Food & Drink

10 years procuring for Japan's fine wine market

by Nick Sinclair

Contributing Writer

In the mid-1990s, a then 300-year-old British wine company discovered a lucrative opportunity waiting for it in Japan by scanning boarding passes at its Heathrow Airport store.

“The data clearly demonstrated to us as early as 1994 that we had some very important potential customers who were flying first class to Tokyo,” says Nicholas Pegna, Asia director at Berry Bros. & Rudd, Ltd.

Berry Bros. & Rudd first opened in 1698 in St. James’s, London, where it still stands today. Over the last 320 years, it has established itself as a leading wine and spirits merchant, offering a range of services to a select pool of fine wine connoisseurs the world over. In addition to selling over 5,000 varieties of wines and spirits, the company offers storage, investment advice and even an online trading platform for collectors to buy and sell highly prized bottles among themselves.

The Heathrow store has since closed, but the company kept in touch with its Japanese customers, many of whom became regulars after first encountering the family-owned wine merchant at the airport location. A Tokyo office opened in October 2008, and today the company ships a container of stock to Japan once a month from its vast storage facility outside of London, home to 9 million bottles.

“The critical role of a merchant is to identify interesting producers and put them in front of a broad range of customers,” Pegna says. It helps that Berry Bros. is one of the world’s largest employers of Masters of Wine. There are only 380 Masters of Wine in the world, and candidates must pass a gruelling series of theory exams and blind tastings to qualify. Berry Bros. now boasts six “MWs,” as they are known, as full-time employees.

Pegna says that Japanese collectors are “extremely discerning.” The increasing sophistication of wine fraud like that perpetuated by the infamous Rudy Kurniawan, the subject of documentary film “Sour Grapes” released on Netflix in November 2016, has heightened concerns over counterfeits in the wine community.

To counter this, Berry Bros. offers en primeur wines, where respected producers sell off certain vintages before they are even bottled, providing collectors with access to vintages that would become near impossible to procure once on the market. This also offers guaranteed authenticity, and is a popular service for Japanese collectors.

For a long time, Japan “was a market dominated by people’s love for the most expensive Burgundies,” recounts Pegna. In 1988, department store Takashimaya even purchased a stake in Domaine Leroy, producer of the world’s most expensive Burgundy, to secure supply for Japan’s deep-pocketed oenophiles.

Consumer preferences have evolved since the bubble economy: Japan became the world’s third largest Champagne market in 2017, overtaking Germany after imported volumes grew by 18 percent according to Comite Champagne, the trade association that represents Champagne producers. In keeping with Japanese consumers’ growing interest in smaller producers, Berry Bros. is seeing consumption of English sparkling wine grow faster in Japan than in any other market.

While there are no plans to carry Japanese wines for the time being, former Berry Bros. Master of Wine Jasper Morris previously visited several producers in Yamanashi Prefecture, including the Marufuji and Katsunuma wineries. Japan is “certainly a region to watch” but in the meantime, a Berry Bros. & Rudd own-label sake is under consideration. The company has partnered with a local brewer to capitalize on growing interest in the Japanese alcohol around the world.

Japan remains a key growth market for Berry Bros. In addition to serving a select pool of fine wine connoisseurs in Japan, it hosts tastings and events in its dining room overlooking the Imperial Palace and at restaurants across Tokyo, the details of which can be found on the company’s website.

“Our ambition is always to broaden the customer base,” says Pegna. Through its tastings and events, Berry Bros. hopes to cultivate the collectors of tomorrow.

To find out more about Berry Bros. & Rudd and attend tastings and other events, visit www.bbr.co.jp.