In 2010, Ned Goodwin became the first Japan-based Master of Wine. Born in London, raised in Australia and educated in Tokyo and Paris, Goodwin MW has had a storied career in Japan. The host of a Japanese television show, he also founded the importer Wine Diamonds in Tokyo. A well-known critic, he has worked for some of the world’s top wine publications: Now mainly based in Sydney, he is a member of the JamesSuckling.com team and visits Japan as often as he can. Areni asked him his impressions of the market.
Can you talk about your career in Japan? What took you there?
Ned Goodwin MW
The impetus for my adventures in Japan was my experience as a 15-year-old exchange student. I was curious about traveling as a high school student from Sydney, Australia, and I ended up going through quite a rigorous selection process to become an exchange student with an organisation called American Field Service (AFS). I wanted, as a surfer, to go to Indonesia, South Africa or California. was sent to mountainous Japan, sandwiched somewhere between the Japanese sea coast and the foothills of the alps. So I spent one year in high school there. During that period, I was the only foreigner in the town, surrounded by rice paddies and mountains.
It was quite difficult at times, but it was also incredibly liberating in terms of moving back to Australia and having a sense that, first of all, the world was a big place and I had this inner reservoir of self-discipline. I’d learned the language fairly competently, at least to a conversational level. I came back, finished my high school in Australia and went on to university in Europe. But to answer your question,, it was years after, while working in the United States as a sommelier at a place called Veritas in New York City. I was approached by the owner of a large restaurant group called Global Dining, who asked me to go and man the wine programme in Tokyo.
I thought I’d stay for two years and lo and behold, it was 14 years ago. I officially started in 2002.
What did the wine market look like when you arrived, compared to when you left?
Japan was already the biggest consumer of French natural wine. There were natural wine bars everywhere. And then of course there was the fine wine market, underpinned by the largest sommelier body per capita in the world outside of Italy.
The Japan Sommelier Association (JSA) is still a very powerful organization that has born and bred lots of renowned Japanese sommeliers. I suppose one limiting factor when it comes to Japan is the demographic challenges of Japan. The top tiers of the JSA, while still very influential, are becoming older and grey, and there perhaps isn’t the youth to flourish under them.
Why did the Japanese embrace natural wine so early?
I wasn’t prepared for the assault on the senses of just the plethora and pervasive nature of the natural wine scene in Japan when I arrived. It was such a sort of tsunami of energy. It was really contagious, particularly in a place like Japan, which was really quite conservative and very proper.
More than 70% of wine consumed in Japan was in the on trade. That’s shifted a bit, but it’s still a huge portion compared to Western markets. My take on why natural wine was so popular there is not necessarily because of any synergy physiologically or culturally, but really about the fact that when the Japanese let loose, given that the culture is really quite a rigid one, defined by a lot of propriety, that when there was this opportunity to really sort of break down barriers and toss out the rule book, the Japanese leapt at the opportunity. As a result, natural wine flourished there from the outset.
How often do you go back to Japan?
I was going back to Japan probably four to six times a year pre-Covid. Frankly, I’m looking for the opportunity for something to take me back to Japan on a more regular basis given my affection for the place.
Who is the Japanese fine wine consumer?
The Japanese fine wine consumer is of an older demographic and generally accustomed to fine service in restaurants. Japan is still a place that has hung on to things that are tactile, such as the fax machine. For the fine wine drinker, they’re going to go somewhere and actually handle the bottle and talk to a real person, rather than simply making a purchase online. So compared to Western markets, that side of the equation is not as large. There’s a small auction scene, but for the most part, the fine wine drinker is of an older demographic — monied obviously — and accustomed to very personable, highly mannered, sommelier-driven service in wine, in restaurants with good wine lists.
The fine wine drinker is of an older demographic — monied obviously — and accustomed to very personable, highly mannered, sommelier-driven service in wine, in restaurants with good wine lists.Ned Goodwin MW
Who is drinking natural wine and is there any crossover with fine wine?
I would suggest that no, there’s not really much crossover, aside from the fact that it’s all wine. The bastions of natural wine in Japan are strongly demarcated by a younger crowd and offerings that compromise no wines that we would call fine wine.
The fine wine on trade outlets are more Michelin-starred restaurants, generally with a tuxedoed, accredited sommelier. I’m not suggesting the natural wine places don’t have accredited sommeliers, as they do, but the feel is one of intentional sophisticated irreverence.
When does the young natural wine drinker turn into the staid fine wine drinker?
I was having that conversation with a colleague recently and our take on it was: they don’t.
If fine wine is mainly an on-trade phenomenon, is it inevitable that as people grow up and they get more money and they go to nice restaurants, that they become fine wine drinkers almost by accident, just by proximity to it?
Yes, I suppose so and I hope that is the case. But the other thing we need to understand is that young Japanese graduating from universities today, on average, earn less than what their parents earned 30, 25 years ago.
Are people highly knowledgeable about wine? Are they guided by the sommelier? How do they accumulate wine knowledge?
Japanese wine consumption per capita is still hovering, as it’s hovered for the best of 20 or 25 years, around two litres per capita. Maybe it’s gone slightly above that now. So when we’re talking ‘wine consumer’ whether it be fine wine or otherwise, we’re talking about a niche. But amidst that niche, there are incredibly knowledgeable consumers. In fact, I would strongly suggest that the most knowledgeable consumers I’ve met anywhere in the world outside of New York would be in Japan. There is an inherent love for wine or food of provenance, an adoration of provenance, with the sense that something from a place has an inherent aura or a sense of taste. That buys very easily into fine wine, from the Mosel and Burgundy to Piedmont, which are obviously very provenance driven.
There is an inherent love for wine or food of provenance, an adoration of provenance, with the sense that something from a place has an inherent aura or a sense of taste.Ned Goodwin MW
There’s a Confucian ethic that underlies Japanese society that has a great respect for knowledge and anyone who has put in the hard yards to absorb and cultivate that knowledge, be it a Master of Wine, a sommelier, or a consumer. Japan is a collectively-oriented society rather than an individualistic one like the West, so there is a great deal of deferral, along with the respect for the authority figure. No matter how knowledgeable or enthusiastic the customer is, he or she will defer to the ostensible authority: the sommelier or wine bar owner or whoever it is on hand.
One element I’ve left out is there was already a shift pre-Covid, and Covid accentuated the shift even more. There was a shift from the on trade to fine wine retailers. While Japan still consumes far more wine in the on trade than pretty much any other market, more and more people are buying wine and taking it home.
There’s a Confucian ethic that underlies Japanese society that has a great respect for knowledge and anyone who has put in the hard yards to absorb and cultivate that knowledge, be it a Master of Wine, a sommelier, or a consumer. […] No matter how knowledgeable or enthusiastic the customer is, he or she will defer to the ostensible authority: the sommelier or wine bar owner or whoever it is on hand.Ned Goodwin MW
How much do people spend? Is it price sensitive?
Japan has become a price sensitive market, although when I arrived in Japan back in the early 2000s, it was always considered a market where discounting was discouraged and looked down upon. People were generally willing and able to pay for quality.
Subsequent to the global financial crisis in 2008, there was suddenly this pervasive new wine bar going on in Tokyo. It was called the ‘tachinomi’, literally translated as ‘stand drink’. These were bars at which one could buy a glass of mostly Chilean wine for the equivalent of about 400 JYP ($2.73) a glass. With that, and with the discounting across the restaurants I was overseeing, there was suddenly a switch to a price sensitive and increasingly discounted market. That was a big switch.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. To enjoy the entire conversation, listen to the podcast.
This interview is part of our new round of exploration dedicated to the fine wine consumers called The Country Profiles Series, snapshots of markets that we believe are particularly interesting. The full report Country Profile: Japan, will be released on September 21st, 2023, accessible to Areni’s partners and full members only. To secure your copy of the report, join us as a member today.