Brewery executive Kosuke Kuji brought his best sake to a New York booze showcase 16 years ago hoping to promote high-end sake to a new generation of sophisticated foreign drinkers. They were a little disappointed.

It wasn't that sake from his Nanbu-Bijin brewery failed to live up to its rating back home as Junmai-Daiginjo, the name given to premium grade vintages. But for aficionados of traditional grape-based wines, the local appellation that produces the main ingredient can be almost as important as the final product — think Napa Valley in California, Bordeaux in France, or Chianti in Italy.

Back in 2001, most of the rice used in Nanbu-Bijin sake came from Hyogo Prefecture. That's 1,000 km south of where the beverage was made in Iwate Prefecture. So when a sommelier at the New York event learned from Kuji where the ingredients came from, the American wine expert seemed disappointed that the sake wasn't a more artisanal product.