California drinking
While California's fusion food revolution is a well-established part of Tokyo's culinary zeitgeist, West Coast wine is a lesser-known quantity. Stuart Braun has a taste of a few bottles that might change that.

Following the demise of the Californian wine industry in the early 20th century at the hands of vine disease and Prohibition, the rise of West Coast wine since the '80s has given a piquant edge to the wine world. The wine cognoscenti have looked to California, and more recently to Australia, to revive an industry over which French viticulture has lost its cachet, while drinkers have turned to the "New World" in search of accessible wines low in tannins and acid, with a tasty, fruity finish. Now the Japanese are embracing the eminently drinkable formula of a rich, ripe red or crisp, clean white, with a good range of Californian bottles competing for space with French and Italian favorites on Tokyo's liquor store shelves.
Compared to the halcyon days of the '90s when a Californian Chardonnay was de rigueur on restaurant wine lists the world over, the West Coast wine revolution might have slowed. It hasn't completely run out of steam, however. A Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, bottled in the renowned Napa Valley, remains a world-class wine that is as rich and dark and deep as the best Bordeaux. The problem remains cost, however, with California's boutique wines out-pricing their New World wine cousins in Australia, South Africa and Chile. But with a Mediterranean climate, a growing interest in great "undiscovered" West Coast regions such as Mendocino, Amador, Monterey and the Central Coast, and interesting varietals such as Viognier, Pinot Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, Californian wine still has a lot going for it—as the Japanese are learning.

California's premier wine producing regions remain Napa Valley, Carneros and Sonoma Valley, all conveniently situated near San Francisco. First cultivated by Spanish immigrants and Franciscan missionaries in the 1700s, Californian wineries came into their own in the late 20th century through names like Fetzer, Robert Mondavi, Shafer, Saintsbury, Ridge Vineyards, Frog's Leap and Hess. While Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have remained the staples of what is in many ways a homogenous viticulture scene, a lot of experimentation is taking place with grapes like Syrah, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.

Taste test
SanSonoma, Gallo Japan, Pac Rim Wines, and a number of smaller wine companies like them have enlarged the scope of Californian wines currently available in Japan by importing from a diverse range of West Coast wineries. "We represent more than 100 wineries, many of whom are new to the Asian markets," says Lauren Shannon, marketing manager for SanSonoma, adding that SanSonoma's customers "are looking for different wines, not just the same old brands." While customers are given a chance to try something new, they are also contributing to a more adventurous wine market. "There is growth in a younger wine drinking population. They are not as conservative as the older generation, who are interested only in French wines," notes Shannon. Adding to the cult of the new is the profusion of dynamic young chefs in Tokyo promoting California cuisine, and with it, Californian wine.
Primary to Japan's evolving wine palate is a growing interest in wine tasting, a popular way to extend your wine vocabulary and a good introduction to the proliferation of blends and varietals hitting Tokyo's cellars. SanSonoma holds one of the few tastings of exclusively Californian wines, and most are held in the city's more progressive dining establishments—including fusion food emporium Roti and "new" Asian eatery Fujimama's. A SanSonoma tasting routinely canvasses a selection of over 30 wines, most of which have been little seen in Japan. Elsewhere, Pac Rim Wines, who import from more obscure, boutique Californian wineries such as Hidden Cellars, hold regular, though smaller-scale tastings at lesser known, but no less inspired, venues like Ermit restaurant in Toritsu Daigaku.

The coast with the most
At a recent Pac Rim tasting showcasing a selection of newly released Zinfandels, the Hidden Cellars was definitely a stand-out, exhibiting great finesse and character—and at ¥3,000, a reasonable price when compared to the medium- to high-end cost for most Californian bottles available in Japan. SanSonoma wines also tend to start at the medium-end pricewise, but the quality is high. The 1999 Handley Cellars Pinot Gris (¥2,508), produced in the fertile Anderson Valley, is, among the SanSonoma whites, a standout, exhibiting fruity honey and melon hints and a rich, full-bodied, though not too dry, aftertaste. In terms of reds, the 1998 Armida Cabernet Sauvignon (¥4,600), produced by the Scharf Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, is a wine of great complexity combining rich berry flavors, spice and a dry, robust finish. Meanwhile, the 1997 Nevada City Cabernet Sauvignon (¥2,580) is a more youthful, lush blend with an uncharacteristically mellow palate. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah is a deep-colored, full-bodied grape that ages very well—a variety native to the Rhone Valley region of France but which has been cloned in both California and Australia, where it is known as Shiraz. A powerful, black, aromatic wine tasting of blueberry with pepper undertones, the Folie a Deux Syrah from Amador County (¥3,900) is one of the standouts of the SanSonoma Syrah range.
Both SanSonoma and Pac Rim wines can be ordered online, or by phone or fax. SanSonoma is also planning a number of innovative wine happenings for 2002 that will bring together wine enthusiasts, experts, chefs, restaurateurs and professional clubs and organizations.

For more information see the website or contact Lauren Shannon

SanSonoma: B1 75 ShinYurakucho Bldg 1-12-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda Ku.
Tel: 03-5220-5588
Fax: 03-5220-5589
Mobile: 090-8581-0068
Pac Rim Wines:

Photo: SanSonoma