We had the chance recently to meet François Dumas, who is possibly the first to have set up a wine-import business in Japan centered around French natural wines : his company Le Vin Nature is entirely centered on the distribution of (mostly French) natural wines. His story is passionating because more than business, his career is about passion and intuition moves. First, he is a trained architect in France, then he organized music shows in Japan and ended up setting up a wine import business...
François came to Japan first 1979, he was a trained architect and he came for a one-year study on traditional Japanese houses, from the far north to the Japanese south. Back in France in 1981 he worked for the newly independant radio network Radio Nova, this was the time the World-Music was very strong in France and the new freedom in the radio waves was very exciting. Then he went back to Japan and organized music shows there with African musicians as well as people like Gainsbourg, Charles Trenet, Jane Birkin, Marianne Faithful, Maceo Parker and others. Serge Gainsbourg was not known in Japan then and he has become sort of a cult singer since. When the techno-music era began, he decided to stop this job, leave the business to his associates and begin do something with wine, even though he remained the president of this concert business (Highlife international) until 2006. So, in 1997, he decided to explore another field and gather a list of organic and biodynamic wineries and import their wines here. There weren't any specialized import of natural wines here then, the wine lansdcape was almost limited to Bordeaux which he felt was boring. From the start he had the wines of Overnoy, Chateau Le Puy (before it turned organic and discovered how not to use SO2, he adds) and many others.
At the beginning, Katsuyama-san for example, the present owner of Shonzui (the wine bar), who was then a buyer for National, imported lots of these wines. He opened this restaurant and he and François had lots of wine sold here. The sales of natural wines reached such high numbers in Japan from these early years, he says, that without Japan then, producers like Puzelat would have had trouble staying afloat : Japan was buying nearly 80 % of his production, he says. I remember myself actually having heard Thierry Puzelat telling me that Japan was buying 75 % of the French natural wines, I don't know if it's still true today in terms of share, but it certainly was a few years from now, when the rest of the world hadn't caught on with natural wine yet. François Dumas says that Japan also rescued Mark Angeli at the time he had some trouble with Michel Bettane, buying his wines when sales where down in France
As the buyer for VinBio, François Dumas distributed from 1997 the best players of the natural-wine team. A few key restaurants like Shonzui or A.O.C. Yoyogi helped familiarize the Japanese wine amateurs with these wines, a little bit like a handful of key wine bars in Paris opened a breach into the locked wine distribution, reaching out to a larger potential audience who was until then unaware of these wines. Here is the content of a web page dating from 2001 and listing the wines that were sold by Vinbio.co.jp. You have a nice list of producers there, considering that 2001 was still the early stage of natural-wine export, with vintages we'd be happy to drink and see how they taste now.
Le Vin Nature was his second import company, taking the succession of VinBio, with the same wine philosophy.
But François Dumas had started another venture in parallel with his beginnings in the import business : at about the same period he opened VinBio, he opened a restaurant with friends, A.O.C. Yoyogi, where he could pour these wines and make them known. He jokes that having a restaurant is perfect when you're an importer because when you have certain cuvées that are difficult to sell for some reason, you can use the restaurant to speed the sale. He says that in addition, Tokyo is a city where there's a lot of food & restaurant press and media, and your wines will get a good coverage as long as you have a good chef and a restaurant which thrives. You can see on this page thewine list of A.O.C. Yoyogi (the page probably hasn't been updated since 2002).
For a fee of 6000 Yen (54 € or 72 USD) the attendees have the good music, they can meet some vignerons, and they can taste as many wines as they want/can among 200 natural wines and during a whole day. Even if 55 € seems expensive by French standards, tastings being free most of the time in France, by Tokyo's standards it's a very good deal, especially if you add the music entertainment side.
If most of the wines are French at Festivin, there are also a few wines from Italy, Spain, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Greece, Croatia... and yes, Japan, which is also beginning to have its own natural-wine production, particularly Beau Paysage, Chateau Lumière and Coco Farm, where, you may remember, Kenji Hodjson had his training before landing in Anjou. Festivin took place shortly after the yearly launch of the Beaujolais Nouveau, but like Time Out Tokyo wrote wisely, Granted, the launch of 2011's Beaujolais Nouveau is guaranteed to hog the media spotlight this month, but in-the-known oenophiles would do better to wait an extra ten days and head to Festivin instead.
__for reds & sparklings after bottling : zero to 30 mg/l total SO2 maximum
__for whites : zero to 40 mg/l total SO2 maximum (this all, whatever the level of residual sugar).
All the Japanese importers of natural wine take part, the organizers don't ask the importers to bring the bottles for free, Festivin pays for these bottles, even if at about the cost price, that's also why the fee is this high (in France it's free most of the time because the vigneron gives away the bottles). Some vignerons come in person at Festivin, the first year Mark Angeli and Guy Bossard, last year it was Pierre Frick and Kenji Hodgson, and next year they hope Virginie of Causses Marine will be there.