When you think of Japan, do images of wine spring to mind? Probably not.
When I started my glorious career as a wine educator in the mid-90’s, I was living and working in Tokyo at a time when more California wines were being imported into Japan than ever before. Although the typical Japanese wine drinker was heavily biased toward everything French, wines from Napa were increasingly to be found in stores and on wine lists. Of wines from areas outside of Napa, though, the average Japanese drinker remained skeptical. That has changed somewhat over the years, as information has spread and wines from other parts of the US 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 to them just like Chanel, Gucci, and Tiffany (and have you seen pictures of Ginza?!?).
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. The Japanese are extremely proud of their homegrown heroes, and when Tasaki won this top international award, it became fashionable for Japanese to drink wine. Have I mentioned that they are very trend-conscious?
How to drive wine sales in Japan? Celebrities are key, both international and Japanese. Whenever there are photos of a popular Japanese actor or actress drinking wine, it can spark a “mini-boom” in wine consumption. Daytime and evening TV dramas that show people drinking wine also have a tremendous effect on making it more popular. Not long after Tasaki won the award in 1995, a TV drama was launched showing the “glamorous” world of the sommelier. Lots of romance over wine at the tables!
Although the Japanese economy is not doing very well at the moment, I believe the Japanese are willing to pay more for a good bottle of wine and have it less often, whereas many Americans would rather spend less and drink wine every night.
The Japanese are fanatical about fresh, organic produce and seafood (we still haven’t found any fishmonger in Portland who can satisfy my husband’s strict requirements for freshness), but they do not seem to be as interested in “green” wines as we are in the Northwest. They expect everything to be grown to exacting standards, with no or minimal use of pesticides, etc, as a matter of course. They rely on the Japanese government to carefully screen everything that is imported to ensure that it is “clean,” and with very rare exceptions, that’s what happens. It comes at a cost, though, as those inspections aren’t cheap!
As is true in the US, although many wine collectors are men, the majority of wine buyers in Japan are women. Partly this is because women do most of the shopping (and cooking; it is still a very patriarchal society), but also because even in bars or restaurants, the average Japanese businessman would prefer to drink “manly” drinks like beer, sake, whisky or shochu (a clear Japanese spirit).
Now that I am living in the Great Pacific Northwest, I’m developing a deeper knowledge of the wide range of excellent wines available in Oregon and Washington. Do non-California wines stand a chance in the Japanese market? It helps to have marketing dollars spent to promote other regions, but it is still an uphill battle. Regardless, nothing will change without time and money spent. An individual wine educator can introduce these wines on a person-by-person basis, but I think it will take the “red carpet crowd” to help NW wines really take off in Japan. My suggestion? Hire a pop star to do video billboard ads in Shinjuku, or follow the lead of a Japanese cellphone company and go all out – hire Brad Pitt to drink your wine!