrived first occupied (Moya and I are both prone to tardiness).

The pioneering shop 3amours, which launched in 2006 in the Ebisu neighborhood, serves several wines by the glass, along with snacks such as charcuterie and pate, at the small counter on the first floor. After a monthlong refurbishment, the bar space reopens on March 9.

The sparse decor inside The Wine Store, a shoebox-sized number in the Nakameguro area, matches the shop’s no-frills approach: The white-walled space is standing room only, around a stone counter illuminated by three light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. There is no food menu, but on a recent visit, the wines by the glass included cult favorites such as Gravner Ribolla Riserva 1998 from Italy and Gut Oggau Josephine from Austria. The reasonable ¥500 corkage charge is an added boon.

Walking by No.501 in the Aoyama district, you might be forgiven for mistaking it, as I had, for a storage closet. The shop’s name is discreetly etched on the metal door, artfully stylized in lowercase. Inside the tight space, brightly colored grid-shaped wine shelves give the impression of being inside a game of wine-themed Tetris.

Behind a sliding glass door at the back of the store is a tiny boite with an AstroTurf-covered floor and 12 seats. The bar features around 10 choices by the glass, and plates such as chicken terrine and lamb simmered in tomato sauce. While waiting for Moya, I polished off a glass of Grape Republic Inc. Pink Frizzante, a charming and mildly fizzy Delaware blend from Yamanashi Prefecture. He was late, but it didn’t matter. I was surrounded by bottles of wine and felt like I had all the time in the world.