The Shokuhin Sangyo Shinbunsha (Food & Drink Industry Newspaper Company) has an article on the International Wine Challenge sake division, which took place in Yamagata last week, and some comments after the event from Master of Wine and sake promoter Kenichi Ohashi.
Held in Yamagata City from 13 to 16 May, and with medal and trophy winners announced on 18 May, the IWC is mostly over.
There were a record 1,639 sake entered from 456 breweries, with 59 judges awarding a total of 97 gold medals, plus one trophy winner for each of the nine categories and regional trophies. Labels with production of at least 100,000 720 ml bottles which retail for JPY 1,000 or less are also eligible for the Great Value Sake award.
One of the judges was Kenichi Ohashi, a Master of Wine and sake promoter. He noted that the overall proportion of gold medal winners was 5.8%, but with 17 gold medal labels out of 182 entries Yamagata achieved a gold medal rate of well above average with 9.3%. He emphasised that the aim of the competition was both education and promotion.
He also had some interesting things to say about sake's advances overseas. Cautioning that there should not just be one-sided education from Japan outwards, he instead recommended paying close attention to what non-Japanese are looking for in sake. A positive aroma in Japan might be negative overseas, and vice versa. Sake producers need to look carefully at their products from the viewpoint of both groups for sake to make its anticipated leap into the global market.
Another topic Kenichi touched on was the level of internationalisation on the ground in Japan. While global cities like London or New York have a mix of races and cultures, in Japan only 1 in 20 people is non-Japanese. There isn't the same level of awareness of others as foreigners in other countries, and he even felt the word "foreigner" wasn't used as often. Urban residents abroad are considerate of each other's nationality, and aware of each other's culture... but that's not yet the case in Japan.
If brewers want to increase consumption among inbound tourists and make advances in overseas markets, they need to think like those customers think. It's foolish to assume that what is seen as good in Japan will be received in the same way elsewhere, and there's also no guarantee that it will be treated in the same way. That's one of the things that makes the IWC so important for him - its international panel of judges provides a more objective viewpoint than a group of all-Japanese assessors. The IWC judges also provide feedback on all the entries, so even if a sake scores poorly it still gains something. Kenichi encouraged brewers to keep on taking up the challenge so as to ensure sake takes its great leap forward.