Another ‘Only in Japan’: Insane Wine List

So I get a text to meet at this restaurant and when I looked it up I could barely find information on it. I decide to put myself in his hands because this guy knows food and wine, more wine than food but he knows enough about food to be a good dining partner.

I walk into the restaurant and a bit taken aback, it makes zero sense. If a thrift store for theater companies threw up the furniture and props into the room, this place would be it. The interior is cluttered with tchotchkes of gnomes and Japanese figurines, empty bottles of DRC (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) and magnums of rare Dom Pérignon. The table has a bell to ring for service.

I am confused.

Well. I open the wine menu and I finally got it. Here is only part of it (not even a 1/3).

I’m no wine expert but even I was able to pin-point some rare names and vintages. But, I think the best part of the menu, was ‘other country’ sections and some of the best wine producers from countries other than France were added towards the end of the menu like an after-thought. LOL.

This weekend was full of firsts; more to come on my Saturday.
Ahhhh Japan, you are the best!

By the way, this is what we had:

Comtes de champagne and Corton-Charlemagne 2005

How to Tell if Your Sommelier Knows Wine

I’m honest when I dine out. It took me some time to get here. I was raised in the era when the food revolution was just starting in America and growing up, I have vivid memories of my mother constantly reminding me that most American restaurant staff cannot be trusted. So much so, my mother would research before going to a restaurant. Those days, the internet was non-existent (late 80’s, early 90’s) and she made me call restaurants to have them fax menus and wine lists before we made reservations. Looking back I wonder what those fine dining establishments thought of a child with an obvious kid voice, calling to request menus.

In my mid 20’s, I was dining out more and more without her and by this time, the internet was the norm. Out of habit, I would look up menus, specials and wine lists online. One day I got tired of all the effort and made the leap of faith to start trusting restaurant staff.  It changed my life. Ordering was now fun instead of stressing out if my choices and recommendations were good enough. Thanks mom. Perhaps my positive experiences are because I ask one or two preliminary questions to show I’m not a novice diner but most restaurants — especially fine dining establishments — employ staff that pick up on unspoken cues (manners, etiquette, body language, etc.).

Wine, though, is a different story. There are hundreds and thousands of wine flavor profiles and wine is such a personal choice. For modern diners, wine has become such an integral part of meals, picking and choosing while dining with important people causes anxiety. Frankly, I’m not that knowledgable and my wine knowledge was built through what my mother taught me, years of dining out and dating men from various parts of the world. It’s true what they say by the way, the French really know their wines. 

Repeating mistakes, I’ve picked up key words to communicate to the sommelier my preferences. “I love heavier reds and prefer French and Italian over California reds. Malbec, Côtes du Rhône, Syrahs, Barolo, Barbaresco are my safe reds. Côte-Rôtie, Léoville-Las Cases and Tignanello are some of my favorites.” And even then, I’ve had more misses than hits when it comes to wine.

The simple solution here, is for me to learn wine but I can not be bothered — there is still so much more I want to learn about food. So imagine my delight when I stumbled onto this piece: “10 Ways to Tell if Your Sommelier Really Knows Wine”

Here are some several of my favorite points:

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Why Red Wine is Served Chilled in Japan

Finally – mystery solved. The first time I was ever served chilled wine was in Japan. I was shocked. Growing up in California I was privy to a lot of great California wines. I was raised on cool, crisp Chardonnays and Rosés, sipped Merlots and Pinot Noirs before dinner and paired rich Cabernets with our mains. When I became old enough to dine out, I was introduced to French and Italian wines we rarely drank at home. Not once in 10 something years of drinking wine, had I ever tasted chilled red wine.

Until Japan.

I was in my early 20s and dating a half Japanese, half French banker who took me on holiday to Japan. This was some time in the early 2000s I believe. Australian and South American wines were booming and almost every restaurant we went to recommended reds and almost every red whether it was a bottle or served by the glass, light or heavy was served chilled — what in the world? (Chilled Malbecs are highly not recommended by the way) And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the Japanese served all red wines chilled. I assumed it was because Japan’s most popular alcoholic beverages are served super cold or with ice: beer, whiskey (highball is whiskey with soda water over ice or mizuwari whiskey split with water), sake, shochu (rocks or with water mizuwari), etc.

Well. As it turns out, we have Beaujolais Nouveau to blame. Beaujolais is a French wine produced in the Beaujolias region, north of Lyon. It is a light red and treated like a Chardonnay in France — served chilled, eaten with salads and light courses. Beaujolais is also really popular with the Japanese. So popular, they imported 8 million bottles in 2013.

Japan has a population of 127 million people. America has a population of about 319 million people. Japan imported 8 million bottles of Beaujolais. America only imported 1.8 million bottles. The Japanese really love Beaujolais.

Since the Japanese love Beaujolais so much, a lot of people unaccustomed to drinking wine probably assumed all reds are served cold and would ask for their wines chilled. Which lead to restaurants serving all reds cold in response to how a typical Japanese drinks their reds cold. If you ask, restaurants will serve you reds at appropriate temperatures.

Finally. A long standing mystery solved.

*Side-note: these are non-fine dining establishments or very very very Japanese places. Most Western / European influenced restaurants in 2015 serve wine appropriately.

Wine and Mediterranean Cuisine in Japan

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I tried Lebanese wine for the first time ever! And it was delicious. The one pictured above is an ’07 Château-Musar we had for dessert with cheese. The first bottle was an ’09 Corzes-Hermitage, a beautiful Syrah from Rhône. Cicada (the restaurant) is Mediterranean cuisine with influences from Morocco, Lebanon and Greece. The food uses a lot of ingredients and spices I love but rarely see in Japanese cuisine: fennel, harissa, farro, cous cous, Tzatziki, Tahini, etc., etc.

It’s a bit pricey (especially if you drink) but I extremely enjoyed my meal. I wouldn’t recommend this place to tourists, though, as Mediterranean is available and tastier abroad. Though the interior is stunning!

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My first drink is always rosé bubbly at Quality Meats, NYC.


Stupid me, I always assumed pink colored wine would be sweet, fruity and, well, sweet.

One of my favorite restaurants on the planet Animal, introduced me to rosé.

I took my first sip and was astounded. It was dry with a mild fruitiness and almost zero acidity I dislike in whites. I couldn’t believe that pink wine could taste like that. The manager, Helen, changed my life.

Rosés go beautifully with Pacific Northwest and California cuisines. I’d even go as far as to say with Japanese food as well. Ever since that day in 2008, I was hooked and have been hooked. I love rosé wines and especially rosê bubbly.

The one downside to fancying rosé is that for some peculiar reason, the champagnes are more expensive than regular champagnes. I’ve been curious as to why that is and finally Googled. As usual, I learned more than I wanted to learn…which pretty much sums up my relationship with wines and champagnes.

Since I understand the process, history, regions and such, I just want to retain information I can use in real life situations. Like when I am at a cocktail party or bar and unsure what to order. I realized long ago, I never, ever remember names. It’s also too much effort to attempt memorizing.

So I started this method which has worked really well: asking.

Yes, I ask the sommelier, server or dining companions but here are some memorable points:

  • The darker the wine or champagne is, the more fruity it is. Lighter rosés are drier. (I love dry.)
  • Many champagne houses make two rosés: standard brut (which can be vintage or non-vintage) and a prestige cuvée brut (which is usually vintage)

Recommended food pairings:
– raw fishes
– grilled crustaceans
– fine meats (like prosciutto)
– duck
– lamb
– spiced foods, especially with vinegar bases (like curry)
– creamy cheeses (goat and sheep)
– red fruit desserts

So if you’ve never tried rosé, do not fret. There’s no better time than now. Gosh, I love rosés during the spring and summers!