I recently spent almost 2 months in Japan, whilst I was putting the wine program together for the new Amanresorts property in Tokyo.
I arrived to Japan knowing that it was regarded as the most sophisticated of all the major wine markets in Asia and expecting there to be a wide range of availability, but never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be the depth and diversity of wines I found there.
In Japan more than anywhere else in the world they are masters at specialising in the smallest detail – hence there are importers just focusing on the Rhône only, others just Oregon, many just natural wines. In Japan the natural wine movement has been embraced to a point of fanaticism. I think I could pretty safely say that Tokyo has more natural wine bars than anywhere else on the planet.
Anyway, moving on, in this series of blog posts our aim is to introduce you to the importers on the ground in various markets across the Asia-Pacific region.
To kick everything off we meet Carl Robinson, CEO of Wine Diamonds.
Whilst almost everything is available in Japan, it can be a very intimidating market for wine producers to navigate. Hence on Importer #chitchat we aim to give you some insight into the varying markets whilst highlighting the best in the business.
VS: Wine Diamonds is relatively new in the Japan wine scene – when did you start Wine Diamonds and why?
CR: We started Wine Diamonds in 2012.
I have also for the last 10 years been running a larger international importer called Jeroboam. Jeroboam has big international brands such as Pol Roger, Hugel, Perrin, Yalumba, Joseph Phelps etc. About five years ago we started to get excited about some of the newer, modern small producers that were coming out of Australia and New Zealand. Initially Jeroboam imported a few of these. However after a while (and a few late night drinks) we thought that a small dedicated company would be the best way to promote these wines. We put together a great team of partners and then started to build up the portfolio. Our team was Ned Goodwin MW and myself for sourcing, marketing and educating. Ken-Ichi Ohashi, for wholesaling to his local network of Japanese professionals, and Yoshiaki Washitani owner of Wassy’s, Japans leading online retailer of new world wines.
VS: Tell us about the people behind Wine Diamonds…
CR: I have been in Japan for 18 years. I started as a somm then moved into consulting. I was doing the usual things, building wine lists, teaching, writing for several magazines and helping wineries get distribution in Japan. When the Perrin, Hugel and Pol Roger families started Jeroboam they hired me to put together their new world portfolio. It was a big success and we became close. Eventually I was able to take over the running of the business.
Ned was another long-term wine resident of Japan and we had been mates for several years. Ned too was consulting, writing and teaching for many prestigious companies both in Japan and internationally. We had often talked about doing something fun with the small artisan producers we loved, so we got together with Ken and Yoshiaki and started.
Ken is a wine distributor, educator, sake guru who consults (amongst other things) for the Somersault group of 20+ local distributors throughout Japan. These distributors formed the base of our early distribution. Yoshiaki Washitani is Japans most respected and important on-line retainer of New World wines. He has two physical shops in Osaka and a large team for the online business. Wassy’s is the only place where all our selections are available to consumers.
Once we had our shareholder group we needed a dynamic and energetic manager to run and develop the business. After much begging from Ned and myself we were able to persuade Yutaka Ozaki to leave his dream job as brand ambassador for Moet Hennessy to come and join us. Yutaka had previously worked with Ned at Global Dining, one of Ned’s large consulting clients. Yutaka’s energy has really seen the business take off.
VS: Can you give us a run down on your decision making process for choosing producers for the WD portfolio.
CR: We chose together and all agree on what we add to the portfolio. If anything Ned takes care more of the sourcing in Australian and myself for NZ. However after we find stuff we all sit down to taste and discuss. Our criteria is simple – they have to be delicious, and made by people we want to hang out with.
VS: When I was there I was surprised by how little Australian and New Zealand wine there was listed in the majority of the five star hotels and Michelin starred restaurants. They seem to focus on California of all of the new world regions. Where has that trend stemmed from in Japan? As in the rest of Asia it is generally the opposite with Australia and New Zealand dominating new world selections. Is it difficult to sell Australian and New Zealand wine in Japan?
France and Italy still rule here. Basically because wine has traditionally been part of the restaurant experience. There are 4500 Italian restaurants in Tokyo alone and more than 3000 French. Wine is imported distributed and drunk primarily in the on trade at these outlets.
With regard to the new world there has been limited demand (there are probably only 5 Australian and 2 NZ restaurants in Tokyo) so NZ and Aus traditionally tended to get token places on the large hotel lists and international restaurants. The US prevalence stems from trade ties and the post war fascination with all things USA that still prevails. In the 80’s when Japan was exporting millions of container loads of goods to the USA the Americans demanded they put something in the containers coming back. Hence companies like Honda motors were amongst the first Californian Wine importers. Now pretty much every Californian Wine brand is here.
With regard to selling Australia and New Zealand, I think the Wine Diamonds customer is attracted to our selections for the taste and style and not because they are Australian / New Zealand wines. We spend a lot more time talking about the people who make our wines rather than where they are from.
There is a growing movement on smaller, more casual restaurants, often in the grimier parts of the large cities, opening with funkier food and wine offerings. These are the outlets that have really taken to the Wine Diamonds portfolio.
VS: What are your thoughts on the natural wine movement in Japan, is it just a passing trend or here to stay?
CR: It’s here to stay. Post Fukushima Japanese consumers are very concerned about what they eat and drink. Integrity in food and beverage packaging has become a big deal. The idea of non-manipulated wines hits this nerve perfectly, and I am sure it will continue.
There are many dozens of restaurants that only serve natural wines now. They continue to open like crazy.
VS: Whilst I was there, I noticed that Lucy Margaux, one of the WD producers, has quickly become almost a cult wine – it is possible to explain why Anton’s wines have been so successful?
CR: Japanese love the story behind the wines they drink. Anton has a great story. With any movement (such as Natural wines) there are those who do it for marketing and those that walk the walk. Anton, making his own wine, cider, salt, vegetables, beer, dry goods etc. is the real deal and the Japanese have been quick to recognize that. The labels also hark to Japan with the Manga designs created by his daughter Lucy. It’s a perfect match.
VS: Are you looking to expand the Wine Diamonds portfolio? If so, what are you looking for?
CR: Yes, we are keen to keep our portfolio fresh and relevant. Many of our producers are very small and cannot give us more wine. Hence we need to keep finding more like-minded producers that add value to the portfolio. We are looking for anything that excites us.
VS: Whilst Tokyo is quite a stable market, it is still susceptible to trends. What do think will be the next big trend?
CR: I think we are still at the beginning of the Natural wine trend and this has a long way to run. For wines I think that Japanese consumers will continue to demand wines of honesty and integrity. The industrial wines will continue to slow down here whist artisans will do well. Oh, and the other BIG trend will be the prevalence of Japanese wines as an important part of restaurant wine lists. The local industry is on fire!
VS: Last but not least, what’s your favourite thing about being a part of the Japanese wine market?
CR: Japan is a great place to be in the wine business.
If you are passionate about what you do and are willing to invest the time and effort then you can build a good following and a successful business. It always takes longer than you think, but if you stick at it Japan is immensely rewarding. The foods is not bad either!
To visit the Wine Diamonds website got to http://www.winediamonds.co.jp