Tales of a Sumo Taster
The combination of some of the most extraordinary French wines ever produced and the genius of chef Joël Robuchon made for the most compelling hedonistic experiences I've ever had.
My first trip to Japan, in 1998, began with an enormous crowd of Japanese paparazzi and television crews, all waiting for me to clear customs in Tokyo (a first-time experience for this wine critic). Over the next five days, the attention never waned. Throngs of serious Japanese wine drinkers at all the tastings I conducted asked hundreds of intelligent questions, displaying a level of appreciation and desire for knowledge that was both remarkable and refreshing. In just a few days' time, I was dubbed the "sumo taster," which in Japan is akin to being named a winner on American Idol. I even made the scandal sheets when a Japanese actress (some said a soft-core porn star) crashed a tasting and threw herself onto my lap. When she experienced a "wardrobe malfunction," the photographers clicked away, producing tantalizing photos that made Naomi Kawashima an overnight sensation as Japan's most glamorous "wine girl."
Although that 1998 trip was extraordinary, it was also frenetic. When I returned in December 2004, I was determined to do things a bit differently. First, I wanted to experience some Japanese culture. Second, I wanted to visit Yamanashi, the burgeoning viticultural region near Mount Fuji, and do some tasting.
On my first evening in Tokyo, I had a private meal with my Japanese publisher and several VIPs at one of the country's finest traditional restaurants, Kitcho, where I ate raw lobster and abalone in a seaweed jelly, egg-custard soup with shark's fin, fatty tuna belly (o-toro) shabu-shabu and amazing Matsusaka beef. Not a drop of sake was consumed. Instead, we drank great Burgundies from renowned producers such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Claude Dugat.
The serious program began the next day when I was taken to Yamanashi. I visited a few producers, most notably the Grace Winery, and participated in multiple tastings of the Japanese wine industry's great white hope, Koshu, a grape that's been grown in Japan for more than 800 years and produces a light-bodied Albariño-like white. I conducted a symposium for close to 100 Japanese sommeliers and winemakers, tasting and discussing the qualities of nonoaked dry whites like Koshu (it's such a fragrant, delicate wine it can't handle oak) versus dry white wines aged in old oak. The most notable native wine I tasted was the 2004 Grace Koshu, made with the assistance of famed Bordeaux enologist Denis Dubourdieu. A true breakthrough effort, this stainless steel–fermented white tasted like a cross between Albariño and French Gewürztraminer. Not surprisingly, it goes well with sushi.
The most difficult part of my Japanese lectures came at the end, when I was inundated by hundreds of wine enthusiasts armed with questions, cameras and autograph requests. (This is flattering for the first 15 minutes or so, but when it stretches into hours, collapse from exhaustion cannot be far away.) The sommelier lecture was followed by a meal at Yashima, a traditional Japanese restaurant in Yamanashi prefecture, where the wine list included such cult Burgundy producers as Domaine Leroy and Comtes Lafon, as well as larger, more well-known producers such as Louis Jadot. The Bordeaux selection featured great vintages of Léoville Poyferré and Mouton Rothschild—and this was in the boondocks of Japan. The food was provocative, at least to my American palate, with an abundance of fish livers, sperm sacs (served raw, of course) and the famed, potentially fatal globefish called fugu. I had fugu fillet, fugu liver, and I was suspicious that the translucent little pearls in the miso soup were the poor fugu's eyes. Some of these courses were only palatable with big gulps of wine and/or water. However, there were also some stunningly delicious dishes, such as Shanghai crab with ginger, raw chilled cuttlefish and a sukiyaki of Wagyu beef. I'd been in Japan for only two days, yet I found myself daydreaming about the glories of a DB burger from Daniel Boulud's famed Manhattan bistro, DB Bistro Moderne, or even better, a fatty pastrami sandwich from New York City's Carnegie deli. But the best was yet to come.
My Japanese publisher had the idea of putting together a dinner organized by Japan's Académie du Vin and featuring the talents of renowned French chef Joël Robuchon. This million-yen ($10,000) meal included 18 courses, accompanied by 18 legendary wines that I selected. The dinner was limited to 20 people, but since so many food and wine enthusiasts signed up, they added a second dinner. The first dinner marked the Tokyo opening of Château Restaurant Joël Robuchon, and the second one was at the Hotel Seiyo Ginza.
While I have had the good fortune to enjoy many great meals in my life and I have been a longtime fan of Joël Robuchon, the combination of some of the most extraordinary French wines ever produced and the genius of Robuchon made those evenings the two most compelling hedonistic experiences I have ever had. At the second dinner, I sat next to a young sommelier who spoke no English or French, so I had to communicate through a translator. It turned out she had come by herself and spent her life savings to attend this meal. I wondered if anyone else in any other country would give up their life savings solely for the purpose of educating their palate. In any event, both meals were remarkable. That second dinner concluded with pristine magnums of 1864 and 1870 Lafite-Rothschild and 1921 Château d'Yquem, followed by an enormous press conference that included both French and Japanese journalists.
The lecture on 2002 and 2001 Bordeaux that I had delivered earlier that day was déjà vu all over again. The attentiveness of the audience was mind-boggling—in stark contrast to some lectures I have delivered in the States, where participants chatter constantly or, worse, fall asleep. Such things simply do not happen in Japan.
I think the Japanese love young, tannic red wines much more than most Americans do. Perhaps it is because Asians have a great fondness for tea and tea is a very tannic beverage. Therefore a young, tannic red wine is something familiar to an Asian palate. In contrast, an American wine drinker, who's been raised largely on sweet drinks, has to cultivate a taste for tannin. Second, Asians have an undeniable love of alcohol, and of course, wines are generally between 10 and 15 percent alcohol. Third, for the Japanese, the color red connotes good fortune, so a beverage that is red and that contains alcohol and strong tannins is a perfect trifecta.
While I maintained a vigorous work schedule during my visit, I was able to do some sightseeing too—and pay a few visits to sushi bars. In fact, I wore out my welcome at several such establishments, where I ate so much o-toro there was little or none left for regular customers. My translator, who accompanied me, expressed shock at how much o-toro a hungry American could eat. I tried to explain my o-toro obsession, but without much luck. Perhaps during my next few visits to Tokyo, I'll develop a taste for other Japanese delicacies, such as fish livers and sperm sacs.
Though I left Japan without having so much as one glass of sake (in contrast to my 1998 trip, when I conducted a tasting of more than 200), I did drink some of the greatest European wines in my life and ate two of the finest meals I have ever had. They were French, prepared by the greatest French chef of the last quarter century...made in Tokyo, not Paris.
At the airport awaiting my flight home, I thanked my translators for their help and for understanding, or at least tolerating, my gluttonous behavior regarding o-toro. They were, of course, impeccably polite, but I knew that even after a phenomenally successful tour, I was no match for Japan's greatest wine hero, the swashbuckling sommelier Joe Satake—a comic book hero from an incredibly successful manga (anime magazine), who never fails to identify wines and their vintages in blind tastings—while battling evil at the same time.
Robert M. Parker, Jr., is the editor and publisher of The Wine Advocate and a longtime contributing editor to F&W. He is the author of 13 books; his 14th, The World's Greatest Wine Estates, will be published this fall.