Courting Japan

By Kerry Newberry

In the fifth century AD, the Emperor Richiu was happily viewing the blossom of wild cherries along the shores of a lake near his palace, while being rowed around the lake in a pleasure-boat. As he passed close to the steep of the bank beneath the overhanging trees, petals fluttered down, some of them falling into the wine cup held in his hand.”

This image of perfect pleasure may serve as a beginning for the history of gardens in Japan, wrote Christopher Thacker in his collection, “The History of Gardens.”

Or did it mark the beginning for wine?

Japanese Wine Culture

From that moment, allegory holds, the custom of wine drinking at the time of sakura, or cherry blossom began. Centuries later, the sakura tradition continues and the wine culture in Japan flourishes.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Academie du Vin Tokyo. This is the Japanese branch of the legendary wine school in Paris, first established by Steven Spurrier in 1972. The Tokyo branch opened in 1987.

“We are the biggest and oldest wine school in Japan, probably in Asia,” said General Manager Mineo Tachibana. The academy has turned out more than 30,000 graduates in two decades of operation.

Two additional branches are located in the cities of Osaka and Nagoya. Since opening, the school has seen a significant increase in students. “Back in the 1980s we had less than 100 students in a year,” said Tachibana. “Now we have more than 4,000 students in a year.”

Tomoko Sasaki, a student at Academie du Vin Tokyo, started taking courses in 1996.

“At that time there was a mix of people: flight attendants, fashion designers, workers from restaurants and wine shops, doctors, architects, wine lovers like me—actually, quite a number of people working in the financial industry,” she said. Sasaki fits into Academie du Vin’s predominant demographic; students in their 30s and 40s are the majority and 70 percent are female.

“At first, most students came to school for fun,” said Tachibana. Now, more students are taking courses for certifications such as WSET and JSA. “In Japan, the most popular certifications in wine are issued by the Japan Sommelier Association (JSA).” According to JSA, there are 13,409 sommeliers in Japan as of Jan. 1, 2009.  Rumor has it, more than wine-centric France.

Courses focus on wine basics and foundations, with an emphasis on European regions. Since last year, the school expanded beyond Europe, to offer classes on New Zealand, Australian and American wines, highlighting Oregon, Washington and California.

Another New World wine venture experiencing exponential growth is Crushpad Japan. The custom-crush wine business kicked off in California and saw opportunity in Japan, the largest market for the company outside the U.S.

“Crushpad started from 5,000 cases in 2004,” said Makoto Kanda, a representative for the company.  “It’s now 45,000 cases in 2008.”

Why the boom? Some attribute it in part to a cult comic strip—a manga series on wine that started in 2004.

“The comic “Kami no Shizuku” drove the sales in the wine industry earlier this year, especially after a drama based on the comic was on TV,” said Kanda. “But this is not going to continue, in my opinion. People will realize it’s just a comic and not real.”

Kanda projects high-end consumers as the long-term drivers for wine sales.

There is no question though that “Kami no Shizuku” (Drops of God) captivates wine fans all over Asia. Shizuku Kanzaki, the star of the story, is on a quest for 12 wines, likened to the 12 disciples in his wine critic father’s will. He is in a race with his adopted brother, a sommelier, to win the father’s wine collection.

The series, with sales of more than 500,000 copies, has also increased sales for specific bottles mentioned across Japan, Korea and China.

So far, the focus in the comic has been Old World wines; until recently. A wine from McLaren Vale was featured in the manga, extolling the virtues of a New World wine and screwcaps, for the first time. The wine, a 2006 d’Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz/Viognier, sold out of all the bottles available in Japan before the manga went to print. Since then, the winery has completely sold out of the vintage, going into the early release of the 2007 vintage.

Sharona Tsubota, a Portland-based wine and spirits educator and owner of In Great Spirits, started teaching in Tokyo in the mid-90s when more California wines were being imported into Japan. Although the typical Japanese wine drinker was heavily biased toward everything French, wines from Napa were increasingly found in stores and on wine lists.

“Outside of Napa, the average Japanese drinker was skeptical,” said Tsubota.

She finds this has changed somewhat over the years, as information has spread and wines from other parts of the U.S. begin to get a toehold in the Japanese market.

“However, the Japanese usually ‘go with what they know,’ and Bordeaux, Bourgogne and Napa are brand names just like Chanel, Gucci and Tiffany.

“Probably the biggest impact on Japanese imports of wine was when Shinya Tasaki became the first Japanese to win the International Sommelier Association’s World’s Best Sommelier Competition in 1995.”

Other primary sales drivers are celebrities, both international and Japanese, movies and television.

“Not long after Tasaki won the award in 1995, a TV drama was launched showing the ‘glamorous’ world of the sommelier,” Tsubota said. “Lots of romance over wine at the tables. Whenever there are photos of a popular Japanese actor or actress drinking wine, it can spark a “mini-boom” in wine consumption.”

Oregon + Japan + Wine

From the ’80s through the mid-’90s, the Japanese became enamored with Oregon through the magic of television. The popular show called “Oregon Kara Ai,” (From Oregon with Love) featured a young Japanese boy, Akira, who was sent to live with his relatives in Oregon after his parents died in a tragic car accident. It was filmed on location in rural Oregon.

In Japan, most people over 30 still hold fond memories for the drama; and it is this emotional bond that businessman Tei Gordon leverages to educate the Japanese market about Oregon wine. Simply, he uses the English translation of the show as his website’s name, Pretty clever.

Gordon grew up in Corvallis and now runs a small consulting company from Tokyo. His mother is Japanese; she met his father at Oregon State University.

“My role might be best described as an Oregon wine promoter and agent,” he said. “I promote Oregon wines at tastings with a rolodex full of distributors,” he said.

He started this side business in 2002 to help friends as they transitioned from the Silicon Forest to the Willamette Valley.

“One day my father mentioned that my old friends, Mike and Claire Magee (proprietors of Belle Vallée Cellars in Corvallis), switched from manufacturing IBM-compatible upgrade chips to winemaking,” he explained. Belle Vallée became his first wine success and is his best seller right now. Gordon also works with Spindrift, Lumos and Viridian.

“One of the best things about Oregon Pinot Noir is it is so classy and delicate, and food pairing is extremely important in Japan—it is a perfect complement, delicate enough that you can savor it, even with the subtle taste of sushi, which you cannot do with big California wines, which easily overwhelm Japanese food,” Gordon noted.

He believes the outlook for Oregon Pinot Noir wines in Japan is very bright.

“I keep telling my Oregon wineries and Japanese distributors that now is the time to strike, especially with the much-talked-about and soon-to-be-bottled 2008 vintage,” he explained.

Why now? The Japanese remake of “Sideways” is coming out Oct. 31.

“If the original film is any indication of helping raise appreciation for the Pinot Noir grape in general, I think it will give Oregon Pinot a huge boost in Japan,” Gordon said. “Once the Pinot Noir secret gets out with the release of the Japanese remake, I can see all the Japanese jumping on the Oregon Pinot bandwagon.”

Market Facts

Japan has consistently been in the top three of export destinations for Oregon wines over the past decade.

“The consumer market there is sophisticated with plenty of niches to tap into,” said Patrick Mayer, global trade and compliance manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). “But choosing the right partner and sales channel is critical.”

Mayers says that wine consumption is growing versus saké and other traditional liquors. But, while saké still controls 70 percent of the ‘wine’ market in Japan, with grape wine at about 20 percent, saké is expected to continue its decline as younger consumers’ preferences change.

“In the case of Pinot Noir, the varietal is generally not as well known as other reds in Japan, but certainly got a boost from the ‘red wine boom’ in the late ’90s,” Mayer said. “And because of the nature of the Pinot Noir grape, the variety of styles and contrasts between New Zealand, France, Oregon—and more recently California—provide points of interest for Japanese wine aficionados.

“Consumers in Japan are always looking for new, unique and high quality products, and the industry has worked hard to educate consumers in Japan about Oregon’s ‘terroir’, putting us soundly on the map of leading wine-producing regions in the world.”

The ODA works closely with the Oregon Wine Board (OWB), leading the charge to elevate Oregon wines in Japan.

“Japan is one of our export program’s three focus markets and has been one of the stronger export markets for several years,” said Katie Stoll Bray, OWB marketing and events director. There are currently more than 50 Oregon wine brands in distribution in Japan.

“We have an in-country representative who works with key trade and press there to wave the Oregon flag and encourage increased sales of Oregon wine,” Bray noted.

Every spring, OWB puts on the Enjoy Oregon Wine Fair, a restaurant and retail promotion typically involving around 100 high-end restaurants and wine shops in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and beyond.

“Participating businesses compete with by-the-glass and menu offerings, Oregon wine displays, events and Oregon wines listed and sold during the months of March and April for a chance to visit Oregon wine country in the summer,” said Bray. The program has steadily expanded since its inception in 2005. “We now have a growing army of Oregon wine champions in Japan.”

Every other year, a group of Oregon wineries travels to Japan for a trade tasting to preview the Enjoy Oregon Wine Fair, offering educational seminars, tutored tastings and media dinners to showcase what makes Oregon distinctive. The last set of trade tastings and seminars was in March of 2008; and 17 Oregon wineries participated by either sending a representative or having their importer pour for them.

The next tour will be in January 2010. “Jack Yoss, former Ten 01 chef, will be joining us to bring a special Oregon flavor to the events,” said Bray.

Howard Rossbach, owner of Firesteed Winery, participated in the 2008 OWB tour in Japan.

“Japan was an early target for us when I started Firesteed in 1992,” he said. “It is a sophisticated market from a culinary standpoint, and I knew our wines would match well with both their traditional and newer western cuisines.”

Rossbach works with Pacific Rim Wines, a distributor and importer based in Washington. To wineries courting the Japanese market: Go to Japan, he says. “Prepare for the trip. Know what you are looking for. Be prepared to go several times, as relationships are vitally important in Japan.”

Kristin Marchesi, director of marketing and sales at Montinore Estate, also traveled with OWB in 2008.

“I felt that having international representation was important, especially for a winery of our size,” she said. “I don’t think the process would have been nearly as smooth and quick without that trip. That week was well planned, with trade shows, time for one on one meetings with importers seeking Oregon wineries and an informational session on the beverage industry in Japan presented by a large importer/distributor there.”

“The long-term sales drivers are quality, education and contact,” added Jeff Renshaw, the founder of Orca International, a Pacific Northwest specialist importer. “Contact means bringing Oregon wine industry people to Japan for trade events for relationship building and education, and taking key Japanese buyers to Oregon for the same reason. These two activities go hand in hand.”

Renshaw has been importing Oregon wines into Japan since 2005 and started with Washington wines in 1999. His company represents six Oregon brands: Willamette Valley Vineyards, Torii Mor, WillaKenzie Estate, Domaine Serene, Sokol Blosser and King Estate.

“I would make an educated guess that by value about one-third of Pacific Northwest wine in Japan is from Oregon and two-thirds is from Washington,” he said.

Success in this market requires value for money, consistency and a long-term perspective, Renshaw added. “Producers who want to succeed in this market should recognize that as a gateway market, Tokyo is to Asia what London is to Europe: Old World bias, crowded and fiercely competitive.”

Torii Mor has been exporting to Japan for nearly five years, with Orca International as their distributor.

“Our signature black label Pinot Noir, along with the Deux Verres Reserve and Olson Estate Vineyard Pinot Noirs are placed in some of the top restaurants in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto,” said Owner Margie Olson. “Each summer, Orca brings 10 to 15 Japanese wine professionals to our estate for dinner on the deck overlooking the vineyard. This is quite a spectacular evening.”

Travel to Oregon

After wielding a wine market in Japan, the next step is to woo Japanese travelers to Oregon Wine Country.

“Japan is one of our largest international markets,” said Chris Chester, trade marketing coordinator for Travel Oregon, which has a state office in Japan that is funded through Oregon Business Development Department and Travel Oregon funds.

“Our dollars are focused on advertising, special promotions, and research tours to Oregon for travel, trade and media,” Chester said.

Portland has a non-stop flight to Tokyo on Delta. Because of this, Travel Oregon works closely with the Port of Portland and Delta Airlines to increase inbound travel numbers to Oregon.

Travel Oregon hosts at least five research trips to Oregon every year. The themes this year are bicycling, culinary and golf.

“Every year, we host the editor of Globetrotter. This is the major travel publication for Japan,” Chester noted. “The reputation is like Rick Steves’ travel guide for Japanese travelers.” The publication started promoting only Portland but then added the Oregon Coast, followed by wine country.

One year the magazine promoted the filming locations of the hit movie “Stand By Me”—the classic movie was set in the small city of Brownsville.

“The town was wondering what publication the Japanese travelers were holding as they all had the same book in their hands,” Chester said. “It was Globetrotter.”

According to Chester, the most requested areas for travel are usually Portland and the Oregon Coast. Eastern Oregon is also popular with the Oregon Trail and cowboy culture. For natural beauty, Wallowa Lake, Hell’s Canyon and Crater Lake are hot spots.

“Next year we are going to try to promote a culinary tour guided by the owner of Cheesecake in Japan who happens to love Oregon and comes often,” Chester continued. Also big with the Japanese market are “women tours,” where groups or pairs of women travel together.  

The Indie Wine Foundation applied for a 2010 Matching Funds grant through Travel Oregon to promote the 2010 Portland Indie Wine Festival (PIWF) to the Japanese.

“Our grant idea was sparked by what we knew to be a deep interest by the Japanese in Oregon’s wines,” said Ashley Kordestani, PIWF communications coordinator.

“We hope to use this increased awareness about our event to further position Portland as a high quality and unique wine and culinary travel destination for Japanese tourists,” said Kordestani. “We view this project as a starting point to what has great potential to become a long and prosperous relationship between the Indie Wine Foundation, the PIWF and Japanese consumers.”

If selected for the grant, the foundation will use the funds to design a Japanese version of the PIWF website, and create and implement a social media campaign in Japan that focuses on the PIWF and showcases Portland as a key destination for food and wine travel.

Rosemary Morrison, a consultant at IRIS International, contributed a letter of backing for the Matching Funds grant.

She studied for a doctorate at the University of Tsukuba and has a 30-year relationship with Japan. Morrison works with Japanese clients on translation and localization that ranges from large corporations to scholarly research groups.

Over the past few years she’s been giving gifts of Oregon wine to her clients. Morrison says that gift giving in Japan is a big part of business.

“It says, ‘I honor our relationship and look forward to continuing it.’ I thought, why not introduce them to Oregon wine?”

She says that Oregon is a place Japanese can relate to emotionally very quickly—mainly because of the aforementioned “From Oregon with Love,” TV show, but she’s discovered a few associate Oregon with wine.

For Morrison, courting Japan in regards to Oregon wine is about “defining the story, the magnificent beauty of Oregon—idyllic wineries scattered across a beautiful countryside—and cultivating relationships.”

The potential for an enduring connection is there and growing.

Kerry Newberry is a Pinot-sipping, vineyard-hopping wine and food writer. She resides in Portland.

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