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Japan Wine Boom a Boon to Imports

November 11, 1998

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ At the Lindbergh Cafe, a small, unpretentious restaurant in Osaka, Japan, the wine list is full of foreign labels, including dozens from California.

Tokyo’s bustling New York Grill, which boasts 100 varieties exclusively from California, struggles to keep the cellar full.

``We would like more,″ said assistant manager Takuji Namiki. ``A lot more.″

From tiny cafes to big hotel restaurants, on store shelves and kitchen tables, wine is becoming a drink of choice among the Japanese, and demand for imports has never been higher.

California’s vineyards, which supply nearly all U.S. wine exports, are shipping more of their products than ever to Japan, with volume nearly doubling over the past year. And there’s room for more: The United States is only the fourth-leading supplier of wine to Japan, with about a 7 percent market share, after France, Italy and Chile.

``We’ve seen unprecedented growth in Japan,″ said Gladys Horiuchi, a spokeswoman for the California Wine Institute, a trade group based in San Francisco.

Wine consumption in Japan was up 25 percent last year, said Patrick Bray, director of business development for the Japan External Trade Organization in California.

Still, the state could do better in comparison to its rivals, Bray said. ``We’re not losing volume, we’re losing market share.″

Sung Won Sohn, an economist for Wells Fargo Bank who tracks Asian markets, said the economic setbacks in Japan make it a good time to promote California wines.

``California wine has not always been less expensive than European wines because of the strong dollar,″ he said. ``This may be an opportunity to gain market share in Japan.″

The wine boom dates back about a year, when a Japanese news program similar to ``60 Minutes″ publicized reports touting the health benefits of wine. Distributors were emptied out.

``Practically every importer ran out of red wine,″ said Gregor Prattley, marketing coordinator for wines and champagne at Jardine Wines and Spirits K.K., a leading importer.

Demand has held steady despite the economic turmoil that has hurt other U.S. exports to the Pacific rim, including rice, cotton and cattle.

Industry representatives, trade analysts and others in the wine business say a lot of factors are behind the boom _ a leading one being simply all the room for growth.

Japan remains far down on the per capita consumption list, with residents drinking an average of about a liter _ or a little more than a bottle _ each year. Americans, by comparison, consume an average of seven liters a year.

Some attribute it to the French paradox, a term coined when reports in the early 1990s suggested the French have lower rates of heart disease because they drink wine.

Others credit the Westernization of diets and culture, with younger generations opting for other alcoholic drinks besides the traditional beer, whiskey and sake, a rice-based wine.

``We’ve been telling them for 10 years to drink wine, and it’s finally starting to become part of the cultural fabric, part of their daily life,″ said Steve Sarle, international sales director for Sutter Home.

Most of the growth has been among wines selling for $8 to $13 a bottle in the United States. About half the California demand is for red wine, 40 percent for white and 10 percent blush, according to Kenichi Hori, who runs the Wine Institute’s Tokyo office.

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