Yotsuya (east of Shinjuku), Tokyo
Wine importers have been playing for a long time an important role for the development of wineries and domaines, but for the segment of natural wine producers a few wine importers were certainly of strategic importance, particularly in the 1990s' when the nascent non-interventionist winemaking movement was still short of a strong domestic market for its wines. At that time when the future was still uncertain for the vignerons leaving the "security" of conventional winemaking for the unchartered waters of real wine, a few importers were certainly of great help, and Mrs Yasuko Goda of Racines was certainly one of them. The Japanese wine lovers, or at least enough of them, turned to understand very early the appeal of these wines that departed so much from the norms of what was done at that time, and they put their money where their mouth was, giving a decisive boost to many vignerons who were also encouraged by this sign of appreciation coming from so far away. Mrs Goda's name bounced back to me along the years as I was visiting all these artisan producers, along the one of Mr Ito, another big and early player in the field, and I decided to at last visit her and her business partner Masaaki Tsukahara in their offices downtown Tokyo.
Mrs Yasuko Goda's inspiration for her future career probably needed a French episode and it materialized when in the late 1980s' her husband (who had just spent 3 months in Europe for his job) suggested she takes a year off in France with their 2 young children and find something to do that she'd like, the children were young enough so that she could move with them, and if she waited more they'd be stuck with the studies. She left for France and enrolled at the University of Bordeaux [you see it coming] to learn French and there she found tasting courses that were given by a few people including Denis Dubourdieu and Emile Gaillon. She says with a laugh that she didn't understand much to these courses, it was pretty hard but she got the beginning of her wine education there.
Back in Tokyo in 1988 with this first experience she found a job as buyer for Hatta, an established import company. This was not easy for a young woman with two young children to find a job, the Japanese companies aren't very cooperative in that situation and she had to work part time to be able to look after her children. The company was specialized in German wines for which it had a good reputation, it was also into the wholesale distribution of beers and they wanted to add a portfolio from Italy, France and Spain, this was thus her task, to travel in Europe and find the wines. Another important step was when she met Mr Masaaki Tsukahara in 1989, he was very knowledgeable in matters of wine including in wine litterature and he suggested early that they could work together and combine their talents to select interesting wines, the challenge being to find wines that weren't yet imported in Japan. She worked 8 years there, from 1988 to 1996, after which she worked as a consultant for other wine importers.
The offices of Racines are located in a neighborhood of Tokyo I haven't visited yet, south of the Misistry of Defence, it's located near the Yotsuya station, operated by JR, Namboku and Marunouchi lines, but from Ikebukuro I found it more convenient to use the Yurakucho line and walk to Shinjuku-dori Ave near which the office is located. The building is a modern 5-story structure, the offices being at the top and the tasting room at the 1st story (street level). As soon as you walk in you discover that Racines has grown to a respectable size, with 10 people in the open office busy working on their computers or over the phone.
Back in the late 80s' early 90s' there was no Internet resources to find written content about the wine world and the books collected by Mr Masaaki Tsukahara were full of informations not yet fully known to the Japanese wine-loving public, and he played an important role in that regard to fill these gaps when he translated the works of Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson and Matt Kramer into Japanese. For a living he also worked for 45 years at Dentsu, the largest advertising group in Japan, from which he retired in 2004. When he was still employed at Dentsu, he'd work with Mrs Goda during his free time.
Yasuko Goda was the one who spotted this new phenomenon involving winemakers working from organic grapes on a minimum intervention mode in the cellar and adding no sulfites at all during the vinification. This was when she was beginning to work at her first job for the large importer, she was reading lots of stuff, looking for vignerons who weren't yet imported in Japan, and for example she selected a Rhône producer named Marcel Richaud, who wasn't yet fully into this new wine culture, and she began to have him iported in 1990. A few years later as she was visiting his domaine in France in 1996 (along many other domaines as usual) and tasted his 1995 wines, she felt a big, positivelly-better, difference in the wines compared with the previous vintages. The wines of 1995 were rounder, more refined and more pleasant, she told him that while she always loved his past wines, this particular vintage was even much better and she wanted to know what had happened, to which he answered that for the first time he had been vinifying without any SO2 with the help of Jacques Néauport and Yann Rohel, who helped Françoise Dutheil de la Rochère of Chateau Sainte Anne when her husband passed away.
When Marcel Richaud saw that she was happy with this wine, he told her that she should go visit Pierre Overnoy, Gerard Schueller, Thierry Puzelat, Marcel Lapierre and the other Beaujolais domaines sharing the same philosophy, that was the turning point for the company she'd lead a few years later. Incidently that same day she had an appointment with Robert Parker in Macon but missed it when she took the wrong train in Avignon, taking a direct train to Paris and not the one that stopped en route. To add to the misery this was a fashion week in Paris and all the hotels were fully booked, so she decided to spend the night in the Eastern railway station as she had to go to Alsace the next day to visit François Barmès. For the evening she remembered that Marcel Richaud had tipped her this same day about a wine bar in Paris where she could taste several of these new types of wines [I guess the term natural wine wasn't coined yet], this was L'Ange Vin, a bistrot managed by Jean-Pierre Robinot. That's where she discovered the wine of Nicolas Renard which was also a palate-opening experience (with his Chenin-Blanc Jasnières), and same for all the wines she tasted there that day. She remembers that these wines were so beatiful, like coming from another planet. Comparing Nicolas Renard's Chenin to the other chenins she knew (she was already a fan of this varietal), his was su much better, neat and dry without the usual residual sugar.
I tasted a few outstanding wines all the while chatting with Yasuko and Masaaki, beginning with this wine from Cappadocia, Turkey, which she discovered while visiting Georgia while tasting wines with Ramazi Nikoladze at his wine bar Vino Underground in Tbilissi. This a white that has been vinified on its skins in an amphora, beautiful. I reproduce that label info : Keten Gömlek 2010, Gelveri Antik Küp Sarap, this is great stuff, possibly unavailable outside Japan, I don't know. Turkey is sitting on the historic birthplace of winemaking [that was of course long time before the Islamic invasion] along with Armenia and Georgia, and this wine seems to me a terrific reminder of the potential of this country for great wines. The label reads 2010 but it's actually a 2007 which he made for private use, getting the government authorization for commercialization only in 2010. It was bottled quite recently. The wine was vinified in the large amphora and after pressing the élevage took place in several smaller amphorae. The mouth feel is just gorgeous, with the striking structure of these skin-contact whites made in Georgian-style amphora.
The winemaker is a German national named Udo Hirsch, he is married with a Turkish woman and he had been doing some research work for WWF for years, at one point he travelled to the newly-independant Georgia to conduct some research there, finding here and there lots of remains of traditional winemaking structures. Back in Turkey he began to make wine in 2004 but his research on winemaking had started in 1998, plus near his house in Cappadocia there are vineyards that are about 4-century old with also 2000-year-old cellars, and he found an archaeological artifact, this 1200-year amphora drawn on the label, an almost 2000-liter vessel which was his model for the vessel of this cuvée.
Here is a brief history of the winery ans a page about his winemaking..
After inadvertently discovering this new type of wines at Marcel Richaud, Yasuko Goda began to import them targetedly in 1997, with the wines of Guy Breton, Yvon Métras, Thierry Allemand, Bruno Schueller, Pierre Overnoy, adding more producers year after year. Today she couldn't give the precise number of cuvées she brings here in Japan but she imports altogether the wines of 180 vignerons from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Georgia, Austria, Germany, Chile and this wine from Turkey....
Asked about how Yasuko saw the changing tastes of the Japanese wine lover as her company was growing, she says first someone did a great job in Japan, Mr Shinsaku Katsuyama in particular, who very early discovered the wines of Marcel Lapierre and Chateau Rayas, and he had a French friend who was a teacher at the University in Tokyo, Mr Jean Bisazza (not sure of the spelling,
he passed away 4 years ago) who was bringing him new bottles from Japan each time he went there. One day Katsuyama-san decided to import natural wine in Japan, a venture he discontinued, opting instead to open a wine bar, using the portfolio of the two or three importers dealing with these wines then, Mr Ito, Mrs Goda and François Dumas. Shonzui was the first of its kind then in Tokyo, and the venue was a window for these new wines that were not only organic but tasted different, a new public being gradually conquered by them.
Yasuko-san says that after 10 years in the wine trade, she had already many clients (mostly cavistes from all around Japan) who knew her portfolio but the switch to these new wines was not always easy, and she travelled a lot to set up small tasting events to get people familiar with these wines. Katsuyama-san helped a lot also with his new wine bar. She remembers having her clients taste the wines of Claude Courtois for example, his wines weren't easy for a first-timer then, and people did find the wines strange but all the while they were feeling lots of emotion, a great energy there, things that were absent in mainstream wines. Thinking about this issue, Yasuko-san says that the Japanese are pretty good tasters on the whole, they're sensitive to delicate feelings and that's why these wines ended up having an appeal for them.
They also import a range of Champagne wines, like this page on the Vinotheque magazine shows; the bottle on the left is not a cuvée Racines, it's an humoristic photomontage made from the first Champagne she imported in 1989, it was the maison Alain Robert which closed down in 1994. The other producers on this page are Vouette & Sorbée, Ulysse Colin, la Closerie, Jestin, Benoit Lahaye,Fleury, Emmanuel Brochet, Sapience, Marguet, Pascal Mazet, Laherte Frères, José Michel & Fils, JL Vergnon, Richard Cheurlin.
The opposite mage for the advertising (here on right) shows the wine education role Racines wants give to the public : it is an article by Claude & Lydia Bourguignon on the importance of the soil life and nature, here they speak about Vouette & Sorbée who thanks to the Bourguignons uprooted Pinot Noir in a particular terroir to plant Chardonnay instead because this was more adapted to the nature of the undersoil. The Bourguignons travelled to Tokyo 2 years ago and Racines organized a conference with them, inviting their customers along so that they could learn more about the soil life and its importance for the vine.
Yasuko Goda travels to Europe regularly, this year for example she went 8 times there, always with tasting wines and discussing shipments with the producers, the last time being in december, when this interview was done she was about to fly to France and go from there to Toscana and Spain; she's been 3 times to Spain this year so far, as they're looking to expand their portfolio for this area. I tell her about the wines of Rafa Bernabé in Alicante which I discovered a few years ago but she already imports them for 3 years (read Jamie Goode's tasting notes). Spain like many other European countries is having more and more of natural winemaking but I'm not following closely.
Until 2009 she'd attend the Dive Bouteille every year but then the tasting conditions in Saumur were too difficult, it was so cold you couldn't really taste the wines at good temperature, so she decided not to attend anymore, relying on other ways to get samples of the wines she was interested in. Also, her son is doing the Dive at her place, as he began working in the trade in 2013.
The page above illustrates the good relations between Racines and Michel Tolmer, the most applauded cartoonist for the natural-wine crowd. You may have come across Mimi, Fifi & Glouglou, the comic strip full of short stories with natural wines, but here in Japan Michel has been having a visual impact for years through humorous and well-thought sketches that have sort of the same vibes than the wines we all love...
Yasuko Goda says she first met Michel Tolmer maybe in 1992 or 1993 at the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers, that was before the Dive Bouteille (the alternative wine fair for natural wines) was created, she learned later he was the one who designed the label of Jacques Sélosse and one day having lunch together she discussed having him design the sketches for the Racines' website, with the tree & roots and the icons linking to the other pages of the site. He has since then also made several calendars for Racines, I brought two of them home, the 2015 and the 2016 which are very different and interesting, I'll scan them when I'll have some time.
Yasuko-san says that these pages are more than mere advertising, she wants to transmit the spirit and image of what Racines is, with the particular philosophy of the company that goes in line with the vignerons they sell.
I myself had a few pictures used for Racines' advertising, like for this page featuring the "Pope" of natural wine Yvon Metras. No conflict of interest here, this interview being scheduled for a long time (it was supposed to take place in 2014 actually). I'll not compare myself to Michel Tolmer but was happy to be picked for the illustration of this ad. Yasuko-san says with a laugh that as Georges Duboeuf is often referred as the "King of Beaujolais", it might be appropriate to say that Yvon Métras id the "Pope of Beaujolais", pointing I guess to the higher status of someone being God-appointed versus the mere secular power of a king...
When asked about the other difficulties she faces when negociating her wine purchases, she says that one of them is dealing the new generation of vignerons who start a natural wine farm and sometimes sell their wines too high. For an import company it's difficult already to introduce a new vintner and if the starting price is punishly high it's a big hurddle. Sometimes she has been very lucky like it happened in 1999 with the wines that Nicolas Renard had made when he worked for Prince Poniatowski at Clos Baudouin : It happened that Poniatowski couldn't understand these wines then and he decided to sell all the wine in bulk, and when Mrs Goda learned that she decided to buy them all (she loved the wines of Nicolas Renard of course), so she asked Thierry Puzelat, who had just started his négoce, to buy them for her and bottle them, thanks to which she could import all these wines to Japan at a great price... The wines are still terrific she says, they opened a bottle a few days ago and the wine was magnificent.
Yasuko-san opens another bottle, this is a Georgian wine made by Ramaz Nikoladze in his domaine Nikoladzeebis Marani, the cuvée is Tsitska [variety] Nakhshirgele [village name] 2012, a dry white making 12,5 % i alcohol that has been vinified in underground amphora (qvevri). Magnificent wine again. Yasuko says that she doesn't look for easy thirst wines when looking for a natural wine, the wine has to show deeper character and qualities than just the fact that it's easy to drink and sports aromas of
This Georgian wine rocks, there's such a glowing, magnificient feel when it goes down the throat...
Asked about the market share of natural wine in Japan compared to the mainstream wines, Yasuko-san says she hasn't the exact figures but it's still marginal, which is a good thing in fact she adds, because there's not much wine in total to sell, these vignerons working still on a minimal surface compared to the total planted surface. What she sees positively is that the young Japanese prefers natural wine to conventional wine, and she noticed also that because of the new phenomenon the conventional wineries have been trying to work more naturally compared to a few years back, there's been a definitive influence in that regard. And she noticed also that established venues like high-end restaurants begin to include natural wines in their wine list. Speaking of the interest of the Japanese for natural wines, a hint about its scope is that the managers of the oldest wine magazine in Japan, Vinotheque, told them they noticed a big bump in their sales when they publish an issue focused on organic & natural wine...
Asked if they grow their portfolio every year and by how many domaines, Masaaki-san says that they add 10 producers per year, not all vinifying without SO2 by the way. For example the ceiling limit for SO2 at the Festivin wine fair in Tokyo (of which Racines is co-organizer) is 40 mg total for whites and 30 mg for reds, but of course most wines imported by Racines are way below this ceiling. When they started Racines, Yasuko Goda says, they thought they'd just be content to import just the 20 or 30 vignerons they liked most and stay there, but in fact every year they meet producers that are so interesting that they keep adding more; this is of course counterbalanced partly by the fact they stop importing some of the wines they use to buy, for different reasons being that the price is getting too high or the vintner retired and his son who took over doesn't make the same quality of wines. Sometimes the vigneron didn't retire but he somehow changed the way he vinified, he took shortcuts or something and the wines lost their liveliness and appeal, it often comes after they build new, big cellars. Sometimes it's the other way around, like for Ferdinando Principiano where the son who is maybe 34 works much better than his elders.
I asked Mr Masaaki Tsukahara about his first awakening to wine, and he told me that he began to have wine when he was an under-graduate student at maybe the age of 18, this was very uncommon at the time. He didn't drink any other spirits or fermented beverage, no sake, no beer, and he had this strong interest for wine following his reading of books an essays where wine was studied and explained lengthly, for example the ones written by several Japanese professors, Dr Tatsuno, Dr Suzuki or Dr Yamada. Another book which impressed him was the Japanese translation (printed in the 1950s') of In Praise of Wine and Certain Noble Spirits by Alec Waugh. In the 1960s' the choice was not very wine in terms of imported wines, he'd drink some Bordeaux, the choice was pretty limited 50 years ago, he remembers his first wine was from Calvet, a Bordeaux négociant.
After graduating from the university he began to work for Dentsu in the marketing division and by that time he extending his reading on wine, buying old books on wine in London, like one he shows me in his office : This is a classical work on wine named Notes on a Cellarbook by George Saintsury, his copy being a limited edition from 1921 that bears the autograph of the author. Masaaki-san began leter himself to translate into Japanese wine books like the ones of Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, this was in the 1980s' when with the booming Japanese economy and opening on the world, their was a demand for information on wine and its culture. He also translated Matt Kramer's Making Sense of Wine, as well as Gerald Asher's The Pleasures of Wine and Burton Anderson's Vino (about Italian wines). Speaking about how he came to natural wines he corrects by saying that he loves great wines, some of which happening to be in the category of natural wines, he foremost loves fine wines. He discovered these new wines through Yasuko Goda and looked for the best they produced. He says that on the other hand he persuaded Yasuko to look into Italian wines, which she ended discovering and appreciating too. She says that in the early 1990s' there was no good Italian wines in Japan and the transportation and storage conditions for Italian wines weren't adapted either, since then things have changed. She remembers her first exciting emotion on an Italian wine when she tasted with Masaaki-san in at Enoteca Pinchiorri in Tokyo the ones of Edoardo Valentini in the early 1990s', this had such a different character and energy. This woine bar had been importing the wine directly from Firenze then and the transportation conditions were better.
An other important issue for fine wines in Japan is the shipping : Yasuko tells (Ken who speaks perfectly French translated me this part of the interview) that back in 1997 when she started her company, the large import companies weren't concerned by the transportation conditions for the wines, especially regarding the temperature conditions during the shipping. When Yasuko Goda started her business she met the Japanese shipping companies beginning with the road transport operators so that they begin to use temperature-controlled trucks for the wine, with a stable 15°C (59 ° F) during the shipping to the wine shops across Japan. This was the very beginning of such careful transportation for wines in Japan and the shipping company with which they worked, Reefer System Japan, tells them today that their growth in Japan is largely thanks to having Racines push them in the late 90s' to use temperature-regulated trucks for their deliveries across Japan... This took place when Yasuko-san was working for Le Terroir, the previous incarnation of Racines, in 1999.
To store the wine Racines worked since the 1990s' with a company named Terrada Soko [soko means warehouse] which had a good wine warehouse with stabilized temperature, the company being also used by other importers dealing with prestigious and fragile wines. Since 2012 they work with another company with which they got their own custom-made warehouse.
I asked a few question to Ken who at Racines is often the intermediary with the vignerons as he speaks a perfect French. He has been working here for more than 4 years. His father is French and his mother Japanese and he lived 10 years in France, spending these years in the south-west between La Rochelle and Bordeaux. When he came back in Japan in 2002 he worked for different importers. His first contact with wine was in 1998 or 1999 when at the University in Bordeaux he befriended the sons of cavistes and visited several Chateaux with them during his free time, getting little by little more interested in wine. Speaking of his appreciation of natural wines he noticed that while he's working in the wine trade since 12 or 13 years, it's been a long process and he really began to drink wine for about 4 years, when he worked for Racines, this speaks volumes I guess... In the early years he didn't get why he liked ceratain wines and not others but lately he understands better as he likes almost everything that is shipped by this importer, and he connects the dots with what he learnt about the vignerons' vineyard management and winemaking philosophy.
Ken and Yasuko-san showed me the large tasting room on the 1st floor, that's where they invite their clients, the cavistes for the monthly tastings where they present their wines. The room was full of other stuff as this was the end of the year and the next tasting was weeks away but I still could gauge the good conditions, with a kitchen on the side to prepare the food and large LED panels for the light. Ken shows me the new glasses they've been using for the lasr 3 years, they're made by Zalto in Austria and from their experience they're doing a very good job. They're lead free which counts too.
Later this day we had dinner in a great restaurant know by Yasuko-san, this venue had a very small room and an austere decoration , it was just a small counter along which
maybe 7 people could sit, a bit like this sake restaurant B. and
I visited a couple years ago except that the kitchen was on the other side of the counter.
By the way it was that small sake restaurant that we had sat unknowingly next to John W., the New Zealander whom we didn't know yet and whom we met later, discovering he was taking part in the organization of Festivin and knew tons of venues in Tokyo.
The dinner with Yasuko was a succession of exquisite fish dishes which happened to all pair beautifully with a Champagne Fleury. I can't find the name of the place although I'm sure it's one of the business cards I brought back (B. needs to help here it's certainly one that is only in Japanese...).
After dinner we went to a wine bar I had heard about recently, it's Winestand Waltz (picture above), it's near Ebisu but not easy to find, the door is half way on the private grounds of an appartment buildings, out of view from the street. Like in a traditional tachinomi [standing bar] you don't sit but stand at the counter to drink and eat small dishes. It's all natural wine there and the selection if I remember is 5 reds and 5 whites by the glass, not counting the bottles if you want to order a larger volume for your party. Only a handful of people can stand here. Yasuhiro Ooyama used to travel to France but he is now the father of a 3-year old and it's more difficult. He spent time with Fabrice Monnin of Les Zinzins du Vin in Besançon (near the Jura) and with Hirotake Ooka. Before setting up shop here he had another venue but far away from the center of Tokyo, this place is small but everyone likes it this way, Yasuko says, and the wines are great. Yasuko took a glass of Jean-Pierre Robinot and my first pick was Vini Viti Vinci Irancy les Ronces 2013, a lightly-colored, turbid, delicious, juicy & savory wine making only 11,5 %, a great pleasure to swallow. Yasuko-san ordered then a Chateauneuf-du-Pape if I remember and I chose another Burgundy , Domaine Renaud Boyer Bourgogne les Riaux 2013, a wine with a beautiful intensity, focused, with a nice tannic chew in the back of the mouth. Nice job. The aromas from the almost-empty glass were just so exciting.
But this story is not really finished : you'll be surprised to learn that Yasuko-san's husband Mr Goda lives much of the time in a beautiful remote house in a valley in Yamanashi, in a dream of a place surrounded by woods at the foot of a mountain range (picture on left), and he is beginning to make wine in the area of Kofu, Yamanashi, using a small parcel belonging to friends of his and also this parcel which he planted earlier this year. The other parcel (pic on right) with which he made a small batch of 30 liters this year is planted with a 4-year-old white hybrid based from Yama Budo, it's a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and a local variety.
The two parcels which are at a walking distance of each other are located on a relatively high altitude compared to the norm for mainstream Yamanashi vineyards (Yamanashi is one of the two main wine regions in Japan, the other being Nagano), this way the summer weather is a bit cooler here. The winter is cold here but the snow doesn't usually last long; the other wine region, Nagano is colder in general. I still think it's quite cold here on my French standards, the wind was freezing to the bone when I visited in early december and I'm sure february but be difficult to endure.
You can see on the right the parcel of white hybrid that belongs to his friends, surround by a net to keep rodents and wildboars away, with Mount Fuji in the background. I know many vineyard workers that would dream of doing the pruning in winter with such a view in the brisk air of december...
This is just a first try and his recently-planted vineyard of Pinot Noir is expected to produce fruit soon, but the volumes will be of course limited, don't expect to be able to call Racines and ask for their own wine....