W. Blake Gray on Sake

Irrashaimase! Welcome to Sakography. (Rice-ography?)

We’re in the golden age of sake on this planet: sake has never been better than this. Technology advances as simple as refrigeration and as complex as regional rice breeding programs have taken sake to a higher level than ever before. And thanks to increased use of refrigerated shipping to the U.S., we now taste many of these great sakes the way they should be.

American drinkers are starting to realize this. But at the same time sake invades more and more wine lists at non-Asian restaurants here, the sake industry is facing a long-term crisis in Japan.

Sake now accounts for only about 6 percent of alcohol sales in Japan, down from more than 75 percent in the 1960s. Sake breweries are closing and consolidating and some large ones are already taking shortcuts like using powdered rice to make their bottom-of-the-line products. Because the work is difficult — much more time-consuming than winemaking — it’s hard to recruit new workers.

So the bottom line is: drink more sake now. I’m going to try to help.

In writing about sake, I’m going to try to follow Alder’s lead and tell you a little of the story behind each one, what it tastes like, what foods you might try it with, and where you can buy it. I’m also going to rate them on a 10 point scale, as he does. I’m used to using 4 stars, so I suspect that I might be a tough grader; please bear with me on this. To me, a sake that gets 7.0 is drinkable, 8.0 is good, 9.0 is excellent. If I give a sake a 10.0 it means I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better one. Upshot: if I give a sake 8.5, as I will with my first review here, that’s a compliment.

So who am I? Well, I’m not Alder, but then, who is? I’ve written about sake and Japanese food for a variety of publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine & Spirits and the in-flight magazines of Japan Airlines and United Airlines. I lived in Tokyo for most of the 1990s, hold a Japanese language certificate, and have taught classes in sake appreciation.

Alder and I met through our mutual love of great wine. I’m happy to be invited to do sake reviews for his site. I think the best sakes are every bit as delicious and thrilling as the best Pinot Noirs (another personal passion). Hopefully, gentle Vinography reader, I can win you to that view. Whaddya say? Let’s drink some sake.

NOTE: I strongly encourage readers in the Bay Area to visit the largest sake event of the year, Joy of Sake, on Thursday, Sept. 13. Alder blogged about it last week.

There’s simply no better chance all year to sample a whole bunch of sakes: more than 300 this year, along with food from 14 area restaurants. Tickets are $70, but when you consider what a meal at a decent sushi joint with one or two glasses of sake costs these days, that’s a bargain.

The event is popular and crowded, and the food tends to run out early, so get there soon after it opens at 6 p.m. for the best experience.

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Editor’s Note: Readers, please give a warm welcome to W. Blake Gray, who has graciously offered to add a bit more sake coverage to Vinography. I’ve shared many a glass with him, and have always been impressed with his palate for sake, not to mention his ability to articulate the subtle flavors found therein. Blake is also (gasp) a real live journalist, unlike yours truly, and makes his living from writing. Given that, I’m not sure how long I can convince him to stick around this fly-by-night outfit, but let’s enjoy it while we can! — Alder