Wine Talk: Yumi Tanabe, Japan’s Woman of Wine

The educator and merchant who helped women break into Japan's traditionally male wine industry explains why winemaker has become the hot job for many young Japanese, and which Japanese dishes are trickiest to pair
Wine Talk: Yumi Tanabe, Japan’s Woman of Wine
Yumi Tanabe has been a major influence on modernizing Japan's wine scene over her four-decade career. (Julian Littler)
Jan 29, 2019

Like many wine pros, Yumi Tanabe was a child of winemakers. But her story doesn't begin in Napa or Bordeaux—the family winery where she grew up was on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, at a time when Japan's domestic wine scene was just getting started. Tanabe eventually found her own way to wine during her studies at Cornell University, and in her 39-year career, she has become one of the most influential figures in the Japanese wine scene, as a writer, educator, importer and occasionally even a winemaker herself.

In 1992, Tanabe founded Japan’s first school for wine professionals, and in 2013, established the increasingly successful Sakura Japan Women’s Wine Awards. The next year, Tanabe made her first vintage.

Tanabe's publications include, USA Winery Guide, Californian Wine, Yumi Tanabe’s Wine Book and Yumi, Are You Making Wine? Wine Spectator contributor Julian Littler spoke to Tanabe in Tokyo about the past and future of Japanese wine, what she has done to champion women in her work, and how to pair some of the trickiest flavors in Japanese cuisine with wine. The 2019 Sakura Awards begin on Jan. 29; 530 woman sommeliers will be evaluating 4,326 wine entries from 33 countries.

Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Yumi Tanabe: I was born and grew up in a wine region in Hokkaido. At that time, there was only one winery in Hokkaido. This was founded by my father. The vineyard surrounded my home. It doesn’t exist anymore, but I was very interested in taking care of the vines and harvesting the grapes. I had many chances to taste wine at home with dinner, even as a child. I grew up with wine. But when I was at school I was not so interested in the wine industry at all. I studied mathematics; maybe I wanted to be a computer programmer or an engineer, a computer engineer or a teacher [of] mathematics.

I had a chance to visit Cornell, [and] there is a hotel administration [school] there. I just happened to sit in on some wine tasting classes. Cornell changed my idea from mathematics to wine.

WS: In your years experimenting with wine since then, what Japanese foods would you say are most difficult to pair with wine?
YT: Shiokara [Japanese fermented dish often made using squid with salted guts]. Sometimes it’s good with Georgian wine; orange wine is very good with shiokara, Sherry is good. Of course, Japan has unique food. There is a lot of vinegar, sugar and soy sauce—the main [ingredients] for Japanese food.

Also, unlike the French, for Japanese there are many different kinds of food on the table [at the same time]. Rosé, not bone-dry, but a little sweet, is good for all the food together. Sparkling wine is good with sushi; generally speaking, no misses—no mistakes if you select sparkling wine.

For example, yesterday I had Italian sparkling wine with fish, with tai [Japanese sea bream]. I’m lucky I was born and grew up in Japan. If I’d grown up in a winegrowing country, like France or Italy, maybe I’d only drink local wine.

WS: Why did you decide to set up a wine school?
YT: I came back to Japan in 1980, when the wine market was still very small, and worked for five years for a wine distributor and importer. At that time, I found that wine service people had no education, no knowledge about wine at all. I thought we needed education about wine to help the development of wine. So I decided to teach what we should know in the Japanese market; we needed more wine professionals in the Japanese market.

WS: Why did you feel the need to establish the Sakura Awards?
YT: I’d been teaching wine for 25 years, and many young people started to work in the wine business and the wine industry, and the wine market in Japan became bigger and bigger. Many people gained the title of sommelier—it’s around 30,000 in Japan now. It’s enough, it’s more than enough. Actually, 43, 44, nearly 45 percent of those who got the title of sommelier are women.

But also, on the consumer side, women drink wine, women like wine more than men in Japan. Women want to know how to drink wine with food for daily drinking. Women are looking for wine they can get in the supermarket for 2,000 yen or 3,000 yen ($18–27), not icon wine.

Looking at the industry [when I started the Awards], in restaurants, the chef sommelier was always a man. He decided what was on the wine list. Even the importers, most of the buyers were men. They decided what kind of wine should be imported. The wine imported into the Japanese market was all the men’s view, not women’s.

OK, [I thought], what should I do next, after the school? The target is women. So, for the Sakura Awards, judges are only women. I want to sell the wine for women’s palate. Some people say, "Oh, Yumi Tanabe is only looking for women, Yumi Tanabe doesn’t like men." Yes, I like men [laughs]. But in the case of the Sakura Awards it is different, because most of the wine tastings and wine competitions are the men’s side.

This competition is not only to select the wine that women like, but also to involve women in the wine market, to change the wine market in Japan. I want to give some shock to the old liquor industry in Japan. In five years, I think women will have more of a chance for power in the industry, with bosses also thinking about how women are important for the wine industry.

WS: What’s happening with domestic wine?
YT: Of all the wine we consume in Japan, less than 4 percent is Japanese wine. But also, we Japanese like Japanese things. Some young Japanese people are very interested in making wine. Some younger people want to move back to the countryside to work in agriculture, and winemaking has a European image, a good image, not [like] growing rice or potatoes—making wine is a kind of status. We have a lot of new winemakers, new wineries established over the past 10 years. For example, in Hokkaido, before 2000 there were just seven wineries; now there are 36.

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