Alternatives are always welcome

I came across this article about sparkling wine on Gizmodo while clicking away randomly this morning. To The HOUSE readers, content of this article might be, uh, not sophisticated enough, to say the least. But it was written truthfully by a recreational drinker so it was a fun read – especially after having read about the human-driven “sixth great extinction” that we have entered, scientists warned. Not shocking news, but very upsetting. Let’s be irresponsible and talk about something totally irrelevant instead, shall we.

Going back to the article above, the writer suggested five alternative sparkling wines in fear of the Prosecco shortage that’s been on the news: Vinho Verde*, Cava, Crémant, Lambrusco and Moscato. Please bear in mind, these are the writer’s personal opinion, so let’s not start arguing yet.

*We know that Vinho Verde is not a sparkling but a young, still wine. General drinkers might deem the slight fizzing occurred during fermentation in bottle character of a sparkling wine, for consumption purpose rather than professional definition, per se.

What intrigued me was not the suggestions, (because, where is my Sekt?) but the price range that a normal US consumer would be willing to pay for an everyday wine. A Vinho Verde for under USD 10, Lambrusco rosato for USD 15 and Crémant for USD 19; which just sounds incredibly close to the Hong Kong market!

In terms of the Japanese market, in my opinion, imported wines are often too expensive and mostly too boring to look at. You will find Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay of the most common profiles dominating the wine shelves, which already takes away half of the excitement of the wine shopping experience. Then you see wines from no further than France, Italy, Spain and Chile or the US. Sometimes you see a couple of sweet German Rieslings tucked between the Alsace whites, but that’s usually it.

And the prices. The prices! A bottle of screw-capped Chilean table wine for more than JPY 1,000 is commonplace. (No bias to screw-capped or Chilean wines; just wanted to give the picture.) I reckon that’s why Japanese tourists would go crazy and grab any wine in sight when they go to California.

For the sake of comparison, I should add that you will be able to find Japanese sake and shochu at all sorts of prices, qualities and profiles effortlessly for obvious reasons. That goes similarly for whiskeys, Japanese or imported: locating a reasonable whiskey at JPY 1,000 in an average liquor store or supermarket will seldom be a puzzle.

A note that locally produced wines such as those from Yamanashi or Nagano, however, are quite pricy to touch, averaging around JPY 2,000 or more easily.

So what seems to be the obstacles of the Japanese wine market? When compared to the rest of Asia, I often consider Japan as the most developed market in alcohol consumption, particularly in regards to their background knowledge about and open-mindedness to foreign products.

To my surprise, studies done on the subject have demonstrated that not only is the Japanese wine market conservative and very difficult to enter, Japanese consumers actually are not that keen to pay for anything that looks unfamiliar or outside of the comfortable price range.

For one, given the unique network-dependent characteristic of the Japanese society, entering the wine industry (or any industry I imagine) takes time and effort that SMEs might not be able to afford to do. That’s why big brands who have the resources are always around, but rarely the independent producers that could offer the same or better quality and possibly for less price.

Second, Japanese customers are origin-, price- and packaging-conscious. I know, these are concerns of diverse aspects, but it basically sums up how a typical Japanese wine drinker makes the decision. French, Italian, Spanish or major new world wines are the safe choices that they would go for without a blink. In return their purchase preferences encourage these countries to import yet more of the similar wines into Japan.

And then Japanese customers want prices that are competitive. By competitive we are talking about JPY 500-1,000 per bottle. For special occasions JPY 2,000 is achievable; but don’t forget, we have to bear in mind the packaging because Japanese are, as we all know, just a little bit into the presentation of like, everything?

Lastly, as you might have expected, wine duty into Japan is high. For still wines it is 15% or JPY 125/L (whichever lower), while sparkling would be JPY 182/L. These are huge figures when we compare with whiskey, which is 0% anytime. No wonder it is the calculated foreigners this time who will seize any whiskey within reach when they are in Japan!

Putting all of the above together, you will find the Japanese wine market amazingly narrow in terms of choices when compared to, say, Hong Kong or even China, but not unreasonable.

And that’s the reason why you don’t see me talking about wine in Japan. I mean, I would love to have a good bottle of wine at any given moment anywhere and write a nice long review. But yeah, like my peer shoppers here, quality-price ratio definitely plays a big part in decision-making and, JPY 500-1000 for a palatable sake or shochu of unlimited choices sounds just impeccable to me! 

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