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The People section of Nippon.com profiles Asuka Sugiyama, a theoretical physicist and self-proclaimed “missionary” for wine and sake.

Describing her as “a woman of action”, Nippon.com asked this aficionado of wine and sake, who shuttles between Paris and Tokyo every fortnight, about her business philosophy. It’s a long interview, so I’ve picked out a section on misunderstandings about sake in Paris.

Asked about how she feels now after opening a sake bar in Paris a year ago, she replies that although everyone is talking about sake being all the rage, in reality it’s only just starting to take off. She often meets Parisians who think sake is the same as Chinese baijiu (白酒, white alcohol, also called shaojiu). They believe it’s distilled and therefore high in alcohol, something to be downed as a shot after dinner. Many shops and restaurants don’t keep sake at the right temperature, and she often finds sake that has gone off and developed the distinctive hine-ka (off-aroma) being sold to an unsuspecting public.

She’s frustrated that fruity, easy to drink sake, which goes perfectly with food, has spread with such misunderstandings around it. That’s why she set up her own sake bar where she can show people how it’s drunk in Japan. Her experiences over the past year have taught her that the French have a great talent for enjoying their food, and are keen to ask her staff questions as they watch the chef prepare food from the counter. Why is the fish cut that way? How do they make their version of bouillon? They’re all fascinated by food, and many are happy to share their opinions and impressions. Everyone at the bar finds the interaction stimulating, and Sugiyama feels it was well worth setting it up. 

Asked what’s the most frequent question about sake, Sugiyama replies that it might be distinctions such as daiginjō and junmai. Conversations with the French in Paris has left her with the impression that many equate junmai daiginjō with the prestigious grand cru wine produced in Bourgogne. Some believe that only the highest grade of sake is good, and so only drink daiginjō. Daiginjō may be the most expensive, but that doesn’t mean that everything else is bad. She explains to her customers how each category relates to milling ratio and brewing style, then introduces them to a junmai, and many end up preferring it because of its refreshing acidity and relative dryness.

The next question is why sake still feels tied to Japan when wine is consumed all over the world. Sugiyama thinks it’s down to the fact that sake hasn’t been widely available before now, and also down to some Japanese national characteristics, like not being great at selling. She sees her fellow Japanese as generally self-effacing, in a good way. They have no problems taking things from the outside in and adapting them, but struggle with putting their own culture and products out into the world. By contrast, the French have no problems asserting themselves, and are also masters of presenting French culture and produce to others. She notes that there was already a classification system in place for wine at the time of the Paris Expo in 1855. While she credits the unique properties of the grape and the influence of Christianity in the worldwide popularity of wine, she also points to the similarity of food culture all over Europe which made it easy for countries other than France to integrate wine into their own drinking habits.

What is needed now, Sugiyama reflects, is more professionals who can spread the word about sake. What’s so good about it, what it tastes like, what food it goes with. She finds it difficult to explain sake‘s charms without explaining it verbally in detail. Thinking that people will understand just by drinking isn’t good enough. She highlights how wine’s aromas and flavours can be described in detailed vocabulary, making it easy for anyone to learn and understand, and claims that this depth of analysis and terminology has made it more popular. There’s no way to communicate describe abstract concepts like aroma and flavour to someone from another culture if the words aren’t there.



I really enjoyed reading this, and found Sugiyama’s insistence on detailed verbal explanation a stark contrast to the interview with Dassai’s Paris representative, Iida Kaoru, who wanted to leave out all the baggage that sake can come with in order to promote it abroad.

Her comments about temperature control and off sake in Paris were interesting as well (I’m not that familiar with hine-ka but have had some pretty bad sake in Zurich). 

It also reminded me of the Japanese gentleman who sat beside me on the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust Level 3 Award in Sake course, who already had the Sake Service Institute qualification but came all the way to London to do the WSET one. Why? He had done the WSET wine course and preferred their attempt to objectively describe its characteristics, something he felt was missing in the SSI course and in the Japanese sake world in general.

Any thoughts? Drop me a line at arline@taste-translation.com, or Twitter @tastetrans.