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Comparing the wine cultures of Japan and the U.S.

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Ned Goodwin, said to be the only MW living and working in Japan, has written a thought-provoking piece that’s worth reading in full. For me, his essential take-home point is that Japan is experiencing what he calls “the Galapagos effect,” an “isolation dynamic” that takes its name from the island chain, off the west coast of South America, where species that went extinct elsewhere somehow stayed on, or developed exotic new features, because the islands are so remote.

Ned, whose love of Japan is evident, nonetheless is critical of certain aspects of its culture: “an inability to see what’s going on elsewhere, and a closed-mindedness that’s steeped in ignorance and grounded in the tired old us-and-them mindset.” I personally have never been to Japan, and so I can’t say whether he’s right or wrong. But he made a point that compels me to compare Japan’s wine culture, as he describes it, to that of California, and America in general.

Japan has been through a lot lately: their “lost decade” of economic stagnation, leading to perpetual recession; the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and an overall “drudgery” that comes from their work-work-work ethic. Lately, of course, has also come some trepidation of the Chinese. The result of all this, Ned writes, is that the Japanese, insecure and isolated on their home islands, see wine “as a token motif of status or face” and—in a beautifully written phrase—“something to dissect forensically while tasting with the eyes instead of the nose and mouth.”

Well, one could of course make the identical accusation against certain American connoisseurs who simply must have the latest cult fave, but I’m not thinking of them today. I’m thinking of the masses of younger Millennials, whose approach to wine, and alcoholic beverages in general, seems to be the opposite of the conservatism Ned finds in Japan.

We too, in America, have been through a lot. Depending on when you trace the beginning of our tsouris, the 21st century thus far has been one of difficulties both emotional and financial. We had the dot-com bubble and resulting collapse of 2000-2001, followed closely by the contested 2000 election that threw the country into political chaos. Then of course there was Sept. 11, as wrenching an experience as anything America’s ever been through; the launching of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, finally, just as things were beginning to look up, the Great Recession that began in 2008 and whose ill effects linger with us still. That’s a lot for any nation to go through in such a short period of time.

But kudos to our young Millennials, for instead of retreating into an isolationist, “close-minded elitism” (in Ned’s words), our new wine drinkers are the fairest and most internationalist-minded in history. Perhaps my view is prejudiced from living in the San Francisco Bay Area, but never before can there have been this enthusiastic embrace of all things alcoholic: wines from every nation on earth, a myriad of beers, and cocktails, cocktails, cocktails!

Ned writes that “the wine scene [in Japan] is essentially moribund,” which also is part of the Galapagos effect: evolution seems to have ground to a halt. How different are things here in America, where “the wine scene” is evolving so quickly, no one quite knows how to get their arms around it! That makes it infinitely more difficult for wineries to market themselves, but it also makes our “wine scene” that much more vibrant and exciting.

Maybe the reason why is because America is a far younger country than Japan. We’ve always been open to new experiences; trying new things is in our national DNA. We may go through periodic bouts of isolationism and chauvinism, but by and large Americans embrace change. For older wineries, that means more or less a constant reinvention of themselves. This is a challenge , to be sure, but also an opportunity, for who wants to rest on their laurels?

  1. redmond barry says:

    I wonder whether the emphasis in Japan is more on the more traditional wine -with-food context that we Boomers grew up with, and which might foster a more Bordeaux-Burgundy palate,rather than the tasting-driven cocktail approach that, for good or ill, is one product of the otherwise wholly laudable Advocate, Enthusiast, IWC tradition.

  2. I used to live in Japan (just after the economic bubble of the 80’s popped in the early 90’s), I’m married to a Japanese citizen, and I travel back to Japan relatively frequently. Further, my in-laws own a liquor store there. I’ve never seen Japanese really take to wine the way they do to beer, but I’ve noticed with both beer and wine that the range of preference is limited. At the risk of over generalizing an entire society (I’ve met plenty of people who don’t fit the mold), Japanese appreciate a quality product, but there is often very little difference between the available selections. We usually take a few bottles of California wine as gifts when we go back, and people express some interest, but I often believe they are just being polite. If foreign wine is to be served, it’s usually French (and often Beaujolais), as that is seen as the standard. On the other hand, the width of sake styles developed in the different regions of Japan can be quite diverse.

  3. baku nagai says:

    I live in Japan and work for a wine importer. I have no way to know whether your view of what’s happening in the US regarding to wine consumption is right or wrong, although by the way you write about it I’d suspect you’re rather biased. As for your assumption of what’s happening in Japan based on one article, as well the comment of Mr Shabram above, well they just prove your complete ignorance of the subject. But the real aim of your article being obviously to praise “how different are things here in America” where “our wine scene is that much more vibrant and exciting!”, well then I guess any means is fair enough.

  4. Dear Baku, I meant no offense. I am sorry you were offended.

  5. Miho Furue Kusuda says:

    I am just a Japanese wine drinker. In fact, twenty years ago, wine drinkers in Japan, were drinking the Bordeaux wine most of the time. Most of the wine in a liquor store were Bordeaux. And, some people still now prefer the Bordeaux wine. Recently, however, the situation has changed. You can find South African or Chilean wine in the supermarket. Twenty years ago, to just get a California wine was also difficult. But now, not only California wine shop, there are even New Zealand wine restaurants.
    Some conservative people in the center believe in the value of old-fashioned. But, many people are starting to drink wine in their own style, at home, in Yakitori house, or the traditional Japanese restaurant. Surprisingly, Japanese wine made from Japanese grapes is getting better. And, Japan people are trying to support these Japanese wine.
    I think what he is saying is partially true. But, it is only a part of Japan.
    Finally, he should not have mixed the story of wine and politics. The story of politics, there is a front and back. Position changes, the story also changes. Hope he could understand what the Japanese culture is and what the Japanese wine drinker prefers. And, hope he could come back to Japan again.

  6. Kozy Hirata says:

    Truth is that globalism is not always diversity.

    The world is unsettled and then today’s majority can be minority although it’s not easy. Ned is not always correct and he only wrote what he thought about his position in Japan.

    From the another side, I also agree the JPN wine market is a little bit or so strange. But I have no idea whether it’s incorrect or not. Anyway, wine connoisseurs who don’t need any guide book such as WA, WS and Gault et Millau is increasing in JPN. I believe this is healthy in nonessential grocery items. Of course, a quality beyond the average is must.

    Sorry in poor English.

  7. Dear Kozy, thank you very much for your comment. Your English is quite good!

  8. Dear Miho, thank you very much for giving us your perspective!

  9. I am glad to see a couple of comments noting the increased appreciation for wine outside French wine. It’s been about 3 years since I’ve been in Japan (probably close to the longest stint between visits since I lived there). Next time I go, I’ll plan on making a few visits to a couple wine stores I know. I’m curious to see what California wines (especially what appellations) have made the shelves.

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