I am just back from Bangkok where I co-hosted a wine dinner featuring the wines of the Maremma estate, Montepeloso. I was joined by former historian and auto-didactic winemaker, Fabio Chiarelotto. Fabio’s wines are far from the archetypal Maremma style of compote-like fruit and ambitious oak. Rather, the Montepeloso wines are scented, chiseled and fresh. Yet most refreshing was that the dinner and other experiences in Thailand allowed me to see where I live – Japan – in a different light. What was most poignant was to see how much more connected in certain instances a relatively immature wine culture such as Thailand is than Japan, supposedly Asia’s most mature market.
Back in Tokyo, my mind is brimming with cultural comparisons and reflections. What proved most memorable about my trip, aside from the abundance of exhilarating dining experiences from the street to high-end and how each of these experiences remained staunchly Thai, without any overt external influences, was the starkly different approaches to enjoying food and wine in Thailand and Japan.
Japan is often said to be a mature wine market and a sophisticated dining culture. While it is true that a certain niche of Japanese wine lovers appreciate the subtleties and regional nuances of fine wines, including Burgundy, synonymous perhaps with an obsession for provenance and detail inherent to Japanese culture; Japan is also a market where consumption of wine has stagnated for more than a decade at a little under two-litres per capita. Meanwhile, recessionary pressures mean that more wine is consumed in homes, weakening the influence of Japan’s legions of sommeliers who are, for better or worse, largely very conservative. Recession and a lack of optimism, exacerbated by the recent earthquake and ongoing nuclear saga, has seen the average price of a bottle sold flat-line at approximately JPY 700.
Meanwhile, despite foreign perceptions of Japanese food being sophisticated-delicate, textured and minimalist-it is also Japan that has given us odd western-Japanese mutations including the egregious Japanese (sweet and gloppy) karei, deep-fried fatty pork cutlets known as tonkatsu, omuraisu (an omelet containing rice and ketchup) and yakisoba (stir-fried noodles in sweet sauce) whacked into a hotdog bun. Yet despite these bizarre albeit, strong foreign influences, mishmashed with the Japanese penchant for the bizarre, foreigners are still forbade from many clubs, bars and restaurants for simply being foreign and in the case of the Michelin two or three-star rated Araki, Jiro Honten and the lesser known, yet highly regarded local joint, Mitsuta, in the Tokyo neighbourhood of Tsukuji; turned away unless one speaks Japanese. Michelin must sell a lot of tyres here! Systemic racism? Perhaps. Inability to cater for the type of service foreign visitors expect, after years of self-imposed isolationism and inability to speak foreign languages? Probably. Likely, the reasons for this disconnect are due to a combination of both factors, and more.
Here is an anecdote that illustrates Asian connectivity, or at least Thai, as opposed to Japanese divisiveness. Among the most revered chefs in Thailand is David Thompson, a foreigner who learned Thai and ancient Thai recipes. Thompson opened a branch of his once Michelin-starred Nham, in Bangkok recently, to local applause. A remarkable feat! While respect for foreign luminaries exists in Japan, the warm embrace by the Thais of somebody like Thompson, at the grass-roots level here, is unknown. In contrast to Thailand, open and comparatively connected to the outside world (despite political turmoil), one must ask of Japan: ‘Where to from here?’.
If the manner in which wine is enjoyed in Japan is any guide, there is reason for both optimism and concern. Optimism, because impeccably stored wines served in fine stemware, at reasonable prices due to a sensitive taxation regime, is the norm in not just a few restaurants, but also in many small bars across the country. The availability of the world’s best wines in select stores is on par with New York and London, at least in the major urban centres. There is reason for concern, however, because in many of these establishments pomp and circumstance is lauded while the enjoyment of wine is accompanied by sombre music played to hushed conversation and sommeliers in tuxedoes, decorated with badges and draped with taste-vins. While I enjoy sitting quietly and enjoying a glass of something good, this sort of stiff environment fails to encourage many new to wine, the vast majority of Japanese, to actually drink it. Instead, it intimidates them.
In contrast to this pontification in the on-trade, consumers who drink at home are consuming increasingly inexpensive and often, poor quality wine. There are few salespeople in stores, or influential Japanese arbiters of taste, able to break the conformist rubric of ‘how to taste wine in ten steps’, and tell the consumer just how fun wine can be, while leading those on a tighter budget to real value without necessarily aggressively selling up.
Conversely, in Thailand, consumption is less than half of what it is in Japan. The duty on alcohol is close to 380 percent and as a result, largely inexpensive wine prevails in the on and off-trades. This being said, new wine bars such as Bangkok’s The Wine Library are ubiquitous and hip. People drink wine while listening to music and chatting passionately. People take wine to restaurants as BYO is largely accepted. Wine in Thailand is seen as an avatar of pleasure; something youthful and aspirational, rather than something that is institutionalized by an hierarchical system of restaurants, sommeliers and bars; akin to a country club. In Thailand, wine is seen as energetic and fun!
While there are some exceptions in Japan, dynamic importers and sommeliers among them, the Japanese approach to wine is often divisive, excluding the curious by way of the elitist carnival. In a climate like this, when times are tough, encouraging the joys of wine should be instead inclusive. In Japan wine remains a niche drink that is becoming stale. It is perceived as Bordeaux and Burgundy, with everything else seen as ‘cheap’. Ironically, it is these less expensive wines that are being consumed! Given the lack of expenditure on wine and socio-political-environmental priorities, what we really need in Japan is attention to good value wines that
bring relief, but also, remove us to somewhere beautiful in the mind’s eye. To get these wines into glasses, however, demands a fresh approach that embraces the new and to a degree, change.
Now come on Japan, there is neither reason nor time for mucking around in a delusion of elitism! Let’s welcome those interested in coming here and try and include them, rather than exclude them! Let’s nurture a dynamic and optimistic Japan for the future by learning from countries like Thailand that are connected, relaxed and as with Japan, rightfully proud of what they have. Wine may be a trivial issue in the grand scheme of things, but boy, does it taste good! Kanpai.