LOS ANGELES (Kyodo) The U.S. West Coast has long been a popular destination for Japanese tourists, but a growing interest in California wines is creating a new travel market that vintners are beginning to exploit.

Japanese imports of U.S. wine were valued at more than $82 million in 2005, with roughly 90 percent of the total coming from California. The trade has increased steadily since 2003 and Japan is now American winemakers’ third-best customer in the world.

However, average annual wine consumption in Japan remains relatively low and is largely restricted to metropolitan areas.

It is estimated that the average person outside of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Kobe probably drinks less than one bottle a year.

Nevertheless, wine exporters say it would be foolish not to take notice of the growing demand for U.S. wine throughout Japan.

Kenichi Hori of the Wine Institute Japan and author of a popular “manga” (comic) called “Sommelier,” says the Japanese love to study wines and many consumers guide their tastes around Robert Parker reviews, lifestyle magazines and manga. California wines Calera and AuBon Climat experienced nearly 1,000 percent increases in sales in Japan after they were mentioned in “Sommelier.”

Jan Nelson of Orca International, a wine importer specializing in luxury wines from the states of Washington and Oregon, says the Japanese wine market right now is “similar to many maturing markets in that the most popular varietals are mainstream and easy to remember: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, and to a lesser extent syrah and sauvignon blanc.”

Some in the industry want to use the reputation of the U.S. wineries that produce those varietals to lure Japanese travelers to West Coast wine-producing regions.

“Japanese, especially affluent Japanese, love to travel and the Pacific Northwest has long been a popular destination. Increasing interest in wine (in general) in Japan has sparked a new demand for ‘wine tourism,’ a novel and fun way for many tourists to re-experience familiar tourist destinations,” Nelson said.

Efforts to develop the market for U.S. wine in Japan and bring Japanese tourists to places such as California’s Napa and Sonoma counties to experience wine country firsthand have only taken shape in the last five years. The California Wine Institute launched its first major export program last fall.

The campaign tag line, “Inspired by Life,” was meant to portray the Californian wine industry as “forward thinking, creative and elegant, but approachable,” said Joseph Rollo, director of the Wine Institute’s international department.

This year’s events in Japan included half a dozen programs between March and June designed to help Japanese consumers develop a more personal connection with the many Californian wineries represented in the market back home.

Events included wine-by-the-glass promotions at 35 importers and 314 restaurants; promotions at Hanshin department stores that featured 213 California wines and drew more than 6,000 visitors; and the Importer Buying Tour to California, which brought 16 importer representatives to California to meet vintners.

Other events took place at the Kakuyasu liquor convenience store chain, Rakuten, the biggest virtual shopping Mall on the Internet, and a California Wine Visual Display that showed 70 slides in a four-minute program run at select premium wine stores nationwide.

The attempt to capture more Japanese interest is based on the fact that more than 700,000 Japanese travelers visit California every year. According to the California state tourism office, the number of visitors from Japan who went to theme parks in 2005 was only slightly higher than the 25.8 percent of Japanese tourists who spent time visiting small towns and touring the countryside.

Rodrigo Enrique, president of Extranomical Adventures, a San Francisco sightseeing company that arranges wine country tours for international travelers, said the Japanese are among his best clients.

Enrique also pointed out that Napa tours are much more popular among Japanese women than men. He estimated that somewhere between 70 percent and 85 percent of his Japanese clientele is female.

“For the Japanese, it is not as much about tasting as it is just checking wine country out. Japanese customers also tend to be status-conscious and are eager to visit the most expensive or upper-end wineries in Napa, such as Opus 1.”

Bill Campbell of Hottei, the largest American wine importer in Japan, said he has received requests every month for the past 10 years from Japanese acquaintances for recommendations on touring wine country.

However, despite the desire to travel there, Campbell noted that many Japanese only want to visit Napa for one day or even just a few hours, which often is not enough time to really do much. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars of Napa Valley enjoys a strong reputation in Japan and consequently has more than 2,500 Japanese visitors each year.

But even with those numbers, Stag’s Leap does not have any specific programs to promote its wine in Japan and instead relies on Hottei to advertise their winery in Japan.

Wineries that do not take the initiative in opening themselves up to the Japanese market may end up missing out on a growing clientele.

“While there are many winery-specified tours to France, California winery tours are still rare,” said Kyoko Okabe of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Tokyo office.

The taste for American wines in Japan is growing, and now seems the time for West Coast wineries to develop wine tourism for the Japanese traveler. The longer Americans wait to uncork the market for Japanese tourism in wine country, the less likely things will really “pop,” she said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.