John Gauntner is the Julia Child of sake. No single individual has had a greater impact on the awareness of sake among the world’s non-Japanese population than this engineer turned sake evangelist, who started writing about sake in the English language pretty much before anyone else on the planet. America’s gourmet revolution can easily be traced back to Child. America’s love affair with sake is still in its adolescence, but it’s a safe bet that if someone is evangelizing, or even just selling, fine sake in America, it’s John Gauntner’s fault.
When I was first introduced to high-quality sake in Japan 18 years ago and started searching for information on this mysteriously delicate beverage, the only resources available to me were Gauntner’s prolific and enthusiastic writings on the topic, both in his newspaper columns and through his pioneering e-mail newsletter and web site. Not only has he been writing about sake continuously since then, he has been teaching an in-depth, and usually sold-out, course to professionals and enthusiasts several times a year since 2002.
If not for the silver in his close-cropped brown hair and some crinkles around his eyes, Gauntner’s easy smile and casual stride, not to mention his boyish charm, would leave you guessing that he’s much younger than his 55 years. His immersion into the world of sake is total and has been for years, resulting in a frenetic schedule of competition judging, visits to breweries, writing, speaking engagements, teaching his class, and helping to run the sake export business in which he is a partner. Gauntner has kept up this pace for more than two decades, yet manages through it all to maintain a level of enthusiasm for sake that all but leaks out of his pores.
Gauntner was born in Cleveland, the son of a NASA engineer and a traditional Midwestern stay-at-home mom. Seeing his father go off to work every day on the Space Shuttle engines inspired Gaunter to tinker with whatever he could get his hands on as a kid.
“I loved playing with electronics,” says Gauntner, “and when I was in seventh grade my dad told me that if I loved it so much, I should think about becoming an electrical engineer, and that was it, I was done. I was happy that I didn’t have to think about the whole career thing ever again.”
When it came time to apply for college, Gauntner says he “didn’t ponder it” and just chose schools in Ohio that had good co-op engineering programs. He applied the first day possible, and set off the next year to Cincinnati University to become an electrical engineer.
In many respects, Gauntner’s path could easily have led him no farther than the borders of his state, as many Americans seem content to get an education, find a good job, and settle down not far from home. But during college something else stirred in Gauntner – a burgeoning appreciation for the complexity of the world, and a curiosity extending beyond America’s borders. By the time he graduated, he had his heart set on teaching English in Japan.
By his own account, the two years Gauntner spent in the JET: Japan Exchange and Teaching program were a worry-free blast, but while his time as a high-school English teacher satisfied his cultural curiosity, it didn’t point towards anything new from a career standpoint.
“I was about to just go back home, when a guy I knew asked me to join his company,” recalls Gauntner. “It was a half-Swiss, half-Japanese company that made plasma surface treatment equipment. I wasn’t particularly interested in plasma surface treatment, but it was a chance to stay in Japan and make a decent living, and I knew it was a chance I couldn’t pass up.”
During those three years, Gauntner’s love for Japan deepened, even as his love for engineering waned. On New Year’s day in 1989, however, he was at a colleague’s house to celebrate, and someone handed him the first cup of sake that would change the course of his life.
“I had tasted sake a few times during my stay in Japan,” says Gauntner, “and it was interesting enough for me to buy a book on it in Japanese, but to tell you the truth, up until that point I hadn’t even read it. It just sat on the shelf.”
But this sake was different.
“This older gentleman pulled out five big bottles and a basket of sake cups, and it was the first time I had tasted sake that was more than just ‘not bad,'” recalls Gauntner. “It was the first time I had the opportunity to compare one sake to another, and certainly the first time I had had truly premium sake. I was blown away. It had complexity and depth, and not just in flavor but in the culture behind it.”
This older colleague talked as the two drank, telling Gauntner stories about the producers, explaining how sake was made, and the many choices that go into its final form.
“I realized that this was just the tip of the iceberg,” says Gauntner. He was hooked.
The first thing he did was read the book sitting on his shelf, and then he began drinking as much sake as he could get his hands on.
“I started going to sake pubs and sitting at the counter and just asking as many questions as I could,” says Gauntner. He joined a tasting club to exercise his newfound passion, but never considered doing more than that.
After three years Gauntner quit his engineering job and hung around Tokyo for a while.
“I told myself, ‘I’ll just relax for a couple of months,'” recalls Gauntner, but really, he was dreading the inevitable return to the U.S. However, during his loafing about, he attended a picnic with a large group of friends and eventually a man he didn’t know came around with a bottle of cheap sake to pour for everyone.
This was the second cup of sake that would change Gauntner’s life. But he refused to drink it.
“‘What, you don’t like sake?’ this guy said,” and Gauntner replied, “‘No, I love it. Which is why I’m not drinking that.’ Then the guy said, ‘doesn’t it basically all just taste the same?’ and I said, ‘No, actually it doesn’t’ and so we started talking about it.”
By the end of that conversation, the man with the cheap sake, who happened to work at the Japan Times, suggested that Gauntner ought to write a piece about sake for the paper, and the sake evangelist was born.
“I wrote a piece, and they published it,” says Gauntner matter-of-factly. “Then they said I ought to write a regular column about sake, so I did. And then a publisher came along and asked me if I wanted to write a book about sake, so I did. And all of a sudden, I was writing about sake professionally. It all happened in about four months. The book came out about a year later.”
Gauntner rapidly found himself swimming in the deep end of the pool. There were literally no resources available on sake in English, so in addition to his tasting, and continued frequent visits to his favorite sake pubs, Gauntner devoted himself to learning how to read Japanese with an intensity that surprised even him.
“I realized that if I was going to write for a newspaper, I couldn’t make shit up, and I couldn’t repeat myself,’ Gauntner says with a chuckle. “I had to learn as much as I could. I had to study, I had to find new topics. And the more I dug, the more I learned, the more fascinated I became.”
A column in the newspaper and a book in English about a drink that most English speakers didn’t pay much. “They weren’t enough to pay the rent, I can tell you that,” says Gauntner. So he took a job at an engineering company based in Fremont, California, and lived in constant fear that they were going to call him back to headquarters at some point, and, lacking the means to stay, he would have to go.
But in 1997, Gauntner took stock of his life and decided to take a leap of faith.
“I was constantly haunted by this thought that if I went back home and took the safe route, that years later I would later see someone, another American guy, walking the path that I created, being the sake evangelist that I pioneered. I knew I couldn’t tolerate that, so I just made a decision. I told myself, no matter what happens, even if I end up in the gutter broke, I’m going to try this. At the time I was single and had no kids and owned no property, so I didn’t have that much to lose really, so I did it.”
It’s one thing to follow your passion, it’s quite another to do so in a place where you are a cultural and linguistic outsider. But Gauntner maintains that he wasn’t scared. “I generally don’t feel financial pressure. I’m also a guy who doesn’t normally take risks, but I thought, ‘what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?’ I’d go broke. I’ll go home and live with my parents. I’ll figure something out. I could be an electrical engineer again. I had something to fall back on.”
So, with a little bit of money saved up from his Engineering job to help pay the rent in Tokyo, Gauntner set out to become a self-anointed sake evangelist, and, surprisingly, a career materialized. He was hired by some brewers who wanted help promoting their sakes overseas. He wrote a speech here, an article there, and on occasion found an opportunity to offer someone paid advice about sake.
“I wasn’t extremely busy, but stuff kept trickling in. It was, how do I say…thin?,” smiles Gauntner. “I don’t like to think about what I was making, but I was doing lots of little things.”
Eventually Gauntner helped a friend start a business exporting sake to the U.S. but found himself depressed at the sales numbers.
“I realized that the importers and distributors we were selling to didn’t know a thing about sake,” says Gauntner. “If you’ve got this catalog of 10,000 wines and twenty sakes, and you don’t have the willingness, or if you’re afraid to sell it, you’re not even going to try. I realized my number one job had to be educating the trade.”
So, in 2002, Gauntner established the Sake Professional’s Course. It was not, it must be said, a runaway success.
“Year one, I had three people,” admits Gauntner.
But one of those pupils was a San Franciscan named Beau Timkin, who would, a year later, open the first dedicated sake store in the world outside of Japan and become a major evangelist himself. Gradually the trickle of students became a constant river of wine, food and hospitality professionals from around the globe. At last count more than 1500 people have become Certified Sake Professionals under Gauntner’s tutelage.
Gauntner recently completed his 43rd edition of this course, graduating 25 people into a very different world than when Gauntner was a guy wondering if he could make a living writing about sake. Fine sakes appear on the wine lists of the world’s greatest restaurants, from the French Laundry to The Fat Duck, and you’re likely to occasionally find a twenty-something sipping a sparkling nigori sake in a nightclub in New York instead of Champagne.
On the other hand, since Gauntner first arrived in Japan the number of sake breweries in Japan has declined from more than 2700 to somewhere close to 750.
“Until very recently I was comfortable saying that 95% of all sake breweries are family owned,” explains Gauntner, “and I think the cultural pressure or significance of a family owned business is big. In other words, if you’re the 14th generation and you take outside investment to keep the company going, which is a wise business decision, and you eventually sell the company, when you go to heaven you’ve got 15 pissed off dudes you’ve got to answer to. I think there’s a lot of pressure not to do that.”
Combine the lack of funds for innovation or even upkeep with the disappearance of the labor pool (traditionally fishermen and farmers who needed something to do during the winter sake brewing season) and younger generations that want to work cushy jobs in the city and party on the weekends with beer and spirits, and you’ve got a recipe for a major decline both in sake production as well as sake drinking by the Japanese public.
“The average age of master brewers is now something like 123,” jokes Gauntner. “It’s really more like late seventies, but the old apprenticeship models are in decline. Where you have new blood coming in, it’s great, and there’s lots of creativity, but in general, we’re pretty much in decline.”
Gauntner goes on to explain, however, that this is not the full story. While sake consumption and production as a whole has dropped in Japan, exports have doubled in the past 10 years. The lower quality grades of sake, which make up 75% of the country’s production, are in steep decline, but premium grades of sake are on the rise.
“The industry is coming back,” maintains Gauntner, “but the statistics don’t show that yet. We’re seeing a generational change in the brewing industry. We’re getting new marketing approaches, nice labeling, and brewers that are actually getting up and doing stuff. Brewers are actively trying to get involved in exports, and about three or four ministries of the government are getting involved. All that makes me feel like we’re going to be OK. But I don’t want to be overly positive. The industry still faces a lot of challenges.”
If the industry does recover and begin to grow again, it will almost certainly be on the basis of increased demand from outside Japan. And that demand, in large part, will always be thanks to John Gauntner. Wine magazines such as Wine Enthusiast and the Wine Spectator have begun to occasionally feature sake, and critical outlets such as The Wine Advocate have begun to rate sakes. But thirty years after he became the first person to regularly write about sake in English, John Gauntner remains the primary English-language voice singing the praises of his favorite beverage.
And for this, I and every other English speaking sake lover, owe him a great debt of thanks.