Japan is home to 30m regular wine consumers and is the seventh largest wine importer worldwide. There are well over 200 significant, established importers but incumbents note a recent increase in numbers, making business more competitive than ever. Nevertheless, this is a broad market with strong growth in sparklers and expanding interest in New World wines, as well as a deep appreciation for those of the Old World. Additionally, there is an unbridled enthusiasm for low-intervention and natural wines among a new generation of consumers. In a market where 70 percent of wines consumed come from overseas the role of the importer is crucial.
The power of the brewers
According to local lore there have been seven wine booms since the inception of the modern wine market in the early 1970s. The most recent started after the 2008 financial crisis and led importers and consumers to seek alternatives to the once-dominant French category. This in turn made wines more accessible to a broader public, with wine consumption growing 150 percent from 2009 to 2016, although from a low base. Since 2015, Chilean imports by volume have outpaced those of the traditional market leader France, with the South American supplying six of the top 10 imported brands. Japan’s big brewers — Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory — play a significant role here, as eight of the top 10 imported brands are brought in by beer companies or their subsidiaries. Alpaca, imported by Asahi Beer, is the leader with 1.4m cases in 2017.
Chile’s success is in part attributable to the Japan-Chile Economic Partnership Agreement initiated in 2007, which gradually phases out import duties and made them highly competitive at the value end of the market, below JP¥1,000 ($9.28).
The New World specialists Many importers of US wines report increased sales, notably from premium wines from the north-west coast. The USA is the sixth largest importer by volume, trailing Australia, yet with a much higher average price, so it ranks fourth by value. Hotei is a Californian importer specialising in sales to restaurants. Established in 2001 by owner Bill Campbell, Hotei is seeing steady growth as consumers explore new regions. Hotei represents more than 50 wineries including Château Montelena and Shafer at the premium end, with Cline Cellars and Joel Gott at the value end.
Campbell notes that Japanese consumers’ love of details has helped the rise of specialist importers who show “the passion and focus to do a deep dive into a particular region or style”. Complementing this trend is the recent rise in the number of steakhouses in Tokyo. This “gives a whole new range of consumers the chance to try Californian wines they may have never been exposed to before”, explains Campbell.
Other leading importers of US wines include Orca, which offers wines from California, Washington and Oregon, along with wines from France.
Farmstone focuses on Australia and includes names such as Cullen, McHenry Hohnen and Shaw & Smith in its lineup. Hiromi Ishida, president of Farmstone, notes that it is hard for Australian wines to compete with cheap Chilean and Spanish imports. While there has not been much change in the volume and value of imports over the past decade, he believes Australian wines can compete on quality and the range of varieties to differentiate themselves.
In business since 1987, wholesaler Village Cellars’ was a pioneer in Australian and New Zealand wines. Today its strong portfolio includes d’Arenberg, Grosset, Leeuwin Estate and Yangarra from Australia and Felton Road, Neudorf and Pegasus Bay from New Zealand.
The Old World specialists
Japan’s leading importers from the Old World have long and close relationships with many of the wineries they partner. Italy is the third largest exporter to Japan by value and volume, while Japan is Italy’s largest market in Asia. Monte Bussan, a subsidiary of Suntory, is the largest Italian importer with sales of 554,100 cases in 2017. It represents wineries from every province in Italy, offering wines such as Fontanafredda in Serralunga d’Alba and Umani Ronchi from the Marche and Abruzzo areas. Japan has more than 8,000 Italian restaurants, which between them offer dishes from across the entirety of Italy; many Japanese chefs train and work in Italy before they return home. This gives them a knowledge of Italian wine that extends far beyond Chianti, Barolo or Soave, which is a boon to wineries from Italy’s lesserknown regions.
Foodliner is a family-run enterprise based in Kobe, founded by Yutaka Ota, who began importing from Italy in the 1980s at a time when France was still very dominant. Its success can be judged by the high visibility of its long-held brands such as Pieropan and Ca’ del Bosco, which appear on Italian menus throughout Japan. It also has a long relationship with Braida, while Vietti is a relative newcomer to the portfolio.
France, despite a decline in volume, is still dominant in terms of value, with imports worth nearly three times as much those from Chile. Highly regarded Finesse focuses on wines from France and Burgundy in particular. Founder Hiroshi Fujita has a working relationship with many growers going back to the mid-1980s and buys directly from leading domaines in Burgundy, including Georges Roumier, Meo- Camuzet and Marquis d’Angerville. Further afield Finesse works with Château Rayas, Jean- Louis Chave and Didier Dagueneau. Mr Fujita notes that demand for Burgundy remains high for better-known domaines and lesser-known names can be a harder sell.
The broad portfolios
Mottox, an independent company based in Osaka and one of Japan’s five largest importers, began importing in 1997, which coincided with the boom inspired by the “French Paradox” when red wine sold as fast as it could be shipped. In another prescient move, Mottox started importing New World wines from 2007, just as these came into vogue. While Mottox is the agent for several high-profile wineries, including Bruno Giacosa and Mastroberardino, its success lies more in offering wines of “value and quality”. From a portfolio of more than 400 wineries, its bestselling brand is Chile’s Viña Valdivieso, with nearly 80,000 cases shipped in 2017.
Jeroboam, founded in 2003 and headed by Carl Robinson, is one of the leading premium importers distributing family-owned wineries. Its lineup includes wines from founders Pol Roger, Famille Perrin and Famille Hugel. The carefully curated portfolio is of a consistently high standard and selected highlights include Isole e Olena, Bodegas Muga, Henschke and Kumeu River.
Other key players in this very competitive sector include Nippon Liquor, a subsidiary of Mercian which is owned by Kirin; FWines, a subsidiary of Suntory; Terra Vert, a subsidiary of Kikkoman; and JALUX, a subsidiary of Japan Airlines. There are numerous independents, including Millesimes, Firadis, Vin Passion and BBR Japan. These are all likely to benefit from substantial growth of sales for Champagne. Berry Bros & Rudd’s Asia director Nicholas Pegna also notes increased enthusiasm for sparkling wines other than Champagne, referencing English sparkling and Crémant de Limoux.
Natural and organic
Japan is thought to be the leading market for natural wines outside France, with Racines being a key importer in this field. Joint owners Yasuko Goda and Masaaki Tsukahara explain that they deal in fine and natural wines. A prerequisite is that the vineyards are farmed organically and they select wines that they enjoy themselves, with an emphasis on finesse and elegance. Founded in 2003, Racines has a mouthwatering portfolio of more than 200 wineries, the majority of which come from the Old World. Despite the large number, a great deal of care is spent in selecting whom they represent.
After studying in Bordeaux, Ms Goda became a wine buyer in 1988, and established good relations with, among others, growers in Champagne before many of them became famous. The Racines portfolio includes Benoît Lahaye, Jérôme Prévost and Olivier Collin, with Ms Goda importing the first vintages of the latter two. She is just as enthusiastic when discussing her latest finds, such as Envínate from Spain and Kelley Fox from Oregon.
Hisato Ota founded Vinaiota in 1988, after living in Italy for three years. Distiller and artist Romano Levi gave the thoughtful and energetic Mr Ota the sobriquet “Ardente Importatore del Giappone” and he now represents more than 70 Italian wineries. The portfolio includes such icons as Radikon, Vodopivec and Gravner from Friuli; as well as Frank Cornelissen and de Bartoli from Sicily. Although Vinaiota is a leading importer of natural wines, Mr Ota says that this was the result rather the object of his search for wines he enjoys. How producers think about wine and nature are also important considerations for him when selecting the wines.
Wine Diamonds, founded in 2011, has a strong focus on low-intervention wines. Dynamic co-owner Yutaka Ozaki explains that the main regional emphasis is on the southern hemisphere and especially on “iconoclastic” producers. Among 35 Australian wineries represented are new-wave names such as Lucy Margaux, Gentle Folk, Shobbrook Wines and rising star Fall From Grace. Those from New Zealand include Quartz Reef and Two Paddocks.
Another trend is the propensity for drinking wine at home. The best-known specialist premium wine retailer is Enoteca established in 1989, whose upmarket retail approach was a breath of fresh air at a time when many wines were sold through department stores or local liquor shops. Enoteca has 62 shops in Japan, many with wine bars attached. They represent approximately 60 wineries including Louis Roederer, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Antinori and Torres. Founder and chairman Yasuhisa Hirose has frequently been voted one of the most influential people in the world of wine. In 2015 Enoteca became a subsidiary of Asahi Breweries.
Pieroth Japan is notable for its focus on direct sales. It employs 350 consultants for private sales and reports approximately 200,000 private cIients with annual sales of more than JP¥100 oku (equivalent to $92m) from 2013 to 2016. Pieroth also operates 10 World Wine Bars around the country offering consumers the chance to taste wine before placing their orders. Its most recent annual tasting, in collaboration with Bettane & Desseauve, featured 69 suppliers and received 5,100 visitors over three days. The range includes Taittinger and Gerard Bertrand, as well as Pieroth’s own wines. It also distributes Heitz Cellars and is one of the largest importers of Opus One.
Each market has its idiosyncrasies. In Japan the current role of the brewers in all sectors of the market cannot be overlooked. Yet the past and current role of independent importers is also of paramount importance in championing quality, new regions and new styles.