Being Outnumbered (April 11, 2014)
If the number of certified sommeliers is any indication of the vitality of a country's wine culture then Japan is streets ahead of France and Italy.
France has some 1200 accredited sommeliers, Italy 800. Japan has over 17,000.
They take their wine seriously in Japan, so perhaps it's not surprising to find a store in Tokyo called Heavenly Vines – "the only all-Canadian wine store in the world," as its owner, Jamie Paquin, is fond of calling it. He opened his doors on Canada Day 2011. Entering this tiny store is like stepping into a cameo Canada with CBC Radio on all the time.
Tucked away in Tokyo's trendy Ebisu district, this wine boutique, run by Jamie and his Japanese wife Nozomi, is about the size of the galley kitchen in a Toronto condo. Yet it manages to stock nearly 250 "distinctive Canadian wines" from Quebec, Ontario and BC. Who shops here? "There's a segment who are Canadians and some foreign wine lovers," says Jamie. "Surprisingly the largest customer base is Japanese and they're not shopping for sweet wines. In fact, under 10% of our stock is Icewine or Late Harvest."
Jamie Paquin is a one-man crusade bent on convincing the Japanese to drink Canadian wine. I asked him what turned a PhD student studying sociology at an English language university in Tokyo into a wine merchant. "I got the wine bug here," he told me. "Once I did get interested, when I'd go home (to Toronto) I began to search for wines beyond what the LCBO carried. Then we came back here and hunted all over Tokyo for Canadian wines. The odd one would pop up here and there – I found Clos Jordanne at a discount wine and food shop in the French section. I think Constellation dumped some wines at an early stage because they were cheaper than in Canada. Some Jackson-Triggs Merlot was selling for 980 yen ($10.46) a bottle."
Together with the Canadian embassy, Jamie organised tastings and winemaker dinners in November which were attended by the winemakers of Bachelder, Big Head, Coyote's Run, Pondview and 13th Street from Ontario and Church & State, Joie Farm and Le Vieux Pin from BC.
One Japanese sommelier who attended the Embassy tasting compared the wines with those he tried at an event for Japanese products two days later. He stated on his Facebook page that, while both industries have come of age in a similar time span, the Canadian wines were vastly superior. Twenty of the Canadian wines he would want to buy, versus only one from the Japanese tasting; and he felt Heavenly Vines' pricing was fair in comparison, considering that the Canadian wines were shipped from the other side of the world.
Winemaker Thomas Bachelder, who presented his wines at the tastings, found Tokyo to be "a very sophisticated, segmented market. I was very impressed by what the level of knowledge of the buyers, retailers, sommeliers and educators. On the whole, what I saw was a mature market that was incredibly savvy and jammed full of the traditional wines, especially an incredible Burgundy selection in Tokyo, even in the suburbs. It's a market hungry for new wines and new wine regions, not unlike the UK."
Norman Hardie, who had flown to Japan to present his portfolio earlier last year, was particularly impressed by the acceptance of Canadian wines – and the local wine professionals' understanding of the potential for Canada to produce high quality, cool climate varietals. "What stood out to them was the purity of flavour, the opportunity to produce mineral-driven wines given our soils and the possibility of having dry wines at under 13% alcohol. These wine styles work particularly well with their culture and their food, which is all about delicacy and precision."
In Japan, is there an awareness of Canada as a wine producing country? "Luckily I'm obsessed enough to be able to repeat the story six or seven hundred times a year," says Jamie. "A customer who had spent time in Vancouver came into the store asking for clamato juice." So who knows, maybe Heavenly Vines will expand and sell Canadian products.