Japan has given many things to the world that I cherish, but few of them have an unofficial holiday that gives me the excuse to celebrate them. Every October first, along with sake lovers all over Japan and around the world, I get to observe Nihonshu no Hi, also known as Sake Day.
Like wine, no one knows exactly when sake first made an appearance on this planet. In a similar fashion to grape wine, the knowledge that fermented rice eventually yields an alcoholic beverage was probably discovered in accidental and then later deliberate stages, as innovative and curious folks explored ways of getting drunk. Ah, human ingenuity.
Sake production and demand peaked in Japan around the mid-19th century when a law was passed allowing anyone to become a brewer. As many as 30,000 breweries were opened in the year of the law’s passing, though that number dwindled as taxes on sake and its raw materials increased through the end of that century.
Despite not being anywhere near its 19th century production levels, sake is seeing a significant rise in interest outside of Japan (and sadly a decline in interest within Japan). More and more excellent sake is leaving Japan and making its way abroad.
All of this means that in early October you’ll not only have something to celebrate but, some really good stuff to celebrate with, should you care to partake in the annual Sake Day celebration put on by San Francisco’s own True Sake store.
If you’re looking for a way to learn about sake, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better occasion to do so. Because the best way to learn about sake is to taste a lot of it!
2022 Sake Day Celebration Saturday, October 1, 2022 4:00 PM – 8:00 PM Hotel Kabuki 1625 Post Street San Francisco, CA 94115 (map)
This event sells out every single year, and often well in advance, so purchase your tickets soon. None will be available at the door. We’ve already missed the early bird pricing, so now tickets will run you $100 for the event.
For those interested in tasting a lot of sakes at the event, I recommend bringing your own spit cup or water bottle to spit into, as spittoons are traditionally not offered at sake tastings, for reasons that I don’t understand but which probably have to do with tradition.
To give you a sense of just how much of a time commitment having both a teenager and a newborn can be, witness this very post, which is merely four months or so late!
I was fortunate enough to have been invited to share in one of the periodic Virtual Happy Hours hosted by the stellar team at Wine Spoken Here, a small-but-mighty wine PR group headquartered in California, this one being their now-annual year-end holiday celebration in which they supply samples of wines that they just personally enjoy. Given that they’re seasoned wine pros all, the picks tend to be absolutely stellar in these events, and last December’s (!!) picks were no exception.
There are some rather interesting selections in this lineup, so if you’re in the mood for something a bit outside-the-conventional-box, you’ll want to pay particular attention to what we got seriously, seriously buzzed on sampled during our Zoom call…
Hailing from one of the oldest and largest estate of Châteauneuf du Pape this blend (Grenache Blanc 40 %, Roussanne 34 %, Clairette 20 %, Bourboulenc 6 %) is the real deal. Christophe Bristiel (their Export Manager, who joined our call) told us that “Water is key. The property was built because it has water. Those natural springs are a key element on the style of the wine.” They’re one of the largest producers of white in CdP (at one point, half of the production was white wine according to Bristiel – currently it’s just over 15%). Most of the white vines are planted close to the water table, so they get enough moisture even in the driest CdP vintages. The white wines of the region in the late 1700s sold for a premium over the reds to Boston and Philly merchants (according to their records). Today, “it remains a hand-sell; even in France, many people don’t know that we make white wine in Châteauneuf. It’s a blend of terroirs, and a blend of grape varieties.” The Clairette vines are well over 90 years old, and are still bush trained. The percentages vary each vintage, but the most important component is always the Roussanne (which is picked first), fermented in oak on its own.
Honeyed, heady, and hedonistic, this is all round and generous in the mouth. There’s a very long floral, mineral, flinty finish with white peach and just-ripe pear action, and bits of bees wax, too, and just a hint of ginger. Delicious. Sexy AF. Love it.
This is Bill Leigon’s new project, made at Pacific Rim’s winery – working with the Mariani family (of Banfi fame). Horse Heaven Hills is 25% of the planted acreage in Washington State, and one of WA’s warmest areas. “Beck” is an archaic New England word for a “swift flowing stream.” appropriated here as description for the ancient Missoula Floods that largely created the area. Technically a single vineyard wine, 1500 cases were made (with plans to grow). 4% of the fruit comes from Red Mountain. Small bits of Merlot, Muscat Cannelli, and Malbec are thrown in as well.
Evoking cocoa powder, black and blue plummy fruits, oak spices, and sweet tannins, this has a nice dusty edge to it, and surprising length (full of black fruit and wood spice) for the money. Absolutely a crowd pleaser.
Wine Spine Spoken Here partner Rusty Eddy’s brother Tom crafts this beauty. Tom was at Wente in the `70s, was General Manager at Souverain, and crafted the first vintage at Tom Eddy Winery in the early `90s. His property literally straddles the Napa/Sonoma county line. “We really strive for concentration with the challenge to make an elegant wine,” Tom noted when he joined the Zoom. “You can have power, you can have structure” and still be age-worthy. “We kind of go against the grain. We’re not Parker-philes. 2015 was a really unique vintage. We kind of got fooled. We thought that the harvest would be on the lighter side. We didn’t realize how small the berries would be.” About 1/2 consists of Stagecoach Vineyard fruit.
There’s soooo much going on in this one. Still young and even a tad oaky due to its youth, there’s juicy blackcurrant action all over the place. Black plum, cedar, graphite, hints of smoked meat/game, along with great texture, silkiness, and just enough freshness and red plum action to keep it perky. Authentic, and has serious “mojo” and character. Great, great balance. Just 285 cases produced.
This was an odd one, in the best ways possible. The very modern (and more or less all-black… queue the Spinal Tap quotes) label clues you in on what to expect in the bottle from this 16th generation producer. One of the driest Sakes you can ever find at +15 (basically the max), it has a crazy interesting nose, with earth, truffle, dashi, and umami. Savory, potent, powerful, and long with a commanding style, it feels like Sake going to war (with Iron Madien’s Senjutsu blaring in the background.) Tough to find, but one of the most unique Sake experiences you’ll EVER have if you do find one of the 30 or so cases that were imported.
I am not a fan of journalism-by-list. We can thank Buzzfeed, SEO fanaticism, and the shortening attention span of America for a world where articles with titles that include the words “The 10 Best” are some of the most rabidly consumed content on the internet. Especially when followed by subheads that begin with “You won’t believe….”
The wine world has also long been over-saturated with Top-100-Best lists that do little more than drive prestige-based consumerism and fuel wine producer egos. Such lists, like the endless pages of tasting notes and scores from which they are derived, do little service to most wine consumers.
But here I am making a list for you anyway. Why? Because as I reflected on a year that began with tasting the most recent vintage from Piedmont in New York (with a few thousand wine industry colleagues) and shortly thereafter became 9 months of me sitting at my breakfast table opening samples, I realized just how much pleasure wine has brought to this dumpster fire of a year.
In 2020, wine has done its normal job of smoothing out life’s rough edges and providing a pleasurable font of favorable relaxation. It has also done something else that only wine can do: it has brought a bit of the wide world into my kitchen, giving me the opportunity to travel through space and time via flavor, aroma, and story. Both of these qualities of wine have made the relative isolation and dramatic upheaval of this past year not only tolerable but pleasurable, at least relative to the strangeness of our circumstances.
Of course, I am acutely aware of just how lucky I am. My immediate family’s quarantine has been marked with little worse than an undelivered Thanksgiving bird, a shortage of all-purpose flour, and our shame and disappointment at the state of our country. We have been safe, healthy, insured, and well-fed while so many others have not.
So while perhaps we needed less succor and easement than most, here are a few bottles that shine brilliantly in my memory of a year with more than a few dark clouds obscuring the 12 months through which we have trudged together. These are not necessarily the absolute best wines I had in 2020, but they are certainly the most meaningful.
Happy New Year!
2017 Giovanni Sordo Barbaresco, Piedmont, Italy
One of the last “normal” things I can remember doing in 2020 was taking a trip to New York for a production that the Italians dubbed the BBWO – Barolo & Barbaresco World Opening. With a program featuring several days of events and tastings, this was a big-budget affair designed to garner attention for the widely acclaimed 2016 vintage.
One of the activities involved in the event consisted of a set of blind tastings done by panels of wine writers, critics, and industry folks in an attempt to calibrate the vintage and assemble an “overall score” for the vintage. Our panel quickly agreed that the wines they chose to serve blind for this purpose were not particularly stellar examples of the form, and therefore didn’t do the overall vintage quality much justice. However, midway through this tasting, a wine was poured that felt, at the time, like a parting of the heavens.
Finally, after a number of rather prosaic glasses of Nebbiolo, here was a wine that wafted out of the glass and commanded my attention, seducing with charm and beguiling with grace.
Light to medium ruby in the glass, with the barest hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of dried flowers and strawberries. In the mouth, intensely bright, juicy strawberry and dried herb flavors have a wonderful dynamism and brightness with gorgeous balance and length. Supple, powdery-fine tannins dust the edges of the mouth as the wine lingers with great length on the palate.
Located in Castiglione Falletto, Azienda Agricola Giovanni Sordo is a third-generation, traditionalist producer of Barolo. Established in 1912, the estate farms 130 acres of vineyards across eight different crus and five different communes in Barolo.
This wine comes from vineyards in Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso. The grapes are destemmed, and fermented slowly using the submerged-cap method (where a weighted mesh is used to keep the floating skins and seeds under the juice surface) in stainless vats where it stays for 6 months before spending a year in huge Slavonian oak casks.
Even though it isn’t from the storied 2016 vintage, this wine was a high point in the hazy memory of a pre-COVID beginning to the year.
2015 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
Quite literally the last public wine tasting I attended before the lockdown was the annual tour of Brunello producers through the US, put on by The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, the trade group representing the appellation. It had been some time since I had done a comprehensive tasting of Brunello, and it proved immensely comforting to taste through scores of wines that I know and love so much.
While the true superstars of Brunello weren’t in attendance (the most renowned producers have little need for such publicity events) a few reliable favorites were there, including Il Poggione.
A medium, cloudy garnet color in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, flowers and sour cherry aromas. In the mouth, the wine is gorgeously bright and juicy with flavors of cherry, sour cherry, and dusty herbal notes all draped in gauzy tannins. Wonderful length and balance with fantastic acidity. Long, persistent finish. 16,600 cases made.
Tenuta Il Poggione is one of the largest estates surrounding the little hill town of Montalcino in central Tuscany. According to familial legend, it was purchased by Lavino Franceschi, a successful Florentine businessman who visited the area in the late 1800s on the advice of a shepherd who wintered his flocks there. As the story goes, Franceschi was so taken by the beauty of the landscape, he bought great swaths of it and transformed himself from a man of the city to a man of the country. In the process, the Franceschi family became one of the founding families of Brunello, helping to establish the region’s modern reputation for wine and pioneering some of its high-quality vineyard management and winemaking techniques.
Brunello has always been a “comfort wine” for me, and one associated with special memories, as it is the first wine region I visited with the woman who would become my wife. Like the Barbaresco, this wine in some ways represents my wine life before the pandemic, something I look back on with more than a little wistfulness these days.
1998 Domaine Carneros “Le Rêve” Blanc de Blancs, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Eileen Crane has rightfully earned the title of doyenne of California Sparkling Wine. After 42 vintages, 30 of which were spent as the founding CEO and winemaker at Domaine Carneros, she decided to step down, leaving an incredible legacy to her successor Remi Cohen. In an industry that still has far too few female leaders, Crane has quietly been running an extraordinarily tight ship at Domaine Carneros and personally overseeing the production of one of California’s top sparkling wines.
In celebration of her pending retirement, I had the opportunity to sit down with Eileen, as well as to taste through several vintages of Le Rêve, the oldest of which was this 1998, which was showing quite beautifully, especially considering most consider 1998 to be one of the worst vintages in California history.
Medium gold in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan and butterscotch with hints of sea air. In the mouth, dried lemon rind, pineapple, and toasted sourdough have a wonderful kelpy saline quality that along with still-bright acidity keeps the mouth-watering for a long while. Lovely balance, soft mousse, and rich complexity. 12% alcohol.
Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $n/a
In addition to being a gorgeous reminder of the charms that well-aged sparkling wines have to offer, it’s a remarkable wine on several merits. First, that it sees no oak, which is a relative rarity amongst the top sparkling cuvées in California. Second, that it is so generous in a year that most considered a disaster. And third, that it represents one of California’s leading ladies of wine operating at the top of her game.
2001 Marcel Deiss “Engelgarten” White Blend, Bergheim, Alsace, France
This wine qualifies as my best wine purchase of 2020. I don’t precisely remember how I stumbled across these back-vintage bottles from one of my favorite producers in the world, but I was browsing the e-commerce site for one of my local wine retailers and I nearly did a spit take when I saw some 20+year-old Domaine Marcel Deiss bottles available for a song. They had been apparently acquired from a private collector and were being sold for roughly $30 apiece.
Needless to say, I bought just about every bottle they had.
It’s always a little risky to buy previously owned wines, even from a reputable retailer who does their due diligence on provenance, but sometimes you can get lucky, as I did with these gems.
A bright Halloween-orange in color, this wine smells of orange peel, dark honey, and exotic flowers. In the mouth, lightly sweet notes of orange blossom syrup, citrus peel, wet pavement, and autumn leaves make for a gorgeous silky concoction. The acidity is filigreed and softening, but still very much a part of the wine. Exotic and alluring. A one-of-a-kind field blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Beurot, Muscat, and Pinot Noir. 12% alcohol.
Score: around 9.5.Cost: $50.
Jean-Michel Deiss is one of the wine world’s old-school mad geniuses. Defiantly labeling his wines with their vineyard names in the only region of France that requires them to be labeled with grape variety, Deiss decided early on that he needed to return his vineyards to what he describes as their traditional state: field blends of many varieties. And he thinks God agreed with him. Why? Because they all ripen at the same time, he says.
A staunch proponent of biodynamic agriculture and low-interventionalist winemaking, Deiss’ wines are simply some of the most individualistic and pleasurable expressions of terroir anywhere on the planet. I pretty much love everything Domaine Marcel Deiss (now run by Deiss and his son Mathieu) produces, and the Engelgarten, in particular, has long been one of my favorite of their wines.
To have an easy chance to drink this wine 20 years on in its life was a singular pleasure in this year where the inclination to stash away treasures like this lost out to the simple desire to drink the good stuff.
2011 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
I had the opportunity to taste through a number of back vintages from one of my favorite producers in Napa early in the year, and one bottle in particular both stood out in the crowd and stuck with me long after that tasting.
After the 1998 vintage I referenced above, 2011 was perhaps the second most miserable, cold, and wet vintages in decades. Napa, so used to its famously mild summers and relatively uneventful harvests (recent fire seasons notwithstanding) was sent scrambling as mildew and botrytis blossomed in the damp vineyards, that were muddy enough to swallow tractor wheels whole.
It’s the tough years that truly demonstrate which winemakers know what they’re doing, and 2011 was a perfect opportunity to test this maxim. It didn’t hurt that Spottswoode typically harvests their grapes several weeks earlier than many of their neighbors as they aim for slightly fresher wines with lower alcohol levels.
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, pencil lead, and a touch of green bell pepper. In the mouth, juicy flavors of sour cherry, graphite, and green herbs have a wonderful, silky lightness to them. Very fine-grained, supple tannins wrap around the core of fruit and herbs. Fantastic acidity. A hint of dusty road and dried herbs lingers in the long, floral finish. This wine is aging beautifully. 13.9% alcohol.
Spottswoode was founded by Mary Weber Novak, who purchased the historic estate on the edge of St. Helena in 1972 with her husband Jack Novak, who would pass away only a few years later. Mary would go on to single-handedly establish the winery, which is now run by two of her children, CEO Beth Novak Milliken and Marketing Ambassador Lindy Novak.
Farmed organically since 1985, and certified in 1992, Spottswoode is one of Napa’s pioneers when it comes to sustainable viticulture, and has long been one of those estates that simply spares no expense to do things right when it comes to wine quality, while keeping a relatively low profile in a valley full of flashy wines and even flashier architecture. Understated elegance is a phrase that comes to mind, and yet despite such understatement this wine lingered long in my memory of this year’s tastings.
2018 Syncline “Heart of the Hill” Mourvedre, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
As many of you know, I’ve been writing a monthly column for Jancis Robinson’s website for almost 10 years now. Those columns have been editorial in nature, focusing on news and current events in the world of American wine. But since I’ve stepped into wine writing a bit more fully now, having decided to take a break from the corporate world, I have begun to do some wine criticism for Jancis in the form of some regional tasting articles.
The first was a rather comprehensive look at Red Mountain AVA in Washington State’s Yakima Valley. This little hill and the slopes below it play host to some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon outside of Napa, yet the wines command only a fraction of the prices that Napa now demands.
While Red Mountain made its reputation on the Cabernet grown there, increasingly Rhône varieties have been successful, as several of the wines I tasted from the region showed.
Perhaps my favorite wine of the tasting was a Mourvedre made by one of my favorite producers in Washington, the little family-run label Syncline Winery.
Medium garnet in color this wine smells of mulberries and forest herbs. In the mouth, incredibly juicy mulberry, blackberry, and chopped herb flavors dance across the palate thanks to excellent acidity. Faint tannins dust the edge of the mouth as citrusy, and even slightly saline flavors just end up making the mouth water. Delicious. Fermented in open-top fermenters and then aged in neutral 500-liter French oak puncheons for 15 months. Contains 5% Syrah. 14.3% alcohol. 200 cases made.
Syncline is the life’s work of James and Poppie Mentone, a husband and wife who fell in love working a harvest together at a custom crush facility and now own a small farm near the Columbia River that employs biodynamic practices. They make small lots of exquisitely tended wines from their own estate fruit as well as from vineyards around Washington State. Their wines are foot-trodden, fermented with ambient yeasts, and aged in concrete or large-format barrels. I love pretty much everything they make, but this Mourvedre is particularly special, and stood out, even in a remarkably strong field of wines from Red Mountain.
Certainly one of the great pleasures of being a wine writer and critic remains the fact that very interesting wines sometimes show up on the doorstep. Perhaps one of the most memorable sets of wines that arrived this year were the wines from Parés Baltà, a producer in the Penedes region of Spain.
Run by two brothers and their enologist wives (who collaborate on the winemaking), Parès Baltà has been farming biodynamically since 2012, and makes both Cava as well as number of very interesting still wines.
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of melting snow, white flowers, and green apple. In the mouth, green apple and white floral flavors are welded to a deeply mineral, wet chalkboard quality that extends to a faint drying, tannic texture as the wine finishes with hints of pomelo pith and chamomile. Gorgeous. Includes 15% Sauvignon Blanc. 14.1% alcohol.
My favorite of the wines they sent me was this blend of the traditional Cava grape Xarel-lo and Sauvignon Blanc grown in some of their highest elevation vineyards. The grapes are picked and then macerated on the skins for a few hours before pressing into steel tanks to ferment with ambient yeasts.
I loved this wine, and several others in their portfolio for their sheer mineral expression. And at 10€ a bottle, it’s perhaps one of the best values I tasted this year, even after the markup to $20 when imported to the US.
2017 Edmunds St. John “El Jaleo – Shake Ridge Ranch” Red Blend, Amador County, Sierra Foothills, California
In June I wrote a profile of a Bay Area legend, winemaker Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John winery. Steve has been plying his craft in Berkeley and Oakland for decades, and is rightfully recognized as being one of the original Rhône Rangers for making Mourvedre in California before most people had even heard of that grape variety.
Edmunds hasn’t ever changed his European-inspired winemaking style, despite the ups and downs of stylistic preferences that have characterized California winemaking for the past 25 years. Indeed, he’s largely been making the same few wines every year without fail (a lovely Gamay, a rosé, a white wine, a red blend, and a couple of Syrahs), changing only a vineyard source or two when circumstances required it.
Recently, however, he introduced a couple of new wines to his portfolio, including what I consider to be a complete showstopper of a wine, one which interestingly deviates from his primarily Rhône-inspired lineup.
Edmunds found himself inspired by a fellow winemaker’s efforts with Tempranillo, and having already worked with fruit from Shake Ridge Ranch in Amador County, Edmunds persuaded the vineyard owner to give him some Tempranillo and Graciano to play with. He blended it with his beloved Mourvedre and Grenache, ending up with a wine that I simply find thrilling.
Medium ruby in the glass with a touch of purple remaining, this wine has a slightly shy nose of plum and dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously juicy notes of plum and boysenberry mix with the zingy brightness of alpine strawberry. Floated on top of this frothy fruit concoction are notes of dried flower petals and herbs. Faint tannins buff the edges of the mouth, as the wine kicks the salivary glands into overdrive. A blend of 14% Tempranillo, 26% Graciano, 32% Mourvedre, and 28% Grenache. 13% alcohol. 270 cases made.
Somehow the Tempranillo and Graciano add an electricity to deeper tones of Mourvedre and the sweet fruit of Grenache making the whole package zing to a sum that is more than its parts. Edmunds named the wine after the painting by Jean Singer Sargent that he selected for the label. Jaleo literally translates as “a ruckus” but also references a famous historical dance known as Jaleo de Jerez.
Delicious, reasonably priced, and a wonderful testament to an accomplished winemaker who isn’t content resting on his laurels.
Suigei “5 Mann” Junmai Daiginjo Sake, Kochi Prefecture, Shikoku, Japan
A couple of years ago I took a press trip to the island of Shikoku to explore the sake culture of this little island that dangles below the main part of Japan like an appendix. Shikoku has four prefectures, and we spent most of our time in Ehime and Kochi prefectures.
The weather wasn’t fantastic—it being January, that was hardly expected—but traipsing around sake breweries for a week was positively delightful. Sake brewing generally requires cold temperatures, which reduce the amount of airborne bacteria and yeasts that might end up adversely affecting the delicate open-air fermentation of sake. So we bundled up and trundled around to see what was brewing in Shikoku
One of my favorite stops on this trip was the family-run Suigei Brewery in Kochi Prefecture. Unlike many sake breweries that can have 400 or even 600 years of history, Suigei is a mere 50 years old, having been started by the grandfather of the current president, Matsumoto Okura, the second son who came back to take over the family business after the first son decided it wasn’t for him. I found Okura-san remarkable for his ability to, on the one hand, maintain a strict commitment to the highest standards of traditional sake brewing techniques including the use of locally grown rice strains (a rarity in the world of sake), while at the same time having an incredibly progressive and savvy grasp of marketing and sales.
This sake smells of white flowers like tuberose and gardenia and has a slippery, faint malted-milk character with notes of sweet cream. Gorgeous, refined, perfectly balanced, and pure, like sunlight filtering through winter trees newly covered in snowfall. It is made with the fairly ubiquitous yamada nishiki sake rice, but the winery selects only the top-grade selections of the new crop and polishes each grain down to 30% of its former mass, significantly more than the 50% minimum required for the daiginjo grade.
Suigei literally means “drunken whale,” hence the stunning bottle design with the whale’s tail (not to mention lots of other fun whale stuff at the winery), a clear indication that Okura-san has a firm grasp on the value of branding (again, not something commonly found in the sake industry).
To make a long story short, while at the brewery, I purchased a bottle of their top sake, the “5 Mann” (literally translated to the number 50,000) Junmai Daiginjo, and carried it back with me in my suitcase. This seemed like the year to bust it out, which I did for my wedding anniversary in April.
While not made with the local strain of rice, this was still a distinctive expression of the refined subtlety for which this brewery is known, and a fabulous example of what Shikoku sake does at its best.
1984 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
There are great wines, and then there are epic wines. Wines that give you whiplash as they grab you by the ears and drag you back to the glass and your existence narrows to a tunnel of flavors and aromas and textures that carry you away someplace sensational.
I was lucky enough to spend a little bit of time on the hillside that hosts the Ridge winery and the Monte Bello estate during harvest this year. It was something of a surreal experience given that the normally spectacular views were occluded with smoke from the wildfires and the normally busy tasting room was only doing contactless wine pickups for those willing to brave the long, winding road in pursuit of a few bottles.
COO and Monte Bello winemaker Eric Baugher was generous enough to sit down with me for a few hours to talk about the hazards of the vintage, and to share some bottles from the library, of which this was the shining star.
I’ve had my share of older vintages of Monte Bello, all of which have been excellent, and many of which have been stellar. The 1995 vintage, also from the library at Ridge a number of years ago, stands out as a particularly memorable bottle.
But none have been the equal of this particular bottle in its perfect expression of everything Monte Bello has to offer.
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells alluringly of bacon fat and forest floor with intense, deep aromas of garrigue and pencil lead or shaved graphite. In the mouth, beautifully variegated dried herbs, forest floor, dried cherry and cedar flavors swirl across the palate in a savory, ethereal stream. Fantastic acidity, along with a faint saline quality, kicks the saliva glands into overdrive as billowing velvety tannins cushion the whole sumptuous feast of flavor in a warm embrace. Simply stunning. 93% Cabernet, 7% Merlot. 12.9% alcohol.
Score: a perfect 10 if there ever was one. Cost $570. CLICK TO BUY.
Ridge Vineyards, and its flagship wine the Monte Bello Cabernet, need little introduction for most lovers of California wine. The 1971 vintage was the red that bested the Bordeaux First Growths in the Judgment of Paris wine tasting in 1976 (as well as in all subsequent recreations).
Started at the site of an old winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains by a group of engineers from the Stanford Research Institute in 1962, Ridge Vineyards has been making some of California’s most distinctive wines for decades. Under the winemaking leadership of Paul Draper, the winery practices what Draper likes to call pre-industrial winemaking. Ambient yeasts, low sulfur additions, no filtration, and only occasional fining with egg whites are the primary tools of the trade at Ridge, other than gentle handling of the fruit and careful temperature control at key stages of the winemaking process.
Ridge was purchased in 1987 by the Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company of Japan, which somewhat miraculously, has done nothing to steer the course of the winery but request that it continue to make good wine and not lose money.
The winery keeps producing three of what I consider to be California’s greatest wines every year: the Monte Bello Cabernet, and the two field blends Geyserville and Lytton Springs, which continue to be a living testament to California’s winemaking history.
Monte Bello, though, is truly one-of-a-kind, and it’s not hard to say that this ’84 was easily the best single thing I had in my glass this year.
May the year to come offer many more such delicious things for us all, along with the opportunity to do the one thing that would have made all this wine even better: share it with a wider group of friends and family.
On the shoulder of Mount Ishizuchi in Ehime Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku, perches a Shinto shrine. As with countless such hermitages throughout the island nation, the Shinto priests daily perform their rituals of honor and respect for the kami, or spirits that have been worshipped for the more than 1400 years of Shinto's existence as a religion. The rituals of Shinto are as varied as they are mysterious, especially to non-Japanese, but among them you will find an act common to countless religions across the globe: the offering. And in Shinto, as with many others, one of the things offered in veneration is alcohol.
The offering of sake to the kami of Mount Ishizuchi, as it does in many places in Japan, represents something of an apotheosis of both poetry and pragmatism. A returning to the source. The closing of an endless loop that has become a symbol of Japanese culture.
As with wine, sake is indelibly tied to the seasons, but in ways that differ substantially from the fruits of the vine. The climactic details of any given year will undeniably affect the rice harvest, and as the primary ingredient of sake, the quality and quantity of rice available will affect the sake brewed that year, though usually in ways for too subtle for most consumers to apprehend. For the individuality of a given sake comes less from the rice (which for the highest quality sakes is usually the Yamada Nishiki variety grown in Hyogo prefecture, far from where the sake is made), but from the brewers choice of yeast, their decisions in the brewing process, and from the single most plentiful ingredient in sake making: water.
Which brings us back to the foothills of Mount Ishizuchi, carpeted with its thick coat of cedar, pine and bamboo under which burbling streams slowly wear their channels deeper into the stone of the mountainside. The water, of course, comes from deep within the mountain itself, where season after season of snowmelt replenishes the groundwater.
Good sake therefore often depends on a good winter, both for the snows' contribution to the brewery's local water source, as well as the low temperatures that brewers cherish to limit airborne organisms and make controlling their fermentations easier.
So when the priests at Ishizuchi-jinja make an offering of sake to their kami, they are returning something of the mountain to itself. Because the sake they offer is made a few kilometers away by a brewery bearing the same name as the mountain under which it sits.
Ishizuchi Shuzo has been brewing sake since 1920, making the brewery quite young by Japanese standards, where brewing histories can stretch back centuries. But while its age has not distinguished Ishizuchi Shuzo, its operation entirely by a single family has made it something of a pioneer in the sake world.
At the risk of glossing over what could be a very rich cultural and socio-economic history of sake, suffice it to say that historically most sake breweries, usually owned and run by wealthy families, have employed a staff and a master brewer, or toji, drawn from the local community. In earlier times, the master brewer and employees would usually have been farmers all too happy to have work through the depths of their relatively unoccupied winter.
While Japan's economy has moved beyond its agrarian roots, the ownership and employment structure of most sake breweries has been much slower to change. So Ishizuchi Shuzo became something of a rarity in 1999 when Minoru Ochi came back to serve as toji for the family business run by his brother Hiroshi Ochi.
In 1996 the elder Ochi took over daily operations from his father (who remains president of the brewery) and now runs things with his wife and his brother. The winery also has 2 more hired staff that assist with the brewing, and nine more employees that assist with the commercial aspects of the business.
"When we shifted to being a family-run operation we made a conscious change," says Ochi. "I'm personally a big fan of sake," he adds with a smile, "so I decided I wanted to make the really good stuff. Not just something that would get you drunk, which is what sake really was for a lot of people in the past. Those sakes were cheap and not made with care. I wanted to make something that could be appreciated with the finest foods."
Today Ishizuchi makes a bit more than 100,000 bottles of sake each season and 87% of that sake is premium grade (known as junmai-shu) sake. The brewery has also made an effort to try to use a locally grown rice strain, called Matsuyama-mii in many of its sakes, an unusual but growing trend among sake brewers.
To explain how he makes his sake, Ochi holds up his hand.
"This is the most important part of brewing," he says. "The hand. And you have to keep the hand clean. That is the most important thing in sake brewing. The yeast and the koji, these microorganisms are the ones that make the sake. Our job as brewers is to keep the environment clean so that these microorganisms can do their job."
Ochi goes on to point out that the natural acidity of wine helps control which yeasts and bacteria actually end up affecting the fermentation, but that isn't an option with sake, which has very little acidity by comparison and is therefore susceptible to all manner of contamination by even minute populations of wild yeasts.
"In my opinion," says Ochi, "if the brewery isn't clean, the sake doesn't taste good."
"In the beginning," he continues, "I thought that sake was just about the ingredients. Procuring the best ingredients, like food. But that didn't work."
Ochi goes on to explain that, apart from cleanliness, good sake comes from a combination of precision and consistency in how the process is carried out. From the precise percentage of of moisture in the rice after washing and steaming; to the temperature used to propagate the mold spores that will begin to break down the starches in the rice allowing fermentation to occur; to the temperature and length of cold stabilization; to the strength of pressing the final sake from the mash -- it all matters.
Which is why Ochi and his family, like brewers have done for centuries, live at the brewery during the brewing season. Sake brewing is relentless, repetitive work, even with the modern conveniences of refrigeration technology, which Ochi says is an absolute requirement in the face of global warming.
"I want to take a day off," jokes Ochi, "But the yeast doesn't give me a day off. We go to sleep but they're always working."
Ochi does take a couple of hours, however, to bring us to the Ishizuchi shrine for a Shinto blessing, and the offering of some sake to the gods of the mountain. Ochi winks and tells us that he can personally vouch for the quality of sake that his local gods get to drink.
As it happens, the gods don't manage to drink all of the sake that is offered to them, and so the priests at the shrine bottle up some of that venerated and spiritually anointed sake, and offer it to their most honored guests, a group to whom, it seems, I am lucky enough to belong.
And what does the sake of the gods taste like? Something like the view across the rice fields plains of Ehime, looking towards the sea.
Of course, you'll not be pleased to know that these sakes are not available outside of Japan, so you have my apologies for perhaps enticing you fruitlessly with their story and the tasting notes that follow. But perhaps you can seek out a bottle, or better yet, persuade an importer to bring them in!
Ishizuchi Shinsei Daiginjo Muroka Genshu Fukurotsuri Shizuku, Ehime Prefecture
This sake is unusual in two respects -- the first is that it is a shizuku or fukurotsuri sake, which means that it was not pressed at all, but allowed to drip through a fabric bag, making it roughly equivalent to "free run" juice at a winery. It is also a genshu which means it is full strength (somewhere around 18% alcohol) rather than being diluted back to around 16% which is normal practice for most premium sake. This sake offers aromas of bitter melon and apple and white flowers. In the mouth, rainwater and apple and melon flavors mix with white flowers and the higher octane notes of alcohol. Made from 100% Yamada Nishiki rice. Score: between 8.5 and 9
Ishizuchi Junmai Daiginjo Funashibori, Ehime Prefecture
This sake is also a genshu strength sake, and is pressed in individual cloth sacks, which is a more traditional and painstaking method for pressing the sake lees. It smells of wet leaves and snow and a hint of bitter greens. In the mouth, flavors of rainwater and bitter melon and a touch of green apple have crisp and bright quality, like a spring day before sunrise. Very clean and delicious. Made from 50% Yamada Nishiki and the local 50% Matsuyama-mii rice. Score: between 9 and 9.5
Ishizuchi Junmai Ginjo Green Label Funashibori, Ehime Prefecture
This sake smells of freshly unwrapped bubble gum and pastry cream. In the mouth, the sake is quite silky and viscous, with flavors of cedar and earth and bitter greens. Made from 20% Yamada Nishiki and 80% Matsuyama-mii Score: between 8.5 and 9
Ishizuchi Muroka Junmai Funashibori, Ehime Prefecture
This sake smells of bitter melon and cold cream with hints of bubble gum and cotton candy. In the mouth the sake is creamy and just a touch thick on the palate, with flavors of cold cream and bubble gum mixed with white flowers. Made exclusively from Matsuyama-mii rice. Score: around 8.5.
John Gauntner is the Julia Child of sake. No single individual has had a greater impact on the awareness of sake among the world's non-Japanese population than this engineer turned sake evangelist, who started writing about sake in the English language pretty much before anyone else on the planet. America's gourmet revolution can easily be traced back to Child. America's love affair with sake is still in its adolescence, but it's a safe bet that if someone is evangelizing, or even just selling, fine sake in America, it's John Gauntner's fault.
When I was first introduced to high-quality sake in Japan 18 years ago and started searching for information on this mysteriously delicate beverage, the only resources available to me were Gauntner's prolific and enthusiastic writings on the topic, both in his newspaper columns and through his pioneering e-mail newsletter and web site. Not only has he been writing about sake continuously since then, he has been teaching an in-depth, and usually sold-out, course to professionals and enthusiasts several times a year since 2002.
If not for the gray of his close-cropped blonde hair and some crinkles around his eyes, Gauntner's easy smile and casual stride, not to mention his boyish charm, would leave you guessing that he's much younger than his 55 years. His immersion into the world of sake is total and has been for years, resulting in a frenetic schedule of competition judging, visits to breweries, writing, speaking engagements, teaching his class, and helping to run the sake export business in which he is a partner. Gauntner has kept up this pace for more than two decades, yet manages through it all to maintain a level of enthusiasm for sake that all but leaks out of his pores.
Gauntner was born in Cleveland, the son of a NASA engineer and a traditional Midwestern stay-at-home mom. Seeing his father go off to work every day on the Space Shuttle engines inspired Gaunter to tinker with whatever he could get his hands on as a kid.
"I loved playing with electronics," says Gauntner, "and when I was in seventh grade my dad told me that if I loved it so much, I should think about becoming an electrical engineer, and that was it, I was done. I was happy that I didn't have to think about the whole career thing ever again."
When it came time to apply for college, Gauntner says he "didn't ponder it" and just chose schools in Ohio that had good co-op engineering programs. He applied the first day possible, and set off the next year to Cincinnati University to become an electrical engineer.
In many respects, Gauntner's path could easily have led him no farther than the borders of his state, as many Americans seem content to get an education, find a good job, and settle down not far from home. But during college something else stirred in Gauntner - a burgeoning appreciation for the complexity of the world, and a curiosity extending beyond America's borders. By the time he graduated, he had his heart set on teaching English in Japan.
By his own account, the two years Gauntner spent in the JET: Japan Exchange and Teaching program were a worry-free blast, but while his time as a high-school English teacher satisfied his cultural curiosity, it didn't point towards anything new from a career standpoint.
"I was about to just go back home, when a guy I knew asked me to join his company," recalls Gauntner. "It was a half-Swiss, half-Japanese company that made plasma surface tooling equipment. I wasn't particularly interested in plasma tools, but it was a chance to stay in Japan and make a decent living, and I knew it was a chance I couldn't pass up."
During those three years, Gauntner's love for Japan deepened, even as his love for engineering waned. On New Year's day in 1989, however, he was at a colleague's house to celebrate, and someone handed him the first cup of sake that would change the course of his life.
"I had tasted sake a few times during my stay in Japan," says Gauntner, "and it was interesting enough for me to buy a book on it in Japanese, but to tell you the truth, up until that point I hadn't even read it. It just sat on the shelf."
But this sake was different.
"This older gentleman pulled out five big bottles and a basket of sake cups, and it was the first time I had tasted sake that was more than just 'not bad,'" recalls Gauntner. "It was the first time I had the opportunity to compare one sake to another, and certainly the first time I had had truly premium sake. I was blown away. It had complexity and depth, and not just in flavor but in the culture behind it."
This older colleague talked as the two drank, telling Gauntner stories about the producers, explaining how sake was made, and the many choices that go into its final form.
"I realized that this was just the tip of the iceberg," says Gauntner. He was hooked.
The first thing he did was read the book sitting on his shelf, and then he began drinking as much sake as he could get his hands on.
"I started going to sake pubs and sitting at the counter and just asking as many questions as I could," says Gauntner. He joined a tasting club to exercise his newfound passion, but never considered doing more than that.
After three years Gauntner quit his engineering job and hung around Tokyo for a while.
"I told myself, 'I'll just relax for a couple of months,'" recalls Gauntner, but really, he was dreading the inevitable return to the U.S. However, during his loafing about, he attended a picnic with a large group of friends and eventually a man he didn't know came around with a bottle of cheap sake to pour for everyone.
This was the second cup of sake that would change Gauntner's life. But he refused to drink it.
"'What, you don't like sake?' this guy said," and Gauntner replied, "'No, I love it. Which is why I'm not drinking that.' Then the guy said, 'doesn't it basically all just taste the same?' and I said, 'No, actually it doesn't' and so we started talking about it."
By the end of that conversation, the man with the cheap sake, who happened to work at the Japan Times, suggested that Gauntner ought to write a piece about sake for the paper, and the sake evangelist was born.
"I wrote a piece, and they published it," says Gauntner matter-of-factly. "Then they said I ought to write a regular column about sake, so I did. And then a publisher came along and asked me if I wanted to write a book about sake, so I did. And all of a sudden, I was writing about sake professionally. It all happened in about four months. The book came out about a year later."
Gauntner rapidly found himself swimming in the deep end of the pool. There were literally no resources available on sake in English, so in addition to his tasting, and continued frequent visits to his favorite sake pubs, Gauntner devoted himself to learning how to read Japanese with an intensity that surprised even him.
"I realized that if I was going to write for a newspaper, I couldn't make shit up, and I couldn't repeat myself,' Gauntner says with a chuckle. "I had to learn as much as I could. I had to study, I had to find new topics. And the more I dug, the more I learned, the more fascinated I became."
A column in the newspaper and a book in English about a drink that most English speakers didn't pay much. "They weren't enough to pay the rent, I can tell you that," says Gauntner. So he took a job at an engineering company based in Fremont, California, and lived in constant fear that they were going to call him back to headquarters at some point, and, lacking the means to stay, he would have to go.
But in 1997, Gauntner took stock of his life and decided to take a leap of faith.
"I was constantly haunted by this thought that if I went back home and took the safe route, that years later I would later see someone, another American guy, walking the path that I created, being the sake evangelist that I pioneered. I knew I couldn't tolerate that, so I just made a decision. I told myself, no matter what happens, even if I end up in the gutter broke, I'm going to try this. At the time I was single and had no kids and owned no property, so I didn't have that much to lose really, so I did it."
It's one thing to follow your passion, it's quite another to do so in a place where you are a cultural and linguistic outsider. But Gauntner maintains that he wasn't scared. "I generally don't feel financial pressure. I'm also a guy who doesn't normally take risks, but I thought, 'what's the worst thing that could possibly happen?' I'd go broke. I'll go home and live with my parents. I'll figure something out. I could be an electrical engineer again. I had something to fall back on."
So, with a little bit of money saved up from his Engineering job to help pay the rent in Tokyo, Gauntner set out to become a self-anointed sake evangelist, and, surprisingly, a career materialized. He was hired by some brewers who wanted help promoting their sakes overseas. He wrote a speech here, an article there, and on occasion found an opportunity to offer someone paid advice about sake.
"I wasn't extremely busy, but stuff kept trickling in. It was, how do I say...thin?," smiles Gauntner. "I don't like to think about what I was making, but I was doing lots of little things."
Eventually Gauntner helped a friend start a business exporting sake to the U.S. but found himself depressed at the sales numbers.
"I realized that the importers and distributors we were selling to didn't know a thing about sake," says Gauntner. "If you've got this catalog of 10,000 wines and twenty sakes, and you don't have the willingness, or if you're afraid to sell it, you're not even going to try. I realized my number one job had to be educating the trade."
Gauntner recently completed his 43rd edition of this course, graduating 25 people into a very different world than when Gauntner was a guy wondering if he could make a living writing about sake. Fine sakes appear on the wine lists of the world's greatest restaurants, from the French Laundry to The Fat Duck, and you're likely to occasionally find a twenty-something sipping a sparkling nigori sake in a nightclub in New York instead of Champagne.
On the other hand, since Gauntner first arrived in Japan the number of sake breweries in Japan has declined from more than 2700 to somewhere close to 750.
"Until very recently I was comfortable saying that 95% of all sake breweries are family owned," explains Gauntner, "and I think the cultural pressure or significance of a family owned business is big. In other words, if you're the 14th generation and you take outside investment to keep the company going, which is a wise business decision, and you eventually sell the company, when you go to heaven you've got 15 pissed off dudes you've got to answer to. I think there's a lot of pressure not to do that."
Combine the lack of funds for innovation or even upkeep with the disappearance of the labor pool (traditionally fishermen and farmers who needed something to do during the winter sake brewing season) and younger generations that want to work cushy jobs in the city and party on the weekends with beer and spirits, and you've got a recipe for a major decline both in sake production as well as sake drinking by the Japanese public.
"The average age of master brewers is now something like 123," jokes Gauntner. "It's really more like late seventies, but the old apprenticeship models are in decline. Where you have new blood coming in, it's great, and there's lots of creativity, but in general, we're pretty much in decline."
Gauntner goes on to explain, however, that this is not the full story. While sake consumption and production as a whole has dropped in Japan, exports have doubled in the past 10 years. The lower quality grades of sake, which make up 75% of the country's production, are in steep decline, but premium grades of sake are on the rise.
"The industry is coming back," maintains Gauntner, "but the statistics don't show that yet. We're seeing a generational change in the brewing industry. We're getting new marketing approaches, nice labeling, and brewers that are actually getting up and doing stuff. Brewers are actively trying to get involved in exports, and about three or four ministries of the government are getting involved. All that makes me feel like we're going to be OK. But I don't want to be overly positive. The industry still faces a lot of challenges."
If the industry does recover and begin to grow again, it will almost certainly be on the basis of increased demand from outside Japan. And that demand, in large part, will always be thanks to John Gauntner. Wine magazines such as Wine Enthusiast and the Wine Spectator have begun to occasionally feature sake, and critical outlets such as The Wine Advocate have begun to rate sakes. But thirty years after he became the first person to regularly write about sake in English, John Gauntner remains the primary English-language voice singing the praises of his favorite beverage.
And for this, I and every other English speaking sake lover, owe him a great debt of thanks.
I have a confession to make. I have been drinking sake seriously for more than 18 years. I have been writing about it and reviewing sakes here on Vinography for 14 years. I have taught seminars on sake at places like the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. But until this week, I had not been to a sake brewery. It's a little shocking to think about, even for me, given my history and experience with wine. By the time I started writing about wine I had already visited dozens of wineries. I even lived in Japan for more than 18 months, but I never made it to a sake brewery during that time, nor in subsequent visits over the years.
But now I've corrected that mistake, thanks to the generosity of the Japan Sake and Shochu Maker's Association, who brought me back to Japan and provided the opportunity to make my overdue journey into the heart of sake.
Winter is the season of sake, and the best time to visit breweries, or kura as they are known in Japanese. Depending on their location, the brewing season will last from October to March. Brewers rely on the crisp, chilly air of the season to minimize ambient bacteria and yeast populations, as well as to assist with the low temperature fermentations that make for the highest quality sakes.
Unlike wine, whose yearly vintage "crush" consists of a flurry of autumnal activity lasting a few weeks, sake brewing happens continuously through the winter season, depending on the production size of each brewery. During this season the toji, or master brewer, and a crew of several helpers will literally live at the brewery, rising well before dawn, seven days a week without a day off, to perform the series of backbreaking activities involved in making sake.
Leaving aside the milling of rice - the process of sanding each individual grain down to a fraction of its former size - which most breweries now outsource, the work of sake brewing involves the following activities that often begin as early as 5:00 AM: washing rice; steaming rice; cooling rice; turning a portion of the rice into koji by inoculating it with a special mold; creating a starter batch of sake by mixing koji, freshly steamed rice, water and yeast; tending that starter and adding more rice in successive batches; completing fermentation by pressing and filtering the sake; and then putting the sake into tank or bottle for aging.
The nature of the sake making process (especially the making of koji), the need to carefully control the microbiology at work (since the slightest bit of unwanted bacteria or yeast can lead to nasty odors or flavors), and the physical capacity of tanks and the people manning them means that sake must be made in many, many, many successive batches. The largest, most commercial breweries can make more, larger batches at once, but even they run into the limitations of needing steamed rice to be at just the right temperature and moisture content, and the fact that koji must be made fresh in carefully tended batches every 48 hours.
While some breweries employ (pretty sophisticated) machines that assist with these tasks, they remain incredibly intense physical activities, as I learned firsthand yesterday morning as I was pressed (quite willingly) into shoveling steamed rice, carrying bags of rice, and stirring fermenting batches of rice at a brewery I visited in Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku.
Needless to say, winter mornings are when you'd want to visit sake breweries, as they are ceaselessly abuzz with activity for more than five months, as their increasingly sleep deprived workers repeat the same tasks over and over and over with a dedication and precision that astounds.
But before you pack a bag and head out to visit your favorite sake brewery, you should know that the world of sake differs from the world of wine in many important ways, especially when it comes to tourism and the consumer experience.
To be blunt, while many breweries will happily receive you at a small shop next to the brewery where you can purchase a bottle or two, a sizeable percentage of breweries lack even this most basic of hospitality offering. And as for getting up early and showing up to poke your head into the kura to see sake making in action? Unless you're on a pre-booked and carefully organized tour with an outside agency, you can forget it. Language barriers aside, brewers generally don't want the distraction (or liability in what can be a dangerous environment) of tourists underfoot.
And you thought making visits to cellars in Burgundy was tricky.
Exceptions to this generalization continue to grow in number, as forward-thinking breweries continue to seek ways of compensating for generally shrinking consumption of sake in Japan, but despite more than 400 years of history, the sake industry remains quite undeveloped when it comes to tourism. Advocates for the industry, as well as third-party tourism agencies do regularly organize tours, so anyone who has their heart set on visiting a brewery will find it is possible with a bit of extra effort. Accompanied by a bi-lingual guide, this can be an immensely rewarding and educational experience. For now, however, just finding your way to a brewery hoping to do a little tasting remains a somewhat fruitless pursuit.
Should you make it to a brewery, don't expect it to be like your average winery facility just with rice instead of grapes. Compared to even the most modest wine regions around the globe, the world of sake brewing remains significantly under-capitalized. The vast majority of brewers who manage to get bank loans almost always do so for the purposes of buying equipment or higher quality rice. Only the most visionary producers (who also often happen to be the most newly established) are working to create anything other than a purely functional environment at the brewery.
Most breweries are old, industrial, and by wine world standards, quite dingy. While fastidious in their focus on minimizing microbiological contamination (those allowed to visit the kura must wash and sterilize their hands, wear hair nets, remove their shoes, not consume yogurt or other active culture products in the days before a visit, and generally not touch anything while inside), the insides of breweries are dark, noisy, tarnished, and in most cases a bit decrepit. Think of the most humble, Old World winemaking facility you've been to, double the number of hoses, tanks, and carts, and then add a bunch of steam pipes and odd looking machinery in various states of antiquity and you'll get the general idea. The gleaming, spotless, well-lit fermentation rooms of Sonoma these most certainly are not.
But what these environments may lack in both curb appeal and interior design, they make up for in the humble passion of the people running them, and the ethereal purity of their products, which can taste like blooming flowers and the first deep snowfall of the season in a cedar forest. Despite a steady decline in Japanese sake consumption for more than thirty years the dedication and craftsmanship of those brewers who choose (sometimes barely) to remain in business is as remarkable as it is inspiring.
At the center of each grain of rice lies a small white heart that the Japanese call the shinpaku. This bundle of pure starch contains the carbohydrates that must be broken into sugars to fuel the fermentation of rice into alcohol. The complex process of making sake begins with the painstaking work to expose and exploit this miniscule resource, hidden by the rough exterior of a brown rice husk. Each grain is milled down to a fraction of its former size, stripping away the fats and proteins that hide the shinpaku until it becomes visible, a tiny fleck of brilliant white amidst the cloudy refined form of the polished grain. Even after milling, soaking, and steaming the shinpaku remains out of reach. Only thanks to the magic of koji does the shinpaku release its grip on the valuable sugars within.
While I learned many lessons during the time I spent living in Japan, one of the most important was that there were always deeper levels of significance and meaning beyond my surface understanding of any aspect of the culture. Sake embodies this truth perfectly. Look past the grimy patina that marks the walls of most breweries, taste a few really good bottles, and you'll catch a glimpse of the soul and complexity of sake, a profound expression of Japanese craftsmanship and a unique landscape of flavors.
Something unusual happened recently. Or rather several somethings in the world of sake. For the first time since 1998, the august publication the Wine Advocate reviewed a bunch of Japanese sake. And, as my friend and colleague Blake Gray discovered, a web site called The Taste of Sake was published the very same day as those scores came out, and listed every single sake that rated 90 points or higher, and nothing else. That's right. The Wine Advocate rated 78 sakes over 90 points, and The Taste of Sake sold those, and only those 78 sakes. And it put them up for sale at the same moment the scores were being released.
Which would seem to imply that someone behind The Taste of Sake had inside information. And why would this matter? Because the top rated sake in the publication, which, according to Blake, used to sell for $45 directly from the brewery, is now trading for $5000 per bottle.
A couple of days later, Blake posted another update on the story, filled with all sorts of facts unearthed by him and some of his readers about the companies behind this online retailer, as well as some comments from the Wine Advocate, who, perhaps not surprisingly, seems alarmed to learn of this situation.
I'm sure we haven't heard the last of this little episode that I'm calling #sakegate. Stay tuned for more!
Japan has given many things to the world that I cherish, but few of them have an unofficial holiday that gives me the excuse to celebrate them. Every October first, along with sake lovers all over Japan and around the world, I get to observe Nihonshu no Hi, also known as Sake Day.
Like wine, no one knows exactly when sake first made an appearance. In a similar fashion to grape wine, the knowledge that fermented rice eventually yields an alcoholic beverage was probably discovered in accidental and then later deliberate stages, as innovative and curious folks explored ways of getting drunk.
Sake production and demand is likely to have peaked in Japan the mid 19th century when a law was passed allowing anyone to become a brewer. As many as 30,000 breweries were opened in the year of the law's passing, though that number dwindled as taxes on sake and its raw materials increased through the end of the century.
Despite ups and downs, and not being anywhere near its 19th century production levels, sake is seeing a major renaissance around the world, and that is worth celebrating for any sake lover. More and more excellent sake is leaving Japan and making its way abroad.
All of which means that in early October you'll not only have something to celebrate but, some really good stuff to celebrate with, should you care to partake in the 11th Annual Sake day celebration put on by San Francisco's own True Sake store.
As in past years this celebration is a benefit for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, who direct funds to many good causes.
Sake Day is an opportunity to taste an assortment of sake, eat some good Japanese food, and listen to a little music in a casual atmosphere. Various tasting stations will be set up that will allow attendees to compare different styles of sake, blind taste some varieties, as well as explore flaws like heat damage.
If you're looking for a way to learn about sake, you'd be hard pressed to find a better occasion to experience a number of them than this little event.
11th Annual Sake Day Celebration
Saturday, October 1
5:00 PM to 9:00 PM
1800 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94103 (map)
A word of caution for those used to wine tastings. Spitting is not normal at sake tastings, and consequently, spittoons aren't usually available. For those who want to taste without getting wasted, I recommend bringing an empty water bottle into which you can surreptitiously spit.