Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Does what's on the label matter? One obstinate consumer (me) goes to great lengths to find out

Me as a sake judge, with a pre-pandemic haircut
What's in a classification? Does it matter what a wine or spirit actually is, rather than what it's called?

Does what's on the label matter?

I think it does matter, which is how I fell into a two-month-long rabbit hole regarding a sake for which I paid less than $20 and immediately demanded a refund (which I got) -- without even opening it.

This is the tale of Ban Ryu sake, made by 242-year-old Eiko Fuji Brewery in Yamagata, Japan and imported to the US by Joto Sake. But really it's the tale of me: not as a writer and journalist, but as a demanding and obstinate consumer.

Here's how it started. I wanted to make some whiskey cherries for cocktails. Instead of buying cocktail cherries, I buy ripe cherries, wash and destem them, put them in a jar and fill the jar with whiskey. Let it sit six months, and serve. The longer the cherries sit, the softer they get. They're extremely boozy, but I usually put them in whiskey-based cocktails anyway. It was cherry season. I needed some rye whiskey. (The French would use Cognac, and I approve, but rye is cheaper here. This year I'm also doing a batch with mild Scotch for the hell of it.)

Should be ready by Christmas
I ordered a 1-liter bottle of bartender favorite Old Overholt Rye from K&L Wine Merchants, which is probably my favorite wine shop in San Francisco, though they can't be happy with that considering the grief I was about to bring them. At the time, True Sake -- my go-to shop for buying sake -- was still closed for the pandemic, and my stock of sake was so low that I had ordered takeout bottles from restaurants. K&L has a decent sake selection so I ordered three bottles; one I had tried and two I hadn't but which were interesting from the descriptions. Like any normal consumer.

One of the sakes I ordered was listed as Eiko Fuji Ban Ryu "Ten Thousand Ways" Honjozo Sake. It's from Yamagata, a great sake region. I like honjozo -- this is the key to the whole saga. It was $18.99 for 720 ml, a good price. I ordered it.

You pay in advance and pick up the order curbside. At the K&L parking lot, the store clerk brought out my bag o' booze. Like the greedy drinker I am I quickly opened it and pawed over my goodies. Old Overholt, check. Bunraku Yamahai Junmai 300 ml (highly recommended), check. Yamada Shoten Tokubetsu Junmai 900 ml bottle, check.

Doesn't say "Honjozo"
Ban Ryu. I looked over the whole label. It doesn't say "honjozo" anywhere on the label. I looked, handed it to my wife to look, and looked again. Nope. Not on the label.

I waved to the attendant. "This isn't a honjozo," I said. He compared the receipt and the product name and said, "You'll have to call the store." Let's face it, not many people even in wine shops know what a honjozo is.

That's the crux of this story. In Japan, Honjozo is extremely popular; most restaurants that serve sake have one, even on the smallest lists. In the US, it's the most misunderstood category of premium sake, because of how it translates into English.

To be a honjozo, the rice must be polished to 70 percent or less of its original weight. This is a stricter polishing standard than junmai. but not as strict as tokubetsu junmai or ginjo (both 60%).

What makes honjozo different is that brewer's alcohol is added. In cheap sakes ("futsushu," which literally means "ordinary alcohol") this can be done to save money. Honjozos are premium: the reason the neutral alcohol is added is generally for mouthfeel, as honjozos tend to be crisp and clean. That's why they're popular in Japan. A good honjozo is the most food-friendly of sakes. Think of it like a crisp white wine, and consider how important delicate fish is in the Japanese diet.

In the US, though, ignorant translators tend to call them "fortified," which isn't really true. Water is added to most sakes and honjozo actually tend to be on the lower end of alcohol percentage (about 15%) because crispness is the goal. (Sakes without water added are "genshu," aka "cask strength," which sounds sexy but actually they're too boozy, like overripe Zinfandel.)

Honjozos are taxed at a higher rate in the US because of the added alcohol -- this is true of all sakes with added alcohol, whether honjozo or futsushu. In Japan, honjozos cost less than ginjos, one reason they're popular. Honjozos and junmais tend to be enjoyed by sake aficionados. Super aromatic daiginjos are amazing for a glass, but honjozos and junmais are better for a meal.

I ordered Ban Ryu because I wanted a crisp, clean, refreshing, food-friendly sake. My two other sakes, both junmais, I expected to be full of character. I wanted a honjozo to go with sashimi; it's my favorite with very delicate dishes.

I got home and called K&L and bitched and moaned. I pointed out that Ban Ryu is not called a honjozo in Japan by Eiko Fuji. I said I wouldn't have ordered it had I known it wasn't a honjozo. I bitched and moaned. Finally the guy on the phone said, "What do you want?" I wanted a refund. They gave it to me. And I didn't have to bring back the sake (I offered to let them come pick it up, but they declined.)

This is where it gets interesting.

David Girard, the sake buyer for K&L, called me. I don't know at what point he realized I am whatever I am (Sake journalist? Gadfly? Beverage Twitterer?), but I think at first he thought I was just a pissed-off customer. We had a nice conversation on the phone, and then an email conversation that turned out to be MONTHS LONG.

Girard said the importer, Joto Sake, lists Ban Ryu on its website as a honjozo; this is true.

Eiko Fuji doesn't call it a honjozo on its site. But Joto calls it a honjozo in all its marketing materials.

From the Eiko Fuji website. Just below the red characters it says, "Category: Futsushu (ordinary sake)." Not honjozo.

Girard contacted Joto Sake. (I wasn't planning to write about this so I confess I haven't spoken to Joto directly, but Joto founder and general manager Henry Sidel is in the email string.)

Sidel told Girard that he had gone to Eiko Fuji and asked them directly if Joto could call Ban Ryu a honjozo in the US, and Sidel said the Eiko Fuji rep had said yes. I didn't accept this. In Japan, people say "hai" -- which translates as "yes" -- to mean, "I'm listening," not necessarily, "I agree." This has led to thousands of business disputes over the years as well as the occasional international incident.

Sidel, Girard and I had a lively email argument over the sake, which I kept unopened. Sidel said Ban Ryu is polished to 70% (it's actually 65% according to the Eiko Fuji site) and has brewer's alcohol added. It's taxed like a honjozo; therefore it's a honjozo.

I kept complaining that the brewer decides how to classify it, and they had decided not to do so in Japan. There are, for example, ginjos that could qualify as daiginjos, but are not called that. Who knows what the reason is? Sidel and Girard posited that maybe Ban Ryu had other honjozos it wants to sell -- Joto carries one. I argued that maybe Ban Ryu doesn't measure up to their internal honjozo standards.

Worth noting: as a culture, Japan prizes humility. This is not true of the US.

I also had a lively discussion with Girard about the nature of label information. Not long ago Adam Lee described his new Pinot Noir project, Clarice, to me by saying he planned to harvest most of the grapes very early and a few later, to get more character from the same vineyard. I heard that and I immediately wanted to try the wines. (I did, and they're good.) It wasn't on the label, but the way the wines were made appealed to me.

At the same time, I have had probably 300 wineries say to me, "We farm organically but we're not certified." It's not on the label, so I don't report this because I don't believe them. Maybe they're organic only until they have a pest problem. Sometimes I'm a stickler for what's on the label (I always am about organic and biodynamic), and sometimes I'm not.

Here's something I wrote in my exchange with Girard: "Let me put it this way: it's as if a winery has a wine that is all made from a single vineyard, but decides to call it Russian River Valley instead of the vineyard name. We don't know the reasons: maybe they don't think that vineyard is that good. Maybe they have other single-vineyard wines and they don't want to cannibalize the market (Henry's argument, essentially). I wouldn't have a problem with the distributor, in the description, saying "all grapes come from the xxx vineyard." But if it's not on the label, I don't think the distributor should sell it as the "Elusive Winery Lee Vineyard RRV Pinot Noir." It doesn't say that on the label and that was the winery's decision. That's what Henry is doing here: taking that decision away from the brewery. IMHO it's worse because, as the US importer, he COULD ask the brewery to put it on the label, right? If it's a honjozo, they COULD call it that solely on the English label for the US market. But they don't -- either because Henry didn't ask, or the brewery doesn't want to. I don't understand why he is comfortable with calling it something in the marketing materials without asking the brewery to back him up by putting it on the label."

Only one way to solve this: to ask the brewer directly.

My wife was an on-air TV talent in Japan. She can speak and write Japanese at a politeness level so extreme that it sounds to non-experts like she's groveling to the emperor (in fact, she has had occasion to actually learn the groveling-to-the-emperor verb endings, which can never be used with mere mortals.) So she wrote an excruciatingly polite email to Eiko Fuji, explaining the situation and asking if they would tell us whether or not Ban Ryu actually is a honjozo.

More than a month passed. We thought we would never learn. But finally a company representative responded to her.

Before we get to the denouement, I want to say something about Japanese cinema. Americans like a film that ends with a complete resolution: the bad guys are caught, the company is saved, the good guy and good girl come together, roll credits. In Japan, they like a vague ending. Filmmakers at least (I'm not sure about audiences) prefer films without clear resolution, especially emotionally. Will they get together? Did he get away with the crime? Will the lost child be found? They love it when we don't know.

Think of this story like a Japanese film.

The Eiko Fuji representative's explanation was this: Ban Ryu sells well for them in Japan but it is not a sake they choose to classify as honjozo. They have other sakes like this: a ginjo they could call a daiginjo, but do not. "It's very traditional thinking," he said.

However, Ban Ryu is taxed like a honjozo, so the Eiko Fuji rep said Joto Sake is within its rights to call it a honjozo in the US.

It was a very straightforward, businessy email, until the ending, when he wrote something poetic: "In Yamagata we have a saying. Don't look at the flower; look at the root."

You can interpret that as you like.

Time to open that bottle!
With as much information as I was going to get, finally I opened the sake.

And I'll say this: it might technically be a honjozo for tax purposes, but it doesn't taste like one.

This doesn't mean it's a bad sake. I served it straight out of the fridge, as I usually do with honjozos, and hated it. But then I let it warm up to near room temperature and liked it.

Here are my notes from near-room temperature: Smooth texture but muscular. Boozy, but not oppressive at a warmer temperature. Mild melon fruit, some palate weight. Not what I look for in a honjozo; it's a little too heavy for that. But not bad for what it is. If I ordered the house sake at a ramen place and got this, I'd be happy with it and maybe order a second glass.

For $18.99 that's not a bad sake, especially since I got a refund! (Thanks, K&L.)

If this saga has you curious to try it yourself, you can order it here. (Please don't ask for a refund afterward; unlike me, you know exactly what you're getting.)

Or, if you want to try a honjozo in the classic style, here's a widely available, affordable one. A couple years ago I went to Osaka for the sake competition shown above. After two long overnight international flights in coach I was exhausted, but hungry. I stopped at a really unassuming little sushi place for a meal. They had this on their very short sake list, I ordered it, and it was terrific. It always is.

I conclude with a haiku:

Is it honjozo?
The Ban Ryu question of spring
Fades in summer light

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1 comment:

S in Oakland said...

Love this story, elegant and unexpected, like a fine sake flower found, late at night, on a short but well tended list. Thank Mami for her translation powers.