We all know that Japan was the first buyer of natural wine historically, and this was at a pivotal time when there were just a few domaines making totally uncorrected wines from organic vineyards in the 1990s', the French wine public being slow to respond even though a couple of specialized wine bars were beginning to show up on the radar in Paris. See on this subject this story by Patricia Wells in 1992 on Bernard Pontonnier's la Courtille, a bistrot where the first natural wines (weren't called like that then) were on offer, among them Marcel Lapierre, domaine Gramenon and Corinne Couturier (who was a star before Marcel Richaud in the new wines of the Rhone).
To stress out the role played by Japan, Thierry Puzelat for example could make it in the early years of his domaine because Japan would basically buy virtually ALL of his wines, and most of the other early natural-wine producers probably owe Japan the same for having kept them afloat when the rest of the market was slow to build. It speaks volume about how much Japan and the first Japanese importers played a decisive role to allow these new wine farms function until the French niche market of demanding wine lovers sets its sights (and palate) on these new wines.
The Japanese man who was the first to scout, select and export natural wines from France to Japan was certainly Mr Yoshio Ito, a discreet man whom you can often see at worthy wine events where artisan vintners take part, he not only tastes the wines and looks for new names but he makes lots of pictures and takes notes for his extensive website where the Japanese public can find a trove of informations about artisan and natural wine. He is really often on the road, more than once I stumbled on him while I was visting a domaine, and meeting him in Paris for this story was tricky because we had to juggle with schedules as he was on his way to Tokyo and then would be somewhere in a French wine region visiting winegrowers.
This interview took place at Yuzu, a fine Japanese restaurant in the 7th arrondissement and we were to have many great wines that evening. Here on the right Mr Ito is toasting with chef Nao Takemoto a Chablis 1er Cru Pacalet Vau Ligneau 2010. splendid.
Meeting at Yuzu helped B. and me incindently discover another wine-related side story : Mr Ito met Takemoto-san (the owner of Yzu) long time ago (1990) in Paris, he was then working in his former restaurant near Opéra named Take (like Takemoto) and the Japanese chef didn't drink any wine then. The game changing moment was when Yoshio had him taste the wines of Marc Pesnot (from the Loire region), it was a wonderful palate-opening for him. Since then he discovered other artisan wines and befriended Philippe Pacalet who by the way often comes eat here with his wife and children when he's in Paris. No need to say that if you look for a Japanese restaurant with a good wine list that's the place to go in Paris.
We ask him if he discovered new names recently, young winegrowers who are setting shop and following the same philosophy of true, real wines, he says yes, deefinitely, there are many new people that are popping up on the natural-wine scene in France. I make the remark that indeed each time I visit a vigneron(ne) whom I think is under the radar, I learn that Mr Ito already visited the place, sometimes several times (very discouraging...). He says that he is currently adding new winemakers in his list, also from the Loire where interesting artisan-vignerons keep showing up. Pulling a bunch of papers from his document satchel, Mr Ito showed us there at the restaurant a detailed portfolio of coming-up vignerons which he plans to import to Japan, I wanted to list a few names here but these names are also a highly-valuable classified information for me as there's a good chance that I'll try to visit some of these people soon...
At one point Yoshio opened another bottle which he brought in a bag, a Saumur Blanc (white) Sébastien Bobinet Les Gruches 2011, this Chenin was so good... He imports him for 10 years but he finds that his wines have fairly improved since his wife joined. The wine is unfiltered, a savoury wine with a particular energy of its own, I ask Yoshio if the guy farms biodynamic, on target, I was almost sure of that with this type of vividness. Bobinet is someone I have to visit soon.
After second thoughts and following my leafing through these few precious pages, instead of giving the names that I'll keep jealously for me, I'll just tell about the regions/appellations related to these new domaines that may soon find a market in Japan :
Haut-Médoc [Yoshio relishes at evoking this small domaine as he says it's almost impossible to find in this region something which is not a big Maison], Bourgueil (Loire) [terrific stuff, he says], Muscadet (Loire), Cotes du Marmandais (Sud Ouest), Languedoc, another Muscadet, Banyuls, another Languedoc, yet another region of Languedoc, Jura, yet another Jura, Beaujolais, another Beaujolais, yet another Beaujolais [the guy is small and is still below the radar], again another Beaujolais, one more Beaujolais located in the 71, again a Beaujolais [this one is a true rebel, even more radical than Philippe Jambon, he says -- I know you all salivate already...]. That was just a random excerpt from this printed list but no need to say I've lots of work ahead now... We already know it but it helps confirm that there's a steady flow of young winegrowers joining the fray in many wine regions, and given the demand for this type of real wines all these young and still-unknown vintners will certainly sell their wines briskly.
Mr Ito reached then to another bottle (I don't guarantee my report on the wines is chronologically correct) which was quite a marvel, this was Domaine L'ange Vin by Jean-Pierre Robinot (Jasnières, Loire), a pioneer in this type of wines who, even better, began his career in the 1990s' with running the only (except another) wine bistrot in Paris serving this type of wines, this was long before the hype. These (few) wines weren't even classified as "natural wines" in the 1990s', something which made their selection by Robinot more heroic, but the guy is very modest and never brag about his role in these pivotal years. The Robinot cuvée here is Regard du Loir 2004, a delicious red made with Pineau d'Aunis, man, this was so good, such a treat. The wine has certainly passed its peak but considering it's a sulfur-free wine I'm surprised it's still so good, lively, juicy and ample. A generous wine with makes you in love forever with pineau d'aunis. Very aerial, light, feels like 11,8 % but the label says 13 %.
We chat briefly about outstanding uninterventionist winemakers that emerged among the Japanese winemakers (as you may know, Japan is now producing natural wine), particularly Eishi Okamoto of domaine Beau Paysage, Mr Ito says that considering the weather conditions in Japan it's extraordinary to find natural wines of such quality. Asked about what he does when he goes to Japan, he says that he travels around the country like he does in France, except that instead of vignerons he tours by train cavistes and retailers, and he often does it with a French natural-wine vigneron (or two) whom his Japanese clients are eager to meet in person. During these trips he routinely visits 5 restaurants the same day in the evening and night until 3 am, and that's for example in such a venue in Fukuoka (Kyushu) that he was offered to taste blind a few wines and his first guess about a particular red was Philippe Pacalet, and it was actually a Japanese natural wine by Eishi Okamoto (domaine Beau Paysage). Later in the same vinously-busy evening another retaurateur had him taste more wines blind, and one of them was so outstanding he thought it was a Prieuré-Roch, but again it was a Japanese wine by Beau Paysage...
Here comes another surprise from Yoshio's bag, another nice pick, a bottle of Brouilly 2013 by Remi Dufaitre (Beaujolais) whom he's been importing for about 3 years. Nice coffee aromas, very enjoyable, no so2 he says, that's why I guess this very light perly feel, you drink that as easily as water. He says he tasted his 2014 and they're just plain terrific, a superb quality, he confirms that the guy is among the best of the region. Given how good, juicy, meaty and fresh this 2013, I have a hard time thinking the 2014 could be better, that needs to be seen (tasted)... He also tasted a few days ago L'Eau Forte 2014 at Jean-Claude Lapalu, terrific wine too he says was vinified so harmoniously, it perspires in the wine. If he could, he'd have the whole cuvée shipped to Japan.
Drifting to another Beaujolais vigneron I ask Yoshio if he's importing Yvon Metras, he says no, Mrs Goda of Racines imports his wines to Japan. He says that 4 days ago he was eating at le Verre Volé and Cyril offered him a glass of red to taste bling, he really didn't find what it was, thinking at first that it couldn't be but Pinot Noir, and a nice one. It was a Beaujolais Gamay by Yvon Metras, a terrific wine.
Yoshio Ito says that indeed as soon a a new name of vigneron pops up on the natural-wine scene his (or her) wines get immediate attention including for the Japanese market which is very thirsty for such wines. This is as what we could call the "established" references of this type of wine farms don't have a limitless and inexhaustible production, so the new vignerons who are often followers of the former find an export market right away on their first vintage. Another reason is I guess also that both importers and Paris bars/restaurant want to have a wine list that is not a photocopy of the ones found in similar venues. To select and import a new vigneron or a new cuvée in time, Yoshio Ito spends lots of time on the road, and on a typical month spent in France he stays a week in Paris and the rest touring around the wine regions, he says it's a passion more than a work. And he can't stay indoors, he says, he needs to move around and travel. I ask him if he considered writing a book one day on his experiene, his travels and meeting great wine people, he says he thinks about it although he hasn't started anything yet.
About the Japanese export, I'll add that when in Tokyo visiting a small neighborhood caviste selling natural wines (Nodaya, near Nishinippori), I had the impression that this country gets cuvées which we don't see here in Paris, the Japanese market gets such a particular attention from the artisan winemakers that it gets special cuvées, possibly selected during one of these cellar visits by Japanese agents like Mr Ito. Mr Ito agrees on that with a laugh.
That's when I dare ask who was the first importer or agent from Japan to track down these wines for the japanese market, Mr Ito recognize humbly that he was the first but he mitigate the fact by saying that in these early years these wines weren't called natural wines, it was all more fuzzy. Take a seat, he began to import or select wines for Japan in 1993, he began with Prieuré Roch, actually Philippe Pacalet was making the wines there at the time (1991-2000) and he had managed, without the knowledge of the domaine's owners, to make certain cuvées without adding sulfur, the result being outstanding wines. Prieuré Roch was Mr Ito's first love with these wines, this was a revelation, something almost beyond wine. Around 1996 or 1997 he visited Marcel Lapierre who was so kind and welcoming, he had him taste 15 vintages in his cellar, split in two versions, one with zero added sulfites and the other with 30 mg SO, and that was another awakening regarding how so2-free wines could largely surpass wines with even a modest adding.
Lapierre was already exported to Japan but by someone who wasn't focused on this type of wines and Yoshio Ito ended importing him a few years later in 1998 when he set up officially his import business in Paris, Oeno-Connexion, a now-thriving business exporting full containers of French artisan wines to Japan. There were few domaines making what we call today natural wines and his other first picks were for example Dard & Ribo, Marc Pesnot, Marcel Richaud, Clos Rougeard, Philippe Allier and Jean-François Nicq from Estézargues, the first and only French coopérative that is making uncorrected wines from organic grapes. Wineries added up along the years with the spread of the natural-wine movement and although he didn't keep track of the exact number of wineries he brought to Japan, it probably amounts to about 300 or more...
Yoshio then opened a bottle of Silex Touraine Sauvignon 2010 by Jacky Preys, who was also one of his early picks, the wine gets its name from the flintstone-thick soil or the region of Meusnes. While the Domaine Jacky Preys is considered conventional, the man was a pioneer in his region to promote terroir-driven wines, he also made a cuvée of Fiè Gris (Sauvignon Rose) after discovering that the few parcels which he had purchased weren’t reds like he had wished but they ended up to be even more valuable as this redish skin was the one of a now-rare Sauvignon historically named Fié Gris. Mr Ito met him inadvertedly 20 years ago as he was having dinner late at night in a restaurant, sipping a glass of Jacky Preys’ wine which he liked a lot . By coincidence Jacky Preys walked in the restaurant that very evening to deliver a few cases (he still drives to Paris every weekend to deliver his orders in his van) and the restaurateur presented him to Mr Ito and this was the beginning of a long partnership. Although not making natural wines Jacky Preys's domaine was among the 10 first wineries he imported to Japan, along Prieuré Roch and Dard & Ribo.
B. asked Yoshio about how it all began, if he was into wine before : He says that he happened to be living in Bordeaux (from 1976 to 1982) where he was a Budo [martial arts] teacher. He sees now some sort of mysterious coincidence when he looks at this former life as the word Budo can mean also grape in Japanese, even if written with different kanji. He takes a piece of paper on the counter to show us something else : in the kanji script for Budo part of the first kanji means imbalance while the 2nd part meant stop, like stop the imbalance. Imbalance for a lone individual means sickness, for two persons it means a fight and a large community it means war. Stopping the imbalance is central to the Budo philosophy, and for him this is true for what he discovered in wine, when he began to drink wine in Bordeaux in those years he looked instinctively for balance.
Apart from drinking wine his Budoka job let him enough time and he did the harvest several years in a row in Pomerol in the Chateau Lafleur du Roy, helping for the picking and also on the chai side. Bordeaux wineries were more relaxed then, every harvest day was festive, pickers and staff drinking lots of wine and having fun together at the end of the day. He compares the ambiance then in Bordeaux to what you find in Beaujolais today where it’s still no-fuss, not self-conscious, simply happy at harvest season. His birthday happens to be around the 15th of october and in those years he'd have a party every year during the harvest, today it'd be impossible and unthinkable, and anyway today the harvest is long finished when you reach the 15th of october..
Incidently I asked if in those early years in Bordeaux there were other Japanese going around wineries and wine like him, he says not really, but there was Shinya Tasaki, someone that few people know in France but who was to become soon after the most famous sommelier in Japan (Best Sommelier of the World in 1995). hinya Tasaki was 19 then, and Yoshio was 24, and the Karate club called Yoshio to tell him that a Japanese guy had showed up at the sports center, he had seen a poster about the place at the train station in Bordeaux and having himself a black belt in karate we was curiuos to visit this Budoka. Shinya Tasaki was already into wine and he was there to learn more about wine, Yoshio found him a small room instead of the hotel room he had taken initially and he stayed one year in Bordeaux. B. says that he kept some distance with natural wine but Yoshio says that he's sure he loved these artisanal, uncorrected wines but because of the pressure of his job he kept that for himself.
Asked about how many importers in Japan are dealing with natural wine, Yoshio says more than twenty, and I remember that for my story on Festivin (the natural-wine tasting event in Tokyo) I had found this list of natural-wine importers in Japan. There has been some changes since, like Junko Arai left her portfolio to Diony as she embarked on a political career a couple of years ago (with a party named Sakigake).
Speaking of Festivin and tasting events, Yoshio says that he's working on an event in Paris where the wine tasting event would be Japanese in style, there would be some sort of French/Japanese cultural mix in the way it would take place, it would be more like what he does when he travels through Japan, there's only one vigneron who can speak quietly to the attendees and there would be a translator for the Japanese public. B. says that he actually already organized such events a few years ago and she herself attended (without me) twice, Mr Ito is very suprised to learn that she was present then, B. remembers that for one of the two it was with Pacalet.
Mr Ito makes his visit in the French region in rental cars and more than once he leaves the winegrowers after having had a few glasses, which is a problem because there are systematic breath checks at certain crossroads chosen randomly by the Gendarmerie. After a couple of close calls with the DUI enforcement unit in the back roads he resorted to try what we French often use in these emergency situations : the Croix Bleue, a candy made with pine sap that gives you instantly a fresh breath, it's still debated if it works or not to pass a breath test but Yoshio says he's sure it helped him get through a few times, he'd just crunch several of them between the winery or restaurant and the hotel.
Back to this job of importing natural-wine to Japan, Yoshio Ito says that without information about these artisan vignerons this could be a hard sell, that's why his website (cpvin.com) is very important because consumers can have more details including visual ones about how the wine is made. He also says that Wineterroir is also very useful in this regard [I'll ask for dividend income to the Japanese importers from now...] because of the extensive information, he says that I have lots of readers in Japan from what he knows. I guess that as consumers in this matter are buying an artisanal wine and not a product skillfully designed by a team of enologists, they need to somehow "feel" the vibes of the person behind those wines. But Mr Ito's CPvin brings what I can't really do, an insider's view and understanding on the history of French wine and what is really behind what we call natural wine. I think that when the Japanese wine amateur reads this page on his website, he/she gets it all, everything is summed up in there, that long page could even be printed as a booklet and left on the counter of good wine shops in Tokyo... And on this other page there's a detailed explanation on how Yoshio Ito differentiates the farming management and cellar practices, as there are different shades in the naturalness of the products and its connection to terroir.
I ask Yoshio what is the profile of the buyers of natural wine in Japan, are they looking for sulfur-free wines in majority, he says that like in France there are several types of wine lovers and profiles, from the ones who look for a wine that tastes well technically to the ones who are extreme and aren't shy of drinking wines with gas, reduction and so on. He says that in general they're not squared on the SO2 issue but what they love in those wines is that there's an harmonious interaction in their system [body and soul, from what I understan], they feel wholly at ease and enjoy the experience better than with other, conventional wines. And Yoshio adds that the Japanese, because of this stressing urban culture, need a compensation and these nature wines make the job perfectly.
I think this was at the end of that evening (but I said I wouldn't necessarily respect the chronology for this report) and Yoshio took the last bottle out of his bag, a beaune 1er Cru les Perrières 2011 by Philippe Pacalet, a strong limestone terroir, the wine is beautifully clear, a real pinot noir, B. is excited she loves his wines. Yoshio says that for him he's the best vinificateur, no doubt. The wine is so classy, minerality and length. Takemoto-san sips the wine with delight, we ask him if the people from the Ministères drink from his good wine list (the parliament is almost next door) but he say not so many, he know a senator who seems particularly appreciative.
A tip for my Japanese readers : Mr Ito will tour Japan including Kyushu and Fukushima for the next Beaujolais Nouveau (3rd thursday of november) with Christophe Pacalet.
Mr Ito says that once 8 years ago he made a trip in Japan with 20 vignerons among which Jean-Baptiste Sénat, Catherine Breton, Jean-Pierre Robinot, Sébastien Riffault and others, this was pretty heavy to go around and visit the cavistes and venues especially that people let themselves off in these circumstances, I guess it was even harder than move with a class of unruly children for a school outing, this was out of control.... Jean-Pierre Robinot was one of the vignerons and he was particularly excited including when he danced at parties...
Unrelated with this interview, I was also said several times by the winegrowers I visit how attentive the Japanese importers are, more than anyone they are very serious at visiting the vineyards, they want to know everything and sometimes with a quick glance they understand the type of vineyard management of the given winegrower. Another thing is that they were the first exporters to massively use refrigerated containers for the shipping, they're not shy of pâying the price for that. And lastly I was also said several times that they're the ones you never have to be worried about the payment, they pay without delay, something which is far to be the norm.
Speaking with Takemoto-san I learn that his son opened avenue named Minamoto two months ago, a bar in the 2nd arrondissement where you can drink Japanese whisky and sing karaoke. When Yoshio came back from Japan he stopped there for a glass of whisky, like, I'd add, in a Tory's bar, and like in Japan he has his own bottle of whisky which waits for him each time he drops there, now that's a great tradition... I didn't find any trace of the bar on the web as it's new but I'll try to have a look.
But you might be interested also to know about the wine list at Yuzu (if Mr Ito and also Pacaletoften come here to eat, you guess it not too bad...). When we went there the wine list on the blackboard had 25 wines, most priced between 32 and 57 plus a few wines above that bar. Here it is :
Reds : Olivier Leflaive Cuvée Margot, Prieur Sancerre Rouge, Noella Morantin Côt à Côt, P. Gilbert Menetou-Salon Rouge, C&C Maréchal Chorey-les-Beaune, C&C Maréchal Pommard, Graillot Crozes-Hermitage, R. Renon, Chateau la Galiène Margaux, Chassorney Saint-Romain, P. Pacalet Beaune 1er Cru, P. PacaleJacky Preys Touraine Sauvignon, P. Gilbert Menetou-Salon, Noella Morantin t Pernand Vergelesses,
Whites : Petit Chablis, Chateau de la Cour, Jacky Preys Sauvignon, P. Gilbert Menetou Salon, Noella Morantin LBL Sauvignon, Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé Pierres Précieuses, Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé Mlle M, A & O De Moor Chablis Bel Air, P. Pacalet Saint-Aubin, P. Pacalet Meursault, P. Pacalet Chablis 1er Cru, Varite, plus one Champagne, no Maison name.