As Wine Culture Spreads Around the World, Is Sake’s Domain Safe?
Looking back over the past half century, one of the biggest changes in the gastronomic life of leading industrialized nations outside Europe like Japan, US and South Korea seems to have been the spread of wine drinking along with Italian and French cuisines. There are of course exceptions like Canada, a nation founded by Frenchmen of the “wine culture” and the British of the “beer/ale culture,” and Latin American countries that have steadily produced wine since the 19th century.
In the early 1960s, when I was a high-schooler in Tokyo, the word “wine” was generally associated with “Akadama Port Wine,” a very sweet alcoholic potion that one could buy anywhere, even at railway station kiosks. It was advertised as “delicious and good for health, ” as I recall. I am sure expensive French restaurants served wines, but when people spoke of drinking, it was usually beer, sake and whiskey (scotch).
In the first half of the 70s, I lived in Denver, Colorado and San Francisco. In the conservative midwest town of Denver, people usually went to the liquor store for beers, bourbon, scotch, vodka and such. One would associate the word “wine” with cheap wines favored by these alcoholic vagrants who scraped together loose change. That’s why they were called “winos.”
California wines were also available, but rather than drinking them regularly, people tended to save them for special occasions like when having friends over for carefully-prepared Italian or Mexican food. In the international city of San Francisco, where there’s a large number of Italian immigrants, wine was everywhere, but for low-income people like myself, there were only a few California wines and rather crude cheap wines. French and Italian imports were expensive, so I only tasted them occasionally.
Looking into the history of the wine industry in the US, there were as many as 140 wineries in Napa Valley, the main wine-producing region by the end of the 19th century. But when the Prohibition Act of 1920 was enacted across the country, they were put out of business. Moreover, vines in the valley were subsequently devastated by a root louse infestation, so that the industry did not thrive again until the 1960s, well after World War II.
Even into the 70s, “enjoying wine” was considered somewhat high-brow both in many parts of the US where beer, bourbon and scotch were still the mainstream, and in Japan, where beer, sake and “whiskey” (scotch) were definitely so, if memory serves. In 1976, when I moved to Tokyo from San Francisco, the only so-so red and white wines I found for less than 1000 yen (about $10 ) were those labeled, as I recalled, “Mercian.” Upon checking, such a company started marketing its “Chateau Mercian” labels in 1970.
By now, of course, wines from “New World” wineries in the US, Oceania, Canada, and South America flood the global market , and wine has long ago established its presence on the home dinner table in the US, across Canada and Japan, with South Korea, China and Southeast Asia catching up. In Japan, at the forefront of the global consumer culture, it’s been at least a decade since one would walk into a liquor store to find an entire wall, say five shelves high, crammed with wines from all over the world from French and Italian to North and South America, Oceania and South Africa, perhaps with a stack of Chiliean wines for less than 1,000 yen ($10) off to the side.
I should confess I am a complete layman when it comes to wine, most of my knowledge having been gained second-hand from newspaper and magazine articles. It’s just that while doing research on wines for a translation job, I became somewhat engrossed with the subject, and what with the approach of the summer’s gastronomic pleasures of barbecues, picnics and restaurant meals on the road, I thought I’d try to lighten up once in a while with a bit of wine talk.
I still don’t know much about labels, varieties and so on, but I got to know wine, so to speak, when I was 15 while living in Rome where my journalist father was posted. In Italy, people usually start drinking wine in their teens at the family dinner table. On weekends, we would come across big three-generation family gatherings, dining at picturesque outdoor restaurants beside a suburban Roman ruin or two. The kids would be given white wine diluted with water, rather than pop or fruit juice, to drink. It was an image of a “bread and wine” culture that went back a very long way.
So the first time I got drunk was at a YMCA summer camp beside a still-pristine beach in Sardinia, an island nowadays full of resort developments. Our parents might have thought a YMCA camp was safe. At the camp’s canteen (which only served pasta every night with some barely-seasoned tomato sauce), they would freely sell us, i.e. mischievous 15- and 16-year-old brats, local red wine at cost price.
We moved back to Tokyo thereafter, where on one occasion I took part in a work camp organized by a Christian group at the invitation of a high-school classmate.
Maybe I was looking for an aftertaste of my days in Rome, but I sneaked in a bottle of the aforementioned Akadama Port Wine and one night after lights out, I passed it around camp mates from other schools, who promised to keep it a secret. But the incident was exposed a few weeks later, putting my classmate in a difficult spot. I did after all ignore the difference in values between Italy and Japan, so I duly apologized. One of the students, who had sworn to secrecy, had squealed during a “self-criticism session.” Young and cocky, and raised overseas moreover, I learned the lesson of how loose-tongued people in Japan can be.
In Britain, where binge-drinking by young people has been a serious social issue for some time, some argued a few years back that Britons should learn from the example of the French and Italians who “learn to drink sensibly when they are adolescents at the family dinner table.” But in subsequent years, young men and women “on the Continent” were also reported to be binge-drinking on wine or whatever, and such a suggestion was heard no more.
When it comes to “food pairings,” all I know is the standard “red with red meat, white with chicken and fish.” But in Rome, people drink white with whatever they eat, and on the coast of southern Spain where I traveled, I found people drinking red with their fish snacks and dishes. So ultimately, the choice must be whatever tastes right to one’s palate.
In terms of my palate, there are the standard combinations—like wine with Italian and French cuisines, beer and ale with pub food like cheese and ham sandwiches and shepherd’s pie, and beer and sake obviously with Japanese cuisine—that have become a life-long habit. Incidentally, when I was hanging around Paris back in the early 70s, when there were several Vietnamese restaurants and very few Chinese restaurants, I once ate at one of the latter. A bit curious as to what French people would drink with Chinese food, I looked around and found many sipping pink Rosé. As they usually only drink red and white, it was kind of funny.
In this age, the knowledge of which wines go with which cuisines and foods seems to be another “realm of expertise.” Let’s keep it simple. Suppose you are about to eat a salmon nigiri sushi. What will you have to drink? Green tea would be standard but if you are a “drinker,” I would think probably ice cold beer. Then again, what with the onslaught of wine culture, you might ask for chilled white wine. One place to track gastronomic trends is advertisements. But I don’t trust those ads one finds in Japan like <this wine goes well with such-and-such Japanese dishes> or <this sake goes well with western dishes like…> because their desire to sell is too blatant. In Canada, where wines and “western” cuisines are the traditional fare, ads tend to stress quality and value for money.
To sum it up, I suspect that when it comes to the palate, people whether in Canada or Japan are a lot more conservative than what ads aim for. (Even if one hears things like the Japanese, who became familiar with butter and cheese after the war, World War II are now showing preference for olive oil based western dishes over butter seasoned ones.)
Why is wine such a big deal? To cultivate grapes for wine-making being the very origin of the word “culture,” one of the reasons English people like to emphasize that England was part of the Roman Empire before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans is that they were in contact with the enlightened civilization of the time unlike, perhaps, the Germans and others who were not conquered by the Romans. In European nations that were once part of the Roman Empire, in particular, wine and culture seem inseparable.
The Japanese being natural sticklers for details, it seems the trend today among high-income people striving for the status of “the cultured class” (if there still be such a thing) is that one would feel somewhat handicapped if one did not have at least a basic knowledge of grape species, wineries and so on, just as it might have been in the US or Britain about 30 years ago One thing I’ll never get, though, is this “wine tasting” business. Can they REALLY catch the aromas of nuts, citrus fruit, banana and butter? Being an omnivore of Japanese and western foods, not to mention the different ethnic cuisines we get here in Vancouver, as well as an occasional smoker, my taste buds must be shot. But I’m still skeptical.
In conclusion, if I were to make a recommendation in the under $10 range that I can afford, I think some labels from Chile both red and white taste pretty good.