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Friday, Feb. 11, 2011

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Bottle stop: The lavish dining room at La Tour d'Argent Tokyo. Below left: In addition to dispensing his hard-learned knowledge of wine professionally, sommelier Satoru Mori competes for international recognition.

BY THE GLASS

Asia's top sommelier sees glass half full


Satoru Mori is a sommelier with almost unlimited reserves of drive and passion. At the age of 33, he is not only the winner of 2009's Best Sommelier of Asia-Oceania Competition, but also more recently a semifinalist in the Best Sommelier of the World Competition 2010.

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I met up with Mori in the elegant bar of La Tour d'Argent Tokyo to talk about his ambition to triumph at the next global sommelier contest and the pleasures and the perks of his job here at what is arguably Tokyo's swankiest French restaurant.

We're sat on sumptuous velvet sofas overlooking the traditional gardens of Hotel New Otani's Akasaka branch, in which the restaurant is located. La Tour d'Argent, whose parent branch is based in Paris, has a reputation for excellence and recently took first place in the prestigious Zagat guide's list of Tokyo's Top 10 restaurants. "You get famous actresses; even the emperor has dined here," Mori confides. "Yes, I get nervous. We've also had the prime minister. But we serve them as normal."

It wasn't the lure of glamorous dining that set Mori on the path to becoming a sommelier but a TV program he watched back in his student days. "It featured a sommelier named Hiroshi Ishida, who was competing in world-class competitions.

I watched that by chance and thought, 'I want to become a sommelier,' " he says. "I was in my third year of university. I was 20; you can drink alcohol in Japan from the age of 20, but I had hardly drunk any at that time. However, I wanted to enter that world competition."

What followed was an intensive self-study course in wine that lead to Mori gaining the Wine Expert qualification just three months later. The certificate is the first step to becoming a sommelier but it typically takes about a year to acquire.

"I had a part-time job and I spent all the money I got from that on wine," says Mori. After tasting a wine, he'd make his own notes and compare them with the notes of a wine professional, a method he heartily recommends to others hoping to become a sommelier.

When he graduated, Mori worked at the New York Grill and Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo as a waiter, bartender and unofficial wine adviser before moving on to become sommelier (during which time he managed to get a fleeting cameo in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation"). Over that period, he continued to collect awards and gain experience that would later prove invaluable, not least the ability to speak fluent English, an essential prerequisite for competing at a global level.

All this is even more impressive considering the fact that Mori has used his own money to buy wines to taste and compare in preparation for the World Sommelier Competition.

"It's expensive: Other countries — France, Italy, Sweden, Germany — have trainers," he explains. "The trainer buys the wine and organizes blind tastings and the money comes from the sommelier association. But there isn't that system in Japan. Before the competition, my wife would give me blind tastings; I made comments and described the wines in English.

"Before the competition it isn't much fun: You have to concentrate. We bought many wines, around 80, and every day we trained with two or three bottles. If we'd drunk it all we'd have got sleepy and wouldn't have been able to study, so we used it in food. I don't have a very high tolerance for alcohol, so once I'm done tasting, I set it aside and then taste it again the next day. There's usually about half left, which I give to friends and so on."

Before the international competition, Mori flew out to France to work at La Tour d'Argent Paris and continue his studies.

"I woke up at 6 a.m. and studied for four hours until 10 a.m., and then I went in to work and served lunch until 3 p.m. Then I went back home and studied again till 6 p.m. and went back to the restaurant to serve dinner until 1 a.m. When I got home, I studied till 3 a.m."

Mori slept just three hours a day, and days off were spent either studying for 15 hours or visiting wine regions.

The competition, held by L'Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) in a different country each time (last year's was in Chile in May), comprises of a blind tasting, a written exam and a service exam.

"There was a written exam about wine making, viticulture and wine-producing regions such as Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Morocco and Algeria: countries that don't produce much wine."

The blind tasting is also extremely tricky. Mori says that one of the hardest grape varieties to pinpoint in such tests is Cabernet Sauvignon.

"Napa Valley has a Napa Valley character, and a French Bordeaux has a Bordeaux character, so we have to know about it," he explains. "They're really similar. But the weather is different. The vinification is the same, though, so they do resemble each other."

Reeling from jet lag after a 30 hour flight, Mori feels he wasn't at his best, though arguably making it to the last 15 out of a total of 51 contestants was no mean feat. He's planning on participating in the next event in 2013 and continues to study for the challenge.

"My next goal is to become the best sommelier in the world. I'm studying and drinking a lot."

Meanwhile, he continues to work at La Tour d'Argent Tokyo. At this top venue for excellent French haute cuisine, the star item on the menu is succulent duck specially flown in weekly from Paris. There's a choice of four sauces to go with it, but if you're selecting a wine, you'll be needing Mori's help: The exclusively French wine list offers a staggering range of over 800 different bottles.

In Japan, interestingly, the job of navigating this galaxy of options does not necessarily fall to the man.

"In places like America or Europe, in general, about 99 percent of the time it's the guy. In Japan it's different," says Mori. "Japanese women have a big interest in wine. . . . I hand the wine list to the man but the woman takes it and chooses the wine. In that case, I let the woman taste the wine."

The experience of working in Paris gave Mori ample opportunity to observe differences between Eastern and Western diners.

"The customers at our Tokyo branch like Bordeaux and Burgundy; 90 percent Bordeaux and Burgundy. But Parisian customers know that those wines are expensive, so they choose Loire, Languedoc Roussillon, Sud-Ouest and Alsace," he says. "Co^tes du Rho^ne and Loire wine are really good value for money, but Japanese customers don't want to order it."

As well as having a competitive streak, Mori has a nurturing side and is keen to share his wine knowledge with people. "There are many things that I want to do," he says. "Originally I wanted to become a high school teacher, so I'm really interested in teaching about wine to young people."

He also hopes his success story will inspire others, just as he was by Ishida back in his student days. "Recently I was featured on NHK on a TV program about sommeliers," he says. "I hope that people will see that and become inspired to become a sommelier. I also hope that the number of people who want to drink wine increases."


Wine tastings at La Tour d'Argent

Think you've developed a good nose for sniffing out the subtle differences of various terroirs? Then you might enjoy the challenge of Satoru Mori's wine master class. The Plaisir Course (¥110,000/5 classes) at La Tour d'Argent Tokyo comprises blind tastings accompanied by in-depth discussions about regions, vintages and vineyards. Aimed at those who have already amassed a fair amount of wine lore, this five-session course is not for beginners.

Those who aren't quite ready to take on the master class can try out the Standard Course Tour de France (¥105,000/10 classes) with Tour d'Argent sommeliers Nobuhide Tani and Mathieu Pouchan. This class is a wine lovers' guide to the different regions of France and, on the 10th and final session, students can enjoy a slap-up full-course French meal at the restaurant.

Finally, there's the Grade Up course (¥63,000/half semester, ¥126,000/full semester), taught by Kouhei Yuasa for intermediate wine lovers who want to get better acquainted with the great and grand vineyards of France.

All lessons are conducted in Japanese, but a printed English version of lectures can be provided on request and questions in English can be answered on the day. After each lesson, participants can enjoy dinner for a discount at the restaurant.

Courses begin in May and bookings open on Feb. 16. For more information, call (03) 3265-2258.




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