Japanese people in New Zealand Wine: Kaori Takeda

Starting off an interview series, where I meet Japanese people and people working in Japan with a connection to New Zealand wine and cuisine, I meet Kaori Takeda.

Kaori, a Japanese NZ wine expert and all time fan of New Zealand, works in Osaka as an overseas development staff for wine and knows a good thing or two about New Zealand wine and New Zealand culture. She also has an excellent facebook page https://www.facebook.com/nzwinebook/which details all her various adventure with New Zealand and New Zealand wine. She was gracious enough to chat with me in English to discuss her experience living in New Zealand and her appreciation and career associated with New Zealand wine. Kaori, is currently studying level 4 diploma from WSET [The Wine & Spirit Education Trust]. More information on how to reach Kaori is available at the bottom of the page.

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We met at a cozy and conspicuous wine bar in Kobe. Our chat takes place at the bar counter where we are greeted by the bar owner, a fellow wine expert who Kaori seems to know no doubt from frequent visits. He welcomes us with respect and we quickly get to ordering some fantastic wines. We start for some european wines; a French Syrah for me and Kaori an Italian Sauvignon Blanc. The Italian wine which ends up being my second glass choice, becomes a favourite along with the final New Zealand Pinot Noir which we share later on.

Ash: When did you first get involved in wine?

Kaori: Um I think 11 or 12 years. 10 or 11 years maybe. Actually my first wine job in Japan was at my my current company. But I left then came back to work for them again. So 5 or 6 years in total at my current company.

Ash: What exactly are you involved in? What are your duties within the company?

Kaori: I’m in charge of importing, logistics and those kinds of things. Also, I’m like an assistant buyer. We have a main wine buyer but he doesn’t speak English. So I translate and do the tasting together. In addition, import and documentation. Sometimes, I go to shops for sales and to meet with our customers. Which I like the most maybe.

Ash: Our connection is through New Zealand and of course your interest in New Zealand wine. There are so many wines in the world, how did you get interested in New Zealand wine?

Kaori: Everyone asks me that question. Because in here in Japan, French and Italian wine is still dominant. Everyone loves Old World wine. Actually…I have loved New Zealand ever since I was 19 years old. I went there for my first overseas trip as a student and fell in love with the country and people. Then I kept visiting the country. But back then I wasn’t really big into wine so much. I enjoyed kiwi wine and spirits but I didn’t get into it that much at the time.

When I went back, I was about thirty. I also stayed in Australia. I found that people enjoy wine very naturally which was unlike Japan. Every night for dinner they have wine. Just a glass one or two. They enjoy wine with their dinner. They buy wine by themselves. They go to supermarkets and there are so many wines. Mainly cheap wines but they have a good taste.

I think it was the fruity and fresh taste which won me over. I think the first decent wine I tried was Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

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“Fresh and pure maybe. Pure could be the word to describe New Zealand Wines.”

Ash: You mention Sauvignon Blanc. That wine is iconic in New Zealand. You also say that it was fruity and fresh.

Kaori: Fresh and pure maybe. Pure could be the word to describe New Zealand wines. I think now New Zealand wine growers also promote their wines as coming from a beautiful and clean country. That they make clean wines. Maybe, pure defines it best. I don’t know. At the time, I didn’t know what Sauvignon Blanc meant or Chardonnay but I liked drinking alcohol and stuff. Gradually, I thought wine could be an interesting thing to learn about so that I could enjoy more by myself then I started reading books about wine for beginners form New Zealand and Australia. It’s became more and more interesting to me. Then while I was in Melbourne, I found a job in the wine industry in Sydney. I applied for it. It was working in a salesperson role with Japanese language abilities. Then I got the job and I moved to Sydney. It was the start of my career working with wine. During the job, I had to help not only regular English speaking customers but Japanese customers also. Then I came back to Japan and I decided to study wine. I was motivated by the fact that nobody thinks New Zealand or Australian wine could be the best choice for Japanese. But I wanted to tell them how good the wines from those countries were. But I had no knowledge about Old World wines. I didn’t know anything about French or Italian wines. So, I thought it would be a good way to study first then I could tell people with confidence how good these wines are. I was working a standard office job but was going to wine school. I got a wine certificate then I didn’t want to lose all the knowledge I learned. I was afraid that I would just keep wine as a hobby not as a career so I decided to try for positions in the wine industry. Then, I found out my first wine job in japan. It was Daimaru department store in Kobe.

Ash: You work at a well known nationwide department store which has a taste in quality and high end products. When you first joined the company, did they have any interest in New World wine?

Kaori: Yes and no. As you said it is more like a high end store. So, they were not looking for cheaper wines from New World countries like Chile and Australia. But they really needed to develop their range to include more countries. That was the situation before I joined the company, but when I joined they were just starting to change their scope so it was just good timing. They started importing wines directly from producers. Before that they just buy wines from Japanese importers. Then they started to import directly from producers from France, Italy and Spain. Then they started to develop and import New World wines. So New Zealand was one of the options. Then so they knew I knew about New Zealand wines and asked me if I knew any good ones. Another case of good timing because I just came back from New Zealand and I visited your father Mark at a winery in Hamilton. Then he gave me some sample wines and I brought them to the office and all my colleagues liked the wine. It was very easy to start business with Mark and New Zealand wine. Actually we had one New Zealand producer before and still we work with them now. But it was only one. It was recommended from the New Zealand embassy. Usually, if we import wine from New Zealand we have to fill up a container. The problem is we have to fill up a large amount and the quantity was too much to carry from only one producer. So we searched to find another one or two producers from New Zealand because you know New Zealand is like Japan it is an isolated country. So we couldn’t just do what we did in Europe. In Europe, we can find a container and consolidate wines from France, Italy and Germany if we like. But it is impossible [before in previous times]to buy New Zealand wines. So, it was the perfect timing.

Ash: You talk about shipping, you can basically get a container and get a number of different companies to fill that container.

Kaori: Basically. There is an option if we don’t have enough quantity for one container, we can do with other Japanese companies who consolidate New Zealand wines. It will take more time. It is a little bit more complicated and expensive to ship so we prefer to make a container by ourselves.

Ash: How do New Zealand wines compare to other New World wines such as Chile, Australia, South Africa, the US, California? Is there a distinct quality that makes them different from those wines?

Kaori: I think the quality is different. New Zealand is such a small country and they only make 1% of the world production. But they already have a huge reputation because their quality. But in Japan buyers are more conservative. We don’t have wine culture yet. People tend to prefer Old World wines. But to answer your question in comparison to other New World wines. The first thing is price. Then they cannot make wines cheaper because of their limited volume. They are mainly small producers. So it is almost impossible to make cheaper wines [in large production].

Ash: The way in is through quality?

Kaori: Exactly.

Ash: In the future. How could New Zealand wine could be more successful?

Kaori: I think there are lots of opportunities if the industry really looks into the state more seriously. So, take Pinot Noir for example. In Japan, Pinot Noir is considered only a Burgundy wine. But Burgundy wines are getting more and more expensive and there is a crazy price hike. Now, people are starting to look for an alternative of that Pinot Noir. Now New Zealand wine, I think is in a good place now. Now Japanese people find that New Zealand wine can be an alternative to Pinot Noir. They get a better priced wine and often even better quality too.

Ash: Do you think New Zealand wine could be marketed better? From the New Zealand side of things?

Kaori: From the New Zealand side of things? I see. They actually do a big consumer trade event in Tokyo. I think they stopped it though a couple of years but started it again. I have heard that the event is always popular. Even though the event is always successful it doesn’t change the real mainstream culture. Only the people who like New Zealand or know New Zealand come to the event. But the other thing is when I was working in the department store, so many people come to our stores and say “I’m looking for New Zealand wine. They say I went to New Zealand and I really enjoyed New Zealand wine. I want to buy and have New Zealand wine here in Japan”. So that’s good. I think the export from New Zealand and exporting wine is increasing every year.

Ash: Yes. I have been here in Japan for 11 years and noticed a definite increase in the availability of New Zealand products available here in Japan.

Kaori: But it is still so small and then, as a New Zealand wine lover I cannot find New Zealand wine especially in Kobe and Osaka. Maybe we can in Tokyo there are so many shops but in Kansai area it is very difficult. But it is very hard to find NZ wine. Of course we can buy on internet but in shops, it’s difficult.

Ash: I am not so sure I completely agree. I have seen some cheaper wine in supermarkets. My father was saying that New Zealand winery owners and producers were not traveling to promote their wines. But that is probably the case from other countries as well due to time and financial constraints. Or maybe they have not been embraced fully by big enough suppliers in Japan to promote to wider audiences and more authentically. Are there any events happening for people to try and experience New Zealand wine in Kansai?

Kaori: Not that official ones or really unofficial ones. I don’t hear much about. If there are wine parties they might have some New Zealand wines there but not really.

Ash: When they are presented who are they presented by?

Kaori: Mainly importers. So if you said producers like you said come to the event. But mainly importers.

I try the Italian Sauvignon Blanc. 

Kaori: Most of the New Zealand wineries are very small and family owned.They don’t have enough employees. They want to come to Japan or other countries to promote their wines but they just can’t leave. But when it is quiet timing. 

I start to talk about the Sauvignon Blanc and its wonderful taste.

Ash: New Zealand I guess being a smaller and younger country, wineries are still relatively new. Although there is the reputation of the wine, Sauvignon Blanc, of course, being an award winner. There is just not the long history there so much. Maybe not the resources as well just yet.

Kaori: But I remember one more thing regarding business opportunities for New Zealand wine. Maybe in the last few years, I hear lots of news about small New Zealand wineries selling their property then you know the big companies from overseas buy their wineries. Just recently a Japanese Sake brewery bought a winery in Wairarapa. A famous big Japanese company. Another example is US companies or even New Zealand companies but bigger companies end up buying. If so, if the companies are bigger they can promote more with a bigger budget.

Ash: That is the story of New Zealand with other homegrown producers and products that become successes nationally in New Zealand. I am not sure if it is good. I think it is good that it fulfills a practical need in order that New Zealand products can be shipped and promoted around the world. But, local and perhaps national legacy and identity as well as responsibility to the local communities are threatened under such new acquisitions and ownerships.

Kaori: Yes, I worry about that part. But some of the companies even though they sell their wineries, the responsibility is still the same. For example the Wairarapa winery we work with, they sold to a company based in Hong Kong. They also make wines in Australia then they bought the winery in NZ. But the owner is the main winemaker. She said her main responsibility will be the same; in the winery and in the office. The only difference is that the owner has changed.

Ash: I don’t think that international ownership is completely wrong. I’m just worried that it happens to often in New Zealand and that New Zealand really should be laying down a legacy and establishing a firm identity first before selling. That there is more of a commitment and collective responsibility to developing regional growth. Region by region. In that respect I look to countries like Japan where such a strong identity has been cultivated over thousands of years. I’m interested in how cuisine in Japan influences alcohol and whether or not New Zealand could create its own cuisine to compliment its wine. And to help sell its wine along with food more successfully.

Kaori: That is a good idea.

Ash: Crazy and ambitious.

Kaori: A little but it is good to be ambitious.

Ash: Buying whatever to be trendy. Whatever is in England or America. New Zealand needs to be more original.

Kaori: Still such a beautiful country though.

Ash: When you get New Zealand’s best film director, Taiga Waititi, saying that New Zealand is not as clean as everybody makes it out to be. It’s green image was not as perfect imagine it to be. Going back to what you said about New Zealand wine being ‘pure’ I think that is something we New Zealanders need to really protect.

Kaori: Image is very important. You know if we go there, clean air. Beautiful skies. We can understand why they make pure wines. The population is still 4. What million?

Ash: Same as Shibuya.

Kaori: Yeah. Hahahaha. Exactly.

Ash: I think what they have done in Portland, Oregon. As a trendsetter, it has done a fantastic job of promoting food and local cuisine culture within a New World setting. The place have achieved a lot as a region within America to promote its culture internationally. New Zealand should follow suit.

Kaori: I agree.

Kaori then suggests we ask the bar owner what he thinks about New Zealand and to give his opinion on of it as a wine competition with other international wines.

Kaori: As a professional what do you think of New Zealand wine? What is your impression of New Zealand as a New World wine?

Master: Well, New Zealand and Australia in comparison. New Zealand has a white wine sense. It is much more sour than Australia. Australia has a higher alcohol content. Balance is really good in NZ wine. But NZ is great for its overall production. Quality is high. It really depends on the aging of the grapes too.

Ash: This Sauvignon Blanc is really good by the way. This reminds me of a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I don’t often like a lot of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines because they can be too sweet at times. Of course cheaper ones have too much of fruity and sweet taste. It kind of ruins it. But this one (Italian) reminds me of a good New Zealand Sauvignon, the balance is just right.

Master: Just like a New Zealand wine. French Sauvignon is a little pale and dull in comparison to a New Zealand wine. I guess that is the way they like it. But that Italian Sauvignon is probably closer to a good quality New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It really comes down to the aging of the grapes.

Ash: I think New Zealand people tend to like sweet or fruity white wines such as Riesling or Chardonnay. They have a sweet tooth I think.

Master: But it’s about impact. I think it’s good for the first glass but a whole bottle of too sweet wine gets boring if you are sharing a bottle of a wine. The first impact is really good though, and I think that is why it is so liked.

Kaori: It’s ok for the first time. I see. Once Japanese taste New Zealand wine they like it but they don’t have much opportunity to try New Zealand wines too.

Ash: I think there is a nice eccentric quality to New Zealand wine. Sometimes they get really really right but not always.

Master: The balance of alcohol is good I think.

Kaori: Compared to New Zealand, The Australian climate is warmer so it’s very different.

Master: New Zealand wine would go well with Japanese food like tempura.

Kaori: I agree. New Zealand wine would go better than Australia.

Ash: I think In Japan you have Umeshu which is very sweet and it matches fish and things. Riesling would substitute and work well with fish too. Pinot Noir is also quite a good with Japanese meat dishes.

Kaori: New Zealand has good Chardonnay too so I think that particular wine would work well in Japan.

Master: We are both Island nations.There are a lot of similarities.

Kaori: Exactly. I agree. Do you feel Japanese people have a lot of similarities to New Zealand people?

Ash: They are quite different, I think. Although I know there are some things in common with British Culture. Class system, politeness etc. Probably perhaps there is just as much in common, surprisingly, with Maori culture. History is important of course and there are many traditions in Maori culture they are similar to Japanese culture. Shoes off, for example - that is a Maori thing too. I’m interested in the way Japanese culture and nature are expressed. I love the way food, onsens, the mountains, sea and the seasons are all interconnected and held with such respect in Japan. I think these elements of Japanese culture are similar to Maori and their reverence for the forests, mountains, rivers and lakes etc through their unique spirituality. The main difference with New Zealand is that is that it is such a young country and culture and that most New Zealanders find their unity and solidarity through sport. Sport is the dominant culture. Food and culture were never things that were so attractive about the British. Appreciation of fine art and dining - all the things that the French or Italians are more well known for, fell a bit short in New Zealand and Australia. That is not to say we don’t have our fair share of delicious dishes, fresh ingredients and fine artists but I think there is a lot to learn from older cultures and New Zealand could try to market itself better. Perhaps New Zealanders need to dig deeper to find out what truly connects them other than sport and along with changing the flag, change everything, food, drink and cultural practices. That way it can as a nation really reflect its potential and real identity. Another wine?

Kaori: Haha! I completely agree. Let’s have another wine:

The master gave us a NZ Pinot Noir at this point. A Growers Mark wine, a Marlborough Pinot Noir which was served to us by the glass. A special wine marketed to Japanese with a French feel and taste.

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“New Zealand wine would go well with Japanese food like Tempura”

Fancy a wine in Kobe? Head to the place we went to for our interview. Great wines and expertise:

“C’est La Vie”. https://kobe-cestlavie.jimdo.com.

Want to try an excellent New Zealand Pinot Noir? Visit:

https://www.southerncrossltd-wine.com/winery/グローワーズマーク

To contact Kaori:

Email: k_takeda@daimarukogyo.co.jp

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nzwinebook/

武田かおりKaori TAKEDA (Ms.)大丸興業株式会社, リテールビジネス部, 酒類リテールチーム

Retail of Liquor Team, Retail Business Dept. DAIMARU KOGYO, LTD.

住所:〒541-0051 大阪市中央区備後町3-4-9 輸出繊維会館4F

TEL: +81-(0)6-6205-1031 FAX: +81-(0)6-6205-1042