executive impact

Changing Japan’s wine culture

By Chris Betros

Daisuke Kawakami has two great passions in life – rugby union and wine. As a young man, he played club rugby in Australia with legends such as David Campese, Nick Farr-Jones and Michael Lynagh. But for the past 10 years, he has been indulging his passion for wine through his Vin Passion Group, which he founded in 2004.

The group has six companies – VP Wines France (a Paris-based company), Vin Passion & Cie (a B2B business in Japan dealing in the import of French wines), Pinnacle Wine (B2C, wine club and wine restaurant), Vinofelice (B2B, dealing in the import of Italian wines), Wine Concerto (B2B, importing fine wines and premium British mineral water) and Minotomi (B2B asset management, manufacture and distribution of pickles).

Born in Fukuoka in 1968, Kawakami majored in commerce from Tokyo’s Waseda University in 1993. He joined a trading house and from 2000 to 2003, he lived in Paris as a wine buyer for the company. Since then, Kawakami says he has been a passionate oenophile. He says his goal is to change the wine culture in Japan, as well as to promote sake sales abroad.

Japan Today visits Kawakami at his office in Shiba-koen to hear more.

Did you like wine when you were a young man?

I liked only beer when I was young. I joined a big trading house in 1993 and I was assigned to the wine division. That was the beginning of my wine interest. In those days, many people in the industry were snobbish, showing off their knowledge. Three years later, after I visited French vineyards, I came to realize wine is an agricultural product and a product of passion. Since then, I have been passionate.

When did you start this company?

In 2004 after I came back from three years in France. I started with capital of just 300,000 yen and worked from home. After six months, I got 50 million yen capital from angel investors, and then I was able to open my first office in Ebisu – four of us. Now we have six independent companies.

How’s business?

Sales are increasing. In fiscal 2011, sales were 1.2 billion yen and in 2012, we reached 1.45 billion yen. This year we are targeting 1.8 billion yen. We invest a lot in our sales staff because 80-90% of sales are to restaurants and 10% are for the retail market. We work with wholesalers who deal with restaurants. At the retail level, you can find our imported wines and champagnes in specialized wine shops, some department stores and high-end stores like Kinokuniya.

How do you market your brands?

Since a lot of our business is B2B, we don’t need to advertise. Our sales staff visit top hotels, restaurants and deal with sommeliers. We also hold tasting events here or in a restaurant, usually one per month. We invite restaurant staff and interested parties to those events. We also have a wine club.

I hear you have started exporting sake.

We export Japanese sake and shochu to Hong Kong and Canada. I have many contacts in the wine business overseas and we provide sake to them. Premium sake will be accepted in foreign markets, I am sure. In Asia, most good hotels have at least one Japanese restaurant. Fine Japanese dining is expanding all over the world, and with it comes a demand for high-quality sake.

In Japan, there are about 1,800 sake brewers but only maybe 200 are making very good sake. The others tend to use additives in production. We currently represent 15 sake premium brewers. We work with importers on how to arrange sake-tasting events, what food to match the sake with, how to teach consumers and so on.

The sake industry is struggling in Japan. Compared to the 1970s, consumption is now one-third. The number of brewers is declining and that’s why export markets are important for the industry’s future.

Do you travel much?

Mostly I am in the office but recently, I have been travelling a bit to Asia and Europe – 25% of my time. In the past month, I have been to Vietnam, Singapore and Hong Kong.

You must do a lot of drinking in your job.

I joke that my blood is Chardonnay. I suppose I drink wine four times a week, usually at business dinners.

What are your favorite wines?

Burgundy and Pinot.

© Japan Today

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What are your favorite wines?

Burgundy and Pinot.

Strange answer for a wine "expert"

I like the business of his 6th company - asset management and making pickles?

2 ( +6 / -4 )

Burgundy and Pinot.

Strange answer for a wine "expert"

@Wakarimasen : Why?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I think it's a fantastic answer! Great words to live by Mr. Kawakami! More power to you...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Dcog: Why [is Burgundy and Pinot a strange answer for a wine expert]?

Because Burgundy usually is pinot, plus smaller amounts of other grape varieties like gamay and granache.

It's like saying "I like Pinot and Pinot". Although, to be fair, New World Pinots have differenct characteristics from true Burgundies.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Thanks Nessie. I think I also would have expected something more specific than a whole region and a grape. anyway, wasn't carping - just saying.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I understand his statement as the Burgundy, you know the pinot, (just in case you don't know). Tells med he's used to talk to people of different levels of knowledge.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Ah fair enough, that makes sense hehe

1 ( +1 / -0 )

How about changing the wine culture by banning screw caps.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I know why. Because admitting that there are screw caps on wine bottles in Japan may give some a lower opinion of the wine culture here, we can't have that can we.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

please, reduce the price of the cheese! for the wine.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It will be interesting to see how well wine becomes increasingly popular in Japan considering that Japan has a very long and historic alcoholic beverage culture derived from the production of "nihonshu" (as sake is known in Japan), umeshu and shochu, not to mention the highly successful beer and whisky manufacturers.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

But companies need to make more cheaper cheese for the wine because wine is good with cheese.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

please, reduce the price of the cheese! for the wine

Costco does a great job with cheese.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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