LA: What inspired you to become a wine sommelier? And why did you choose to focus on wine more than sake?
ALICE: It was September of 2007. I was in Frankfurt, Germany, attending a conference hosted by the European Central Bank. I was a central banker of Japan. I was told by my boss not to talk about any religion, politics, or things that could potentially become an issue. At the conference, attendees were seated in the alphabetical order by the country so I was sandwiched by Italy and Korea. Korea started talking about the growing wine culture in Korea and Japan. Then, Italy mentioned an article he read about how sake is pretty popular in Korea. Sake? I had no deep knowledge in wine nor sake but we soon became good friends. It didn’t take too long till I started becoming interested in wine and sake. I started going to the weekend wine school, Academie du Vin. A year later, I got certified as a Wine Expert under the Japanese Sommelier Association. While it was still at the level of a hobby, I started to have more passion in learning about beverage culture and even hoped to pursue a career in the field. In late 2009, I got a new job which transferred me to L.A. The job itself had nothing to do with wine.
I still could not drop the idea of adventure into the world of wine business. I went to a UCLA Extension Program for a certificate in “Wine Education and Management”. I graduated the program in 2010, and that marked the beginning of my wine career. My instructor referred me to a wine event producing company LearnAboutWine and I worked there as an assistant for three years, then got hired by a restaurant in Beverly Hills called Crustacean. The restaurant boasted 700 wine selections with over 3,000 bottles in stock — that was a pretty huge wine restaurant. The concept of the restaurant was Vietnamese-inspired French fusion, so naturally, French wines were the top sellers.
We had a lot of regulars with Asian backgrounds, they knew fairly well about sake and I could feel that there was a growing trend of sake served at non-Japanese restaurants. Guests started asking me about sake because I’m obviously Japanese. I did not have sufficient education in sake so I was just reading off the Japanese words (kanjis) on the label and pretended like I knew everything. I was cheating (laughs), but it sparked my curiosity and I realized that as a Japanese person working in the USA, I should really start learning in depth about the world of sake. I took a temp leave and went back to Japan to take the sake certification program. I visited different breweries, and that was the first step of the sake part of my career.
LA: That’s a very surprising introduction to sake, especially when your certification and expertise was in wine.
ALICE: Right. Especially from the fact that I am from Japan, guests easily expect that I should really know about sake.
LA: I read that you’re the only Japanese female sommelier in L.A. Do you share that title with others now?
A: That may have been the case back in 2013. I know there are many more now. For someone coming straight from Japan, I guess I can say I am rare. To work as a Sommelier, you have to be a storyteller and if English is not your first language, there could be a communication barrier.
LA: Tell us more about that. Did that make you nervous at first? You seem very outgoing. What motivated you to get yourself out there?
ALICE: I kind of have to do. No choice. People come and go in the restaurant business. At one point, I was the only Sommelier in this large scale restaurant with 250 seats, and I just had to run around and touch the tables to keep the show going.
But I really love teaching, for example, about wine. I like the idea of sharing the knowledge of wine to those who want to know. I didn’t have any industry experience at the time, but I really enjoyed it.
LA: As you learned more about sake, did your preference for wine or sake change as well?
ALICE: My interest in sake grew. When I was in Japan, wine was the cool thing and sake was for ojiisans (“male elders”). I wanted to be cool and everything so I opted for wine and didn’t put much focus on sake. But here in the U.S., sake is now the cutting-edge, one of the high-class things, so that really changed overall perspective toward sake. Especially during my tenure at the restaurant, I had a chance to meet a lot of sales reps, and they showcased me a wide range of sakes that you cannot easily obtain. That really helped me open the door. Sake is not just one dimension, it has profound cultural importance and history - never ending learning.
LA: I can feel that your preference for wine is still more than sake…?
ALICE: Well, yes… because, I am still an entry level sake drinker!
LA: (Laughs) That makes sense!
ALICE: Sake is pretty new, but I’ve been drinking wine for more than 10 years now.
LA: What does sake have over wine and what does wine have over sake?
ALICE: Obviously the strength of sake is the power of food pairing. Let’s compare: Wine has acidity and tannin which essentially characterize the style of the liquid that you find in a glass. When you think about pairing, the acidity and tannin are the most important elements you have to worry about. So I would say wine has more vivid characteristics. While sake is considered more mellow, or softer, in terms that it does not have a significant level of acidity and tannin. Sake is not “edgy” in that sense, therefore it will provide a high flexibility and opportunity to pair with a wide variety of cuisine styles.
Sake can pair with foods where wine finds it difficult for bonding. Therefore, it is very useful as it can skillfully “agree” with your chef’s cuisines and you don’t have to modify chef’s style.
LA: You characterize it so well and our readers will appreciate hearing your comparison.
ALICE: I was asked many times if sake makes you really drunk. This image is attributable to “sake bombs” invented in U.S. clubs and bar scenes back in the 90s. Because of this sensational party monster cocktail, many people still have the wrong idea of sake. Overcoming that image will probably take some time. However, think about this: When you look at the sake labels, you will find that the alcohol levels are not too far off from the average alcohol level in wine. I used to explain that a lot to my guests and they got very surprised each time I did!
I think the sake culture in US is stepping into the next stage, “sophistication”. Tippsy will definitely be a great source for educating sake beginners.
LA: We hope so!
Genki: Sake bombs are how the majority of people meet sake for the first time. You know, drinking games having fun and partying around. But sake is not just that and that’s one of the reasons why I started this concept, to educate people about the versatility and potential of sake. How have consumer expectations changed in previous years?
ALICE: There are so many cheap sakes served in many local restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the cheap kind is bad. But most of the restaurants do not offer options and I feel that it is a risk that one mass production sake can fix the image of sakes overall. Another thing is temperature. I have witnessed so many inappropriate sake services at local restaurants. They microwave it! No! You will lose all the great aromas if you microwave sake!
There’s a lot of confusion about whether to serve hot sake or not. Heating is for changing the aromas and it's not intended to just warm the liquid. In Japan, there is a disciplined art and professional guideline for heating up sakes. I hope that education steps into this area so guests can enjoy sake in their full potential.
At my restaurant, I was serving all my sakes in a white wine glass, chilled. I intentionally avoided the heating up service for a few reasons: it could delay the service speed, quality control is very difficult at huge restaurants, and lack of appropriate equipment.
LA: Why a wine glass? Is it for the look?
ALICE: As an alternative for warming sake, the wider shape of the glass will help guests experience the sake aromas more. Don’t forget sakes are very aromatic!
GENKI: Are consumers getting more sophisticated over the years?
ALICE: I’m pretty sure there’s a portion of drinkers who are getting very educated. I’ve heard there are a lot of people visiting breweries in Japan. Until recently not many breweries had tasting rooms but I am seeing that there is a growing trend that breweries build a winery-style tasting room to attract tourism.
From a marketing aspect, Dassai became a pioneer in a successful branding in their sake products. They sponsored red carpet events for movies, celebrity appearances, and made powerful exposure throughout US media. They did an amazing job in promoting sake. If you talk to American foodies, many of them know about Dassai.
From my experience, our restaurant hosted a Centennial Event for the City of Beverly Hills inviting a lot of high profile VIPs, and Dassai offered to sponsor the entire beverage program. Dassai established a new aspect in sake - “Sake is fashionable.”
GENKI: I wrote an article about Dassai. As you said a lot of people don’t know too many sake brands but they do know about Dassai.
LA: I read about your philosophy on pairing, how instead of calling it a “pairing”, you call it “friends”. Do you have a sake that is your best friend or your bff?
ALICE: Maybe a favorite style?
ALICE: I really like something aromatic and clean with a calm acidity, so in general, junmai style is my go-to. Great example is Fukuju Blue. I call this sake a “bridge” sake. Clean but perfumy. It shares the characteristics of both sake and wine, connecting the two worlds. To be more specific, it has this unique aroma similar to Riesling grape; in wine vocab, I would describe it as with lilac, white flower blossom and a touch of tangerine. Sake usually has very low acidity but this one has a touch of elegant acidity, which I think wine lovers will enjoy. That is one that I usually recommend to a wine drinker trying sake for the first time.
LA: I saw that you did a review on the Suehiro Gensai Daiginjyo. Your website is very fun and informative! I was drawn immediately to the mouthwatering Western food pairings! I’m looking forward to your other sake reviews. You described this brand as umami packed. Can you explain its significance and how it relates to the food pairings you’ve tried?
ALICE: Umami is a very tricky word. It’s starting to becoming a popular term in the wine industry as well. “Umami” itself in Japanese simply means “flavor.” When you say “umami taste”, you’re referring to a flavor found in a complex beverage, like aged Pinot Noir, layered aroma with long finish. Are you familiar with dashi stock? Umami usually comes from a dashi component; it could be kombu seaweed or shiitake mushrooms. It gives the flavor its depth.
Suehiro Gensai Daiginjyo has a beautiful depth and lingering finish. I would say this is not for a wine-focused drinker but more for an advanced palate, for intermediate level sake lovers. I love this sake! I hope more people will try this.
LA: I’d like to try it, too!
ALICE: I am also a consultant at Kuramoto U.S., a premium craft sake importer. They have their own technical sheets and food pairing comments written by sake experts. Those are great. But what I’m doing is basically rewriting--forgetting all sake jargon and re-describing in a wine sommelier way-- so to make it easier to explore into undiscovered markets.
So people who like aged Pinot Noir (who have appreciation in complex flavors) might be interested in trying this sake. That’s the whole concept.
LA: You have your own canvas where you can insert your own opinion without taking from the experts.
ALICE: There are so many sake certifications now. So many people can write professionally in sake. But what I wanted to do as a service person is to sell sake and that requires focusing on what market you want to go to. What I want to do is explore new markets. My reviews are pretty non-traditional so conservative people will not like it, I can tell (laughs). So I’m just doing my own thing. I am bringing in my perspective as a wine service professional, and I am hoping this can contribute to the future of sake trends.
LA: Well, I’m definitely a fan of what you’re doing! It’s really great to see all these unique voices in the sake conversation as it evolves in the United States. I meant to ask, what are your days like as a wine and sake sommelier?
ALICE: I’m basically a freelancer with different contracts with different businesses. My clients involve restaurants, importers and exporters, and some private clients for educational events. I’m a frequent guest speaker at UCLA Extension. Once every quarter, I present the basics of sake and fun comparative sake tasting sessions within the wine program I graduated from. A little here and there, but a lot of time I write food pairing ideas, or I talk with chefs and come up with pairing ideas. I do server training. Omotenashi, or “Japanese spirit of hospitality”, is always a part of my training. It’s a bummer that in California, you can’t serve sake in the wooden box with the glass inside due to health department restrictions.
GENKI: What are those key points that you teach the restaurant servers about sake and how they should serve sake?
ALICE: They should at least know the level and region of sake, and preferably the style, if this sake is for beginners or for advanced palate. I just don’t want a server to say “Oh, this is so good. I like it.” When I do my training, servers get really surprised that there are so many different sake regions.
The Nada region is one of the top sake regions in Japan with its fine quality water, so I connect with familiar terms and explain, “This sake is from Nada which is like the Napa Valley for wine.”
Rather than going in too technical, I try to put selling points using very brief terms so servers don’t have to get intimidated by the massive information and still be confident enough to recommend sakes to guests.
LA: You meet a lot of people through your knowledge and love for sake, in all your interactions. Is there anything that annoys you? Any pet peeves?
ALICE: Mmm. As for the work, my work is a consultant and not everyone understands how it works. So many people consult for wine but sake is currently a Japanese culture-driven market so if you’re asked to do a sake education class, people expect that I will come with free sake. That’s the tough part!
LA: (Laughs) So how do you prefer to drink sake? Some say that there’s a difference in the taste depending on the vessel you use. Do you agree with that?
ALICE: Yes, I’m a big fan of serving sake in a wine glass. One of the classes I’ve taught is serving sake in different glass sizes and it’s amazingly different. I like to enjoy aromas more than the taste. That’s just what I like. Through the experiment, I loved pouring sake in a rounder, Chardonnay glass because the spacious glass allows air to play with the liquid and you can enjoy each sip’s kaleidoscopic effect. I personally am a big fan of Riedel, the Australian wine glass company. They actually produces glasses dedicated for each sake classification. Those glasses are very expensive so you cannot use them for service but if I were able to choose how to enjoy my sake, I’d probably go for the Daiginjo glass by Riedel.
LA: Thanks for that recommendation. I gotta try that! Where do you see the sake industry about five years from now?
ALICE: It’s still going to take time but sake is absolutely on the map of the beverage program. 10 years ago, in Beverly Hills, even Asian restaurants had just a couple sakes on the menu. Five years later, now you have half page of sake. What we need is the education. Having more sake sommeliers is great so that we can have more people to educate and expand the market.
LA: That’s really exciting. What projects or events are coming up for you?
ALICE: The Sake Expo is coming up. In Japan there’s a concept for super hero characters and you can just put the logo so it stands out. So we have a concept for “Sakeman”. It’s kind of crazy but it’s working.
LA: Yes, I’ve seen them!
ALICE: I’m finishing up new sake comments. A lot of brewers will be flying from Japan so I’ll probably be collaborating with different chefs to host sake dinners.
LA: That’s a huge event. Maybe one day I’ll get to see you there. How about a game? I’ll describe a scenario, and maybe be a little melodramatic about it, and you can tell me what sake you’d recommend. Let’s start with a job promotion. What would you recommend for that occasion?
ALICE: Fukuju Black comes in a really fancy box. It’s really expensive. I’d really like to drink that so I’m hoping I get promoted somehow (laughs).
LA: Anything with gold sounds good. Alright, here’s a sad one: a bad breakup.
ALICE: Shichida Natsu, the summer limited version. It tastes like summer, a little tropical and sweet, but it has a slight bitterness at the end. Just an inspiration from the movie “500 Days of Summer (2009)”.
LA: How poetic. It sounds like the perfect bottle for a heartbreak. OK, how about a family reunion?
ALICE: This is hard but Harada from Hatsumomiji brewer. This sake is very round and soft, a crowd-pleaser. I’ve recommended this to different people and everyone loved it! I’m confident to bring this to parties of any occasion. It’d be my choice.
LA: Sounds good! Finally, what would you recommend for someone who is moving to Paris to start a new life?
ALICE: There’s a brewer called Yamamoto Honke in Kyoto. They produce a sake called “Matsu No Midori." As in the name, the bottle is green. This has a very unique flavor, a touch of green tea which reflects the culture of Kyoto. This got picked up by one of the French Michelin Star restaurants in Paris and so far the review is very nice. They’re expanding in Europe and maybe this is a good luck souvenir from Japan to Paris.
LA: Perfect. Those are all very thoughtful recommendations. Thank you so much for your time, Alice! We loved hearing your thoughts and learning about your work as a wine and sake sommelier.