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Le Japon

Japan is a massive market for wine. Red wine that is. It’s always been a nation of pretty serious drinkers. They love their Sake, and they make some pretty good beer too. And when it comes to imported wine its mainly French, then Italian, and a splash of others. You see France is a cultural icon in Japan, and all things French are coveted.

Sometimes I’d ask a potential distributor if they imported wine from New World countries like Australia. This would often turn into a huge joke, as they broke up laughing to be asked such a dumb question. It was 1994. “Australia has kangaroos but definitely not wine,” the client would say, motioning to hop. For most importers, which were often divisions of Japanese Trading Companies, the mantra was simple : “French wine number 1”.

The market itself has quite a few discount shops that sell wine very cheaply, and this appeals to the average young office worker on their way home. And then there are fine wine shops where old vintages of Petrus are showcased like the crown jewels. There’s supermarkets, and thousands of restaurants, both ultra fine dining and casual. There is also a very strong Sommelier Association in Japan, some major wine magazines, and some key personalities.

The actual consumer is often slightly younger than in some markets. They see wine as very hip. In a bar the cool cats sip red wine from Riedel glasses. Plus people think it is good for your health and this fuels sales. After all, the medical proof of the health benefits is overwhelming. You wake up in the morning raring to go, bounding out of bed fresh as a daisy… So in Asia Japan is one of the more mature and sophisticated markets with hundreds of importers doing a very professional job.

The main cities we targeted for exporting were Tokyo and Osaka. Tokyo has 13 million people. Many importers just focus on Tokyo. But after an exporter has found clients in certain geographical regions like Tokyo, and given exclusivity to those importers, then the salesman has to go further afield, in search of a new client to generate more fun coupons for his boss.

And so one day, at 5 am at the downtown Tokyo airport, I found myself sitting on a 747 bound for Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, about one hour north. This was getting off the beaten track. There was at least 400 Japanese onboard, plus myself. When the JAL flight attendant came round to offer tea or coffee you could see in her eyes that she felt pity, and was desperately wondering WTF are you doing on this aircraft sir.

Armed with an address and a map in Japanese you hail a taxi in the snow and start driving to an unknown location. As you watch the meter tick away furiously into the thousands of Yen you stop outside an alleyway. There is an unmarked door to what looks like a warehouse. You’re in the middle of nowhere. You bang on the door, and when miraculously it opens you find yourself standing in a warehouse surrounded by hundreds of palettes of fine wine. Stacks of Latour, 3 palettes high with Mouton, a swimming pool of Yquem, and so on. Gazillions of cases worth millions of dollars.

And within the warehouse there is a very large office, where the owner sits. He has a putting green set-up by his desk, and after a discussion about your company and your products he cracks open a bottle of Chateau Margaux, hands you a glass and a golf club and the putting game is on.

The way it usually goes is that you leave with some mutual interest in working together, and then once home you send love letters back and forth, and then you have to get your sorry ass back to the airport at 5 am and go all the way back to this Japanese island for a 2nd visit, at which time you may be close to making a deal, or maybe not. In Japan they value long term business partnerships, and they want to see if you’re a fly-by-night winery, or if, in fact, you’re a keeper.