Inside the Japanese wine market

Carl Robinson, the CEO of Jeroboam, discusses everything from the impact of Covid on the Japanese wine market to where the next big opportunity lies. Interview by Felicity Carter.

Carl Robinson, CEO, Jeroboam
Carl Robinson, CEO, Jeroboam

Carl Robinson is CEO of Jeroboam, an importer of fine wine established in Japan in 2003, owned by Carl Robinson, Chateau Beaucastel, the Hugel family from Alsace and Pol Roger. Robinson arrived in Japan in 1996, and worked as a wine consultant before turning to importing. 

What took you to Japan?

I’m English from the northwest, but my family emigrated to New Zealand when I was a young child, where I was brought up. In New Zealand, I met a girl who was studying Japanese, I lived in London for ten years, did my WSET diploma, Oddbins and worked in a wine bar. We came to Japan for our honeymoon in 1990 and decided we would come back. My wife got a job, and I came in 1996 when wine was taking off, and I started working the other side of the trade as a sommelier. I was teaching WSET here when they started the courses in Japan and writing articles for Japan airlines. I realised there was lots of opportunity and it might be better to import promote and sell wine.

Do you speak Japanese?

I learnt. We have 30 people here in Jeroboam and I’m the only foreigner.

How and where do the Japanese consume wine?

Most Japanese people live in pretty small accommodation, which leads them to spend a lot of time out of it, which leads to eating out three or four times a week. It sounds great, but it doesn’t mean they’re having Michelin star meals every night. It could be a pasta night out with a friend with a bottle of Chianti. People eat out a lot, but they don’t invite each other to their homes.

The earthquake in 2011 made a big change in home consumption [as people spent more time at home], and this time, too, we’ve seen our online sales double. People are drinking at home a lot more because they have no choice, but they’re doing it alone at home. 

What’s happened to the on-trade in the wake of Covid?

It’s suffering. The Japanese Constitution prevents lockdowns; the Constitution was written in a way that the government can’t tell people what to do. They can’t tell people to stay home, but they can make requests. The Japanese are very good at behaving and seeing the greater good, and there is a request to limit seating and close early in several cities, including Tokyo, so that’s having a massive effect on the restaurant trade. 

What steps should a wine producer take to get into the market?

We get 100 emails a day from someone in Spain or Italy saying, “import my wine”, but the trade is well served here and it’s a sophisticated, long-term, slow-burn market. People have to have a lot of patience. It takes a long time to get your brand built up and established; you need to invest. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done. A friend who imports Washington State wines has built a successful, sustainable business. 

It’s a broad market. If you think of a wine brand, most of them are here. If you’re a new brand you’d better have a good story.

What sort of budget do you need to enter Japan?

It’s not money, it's patience, and creating connections and relationships. Every email we get starts the same way: “we’re family owned, we’re the best in Languedoc”. When we were a young busines we worked with young businesses to build them up, and now we’re looking for things that sell themselves.

Do people just email you out of the blue, or do they make an effort to look at your portfolio and suggest where they might fit?

I get all kinds. Some people do make the effort.

You’re more likely to get into an importer if you’re got a personal introduction through another winery. That’s more likely to be of interest. Tell us your relationships and interactions. There are lots of companies that will sell you a list of importers in Japan, but importers tend to go and find what they want.

Some of the big international companies that make a lot of wine put Japan in the too hard box: “How long is it going to take me to sell 4,000 cases in Japan when I can sell it in Sydney over a weekend?”. The biggest New Zealand brand in Japan is Sileni from Hawke’s Bay – they sell ten times as much as Oyster Bay. Sileni came here, worked the market, took people to New Zealand and Japan is now one of their biggest export markets. 

Anything in Japan is possible, but you have to stick at it and be here for the long term. That’s why we only work with family businesses, because they know things take time. It might take a long time to build sales, and you might spend money to achieve that, by which I mean visiting the market, but if you want to sell wine in Japan, you can. But you’ve got to be patient.

You’ve also got another wine company. Can you talk about that?

Jeroboam is the mother ship, owned by myself and Pol Roger, the Hugel and Beaucastel families, but Wine Diamonds was started here in Japan eight years ago with me, Ned Goodwin MW and Yutaka Ozaki to look at the new wave of Australian and New Zealand natural wine producers. That has gone very well – Japan is a big market for natural wines. We opened in New Zealand four years ago and it’s taken off. We were the first real natural wine distributor in New Zealand and now we have a wine shop in Wellington [Everyday Wine] and a shop and wine bar in Auckland [Clay].

Why is Japan such a huge market for natural wines?

The perception that natural wines are made without additives and chemicals is something that appeals to the Japanese. The Japanese were onto it from the start. The natural wines from Georgia or Eastern Europe are here. There are restaurants that will only sell natural wines. It’s more difficult to sell heavy, alcoholic wines here. People drink wine with food, and they are conscious of the way that food and wine works. Turn on the television in Japan and it will be someone eating a bowl of noodles. They’re obsessed with eating and wine is part of that.

What do you enjoy about Japan?

Everything. No Brexit, no Trump. It’s a very easy place to live – it’s safe, it’s clean, it’s comfortable, the standard of living is high. If you’re a gourmet it’s perfect. It’s halfway to everywhere. Everywhere is one plane ride away.  It’s a very easy place to live. Whether you speak the language or not, it’s also a place of great opportunity and a place where you can successfully start all kinds of business.

I’ve spoken to companies that export to Japan and they say they have to check every single bottle they send, because the Japanese will reject any bottle with a less-than-perfect label.

That is true. The standards of service are very, very high and the expectation of quality controls are very high. We only import using reefer containers and we use refrigerated delivery. Our warehouse checks every bottle. 

Right now, it’s Christmas and we’re having a sale and selling off the bottles with ripped labels, and sightly marked bottles. We’re selling them at a cheap price to friends and family because the trade won’t accept them – any more than you would buy a Louis Vuitton bag with a scratch. It shows someone’s not paying attention.

Where do you think the next opportunity is?

If I was 20, I would move to Vietnam and start a wine business. That will be the next place. It has a massively active, young, interested, increasingly affluent population who are very interested in wine. I have a friend who opened six French wine bars in 2019 and he’s doing great. It’s a definitely a market with increasing wealth and interest and a culture of wishing to drink well.

Interview by Felicity Carter

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