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Friday, April 8, 2011

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Safe haven: Lauren Shannon, owner of Kimono Wine Bar and Grill in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo, says that her bar became a gathering place for regulars whose nerves were shaken by the March 11 earthquake, allowing them to swap stories and information.

BY THE GLASS

Won't somebody think of the wine?


Many Tokyoites counted themselves lucky when the March 11 quake left their homes largely intact, except, perhaps, for the odd broken glass. But while the damage was of course far more grave in the northeast, this wine writer would like to spare a thought for those in the hospitality business, whose stock in trade is in fragile glass bottles and tableware. These are among the many thousands of Japanese businesses that face difficult months ahead.

When Kunio Naito, managing director of Cave de Relax in Shinbashi, Tokyo, initially heard the first reports of the damage to his stock, he feared the worst. "At my warehouse in Yokohama, my staff informed me that about 2,000 cases of wine were damaged," he tells me. "However, I checked the damage myself and found only fewer than 10 percent were broken."

Though many labels and boxes were damaged, he adds, 90 percent of his stock was thankfully left unharmed.

Lauren Shannon, owner of Kimono Wine Bar and Grill in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo, returned after the quake to a disheartening scene. "We lost almost all of our nice glassware," she says. "Some of the cheaper glassware survived, but almost all of the nice Riedel glassware was broken. I have, like, four wine glasses left, and we lost about half of our plates and (suffered) a lot of damage like that."

Though both Naito and Shannon took a financial hit, the plight of the earthquake victims up north put things in stark perspective, and they each quickly mobilized to support the relief effort. Naito liaised with wine producers to see whether they could donate part of the profits from wine sales to the Japan Sommelier Association's disaster support fund, which is raising money for the Japanese Red Cross.

"Many wineries from Italy and Spain have already participated in our donation," says Naito.

Shannon arranged for her bar to be used as a dropoff point for supplies for those in the northeast. "We're making the little approved hygiene packs, with four toothbrushes, two bars of soap, two washcloths, and specific things we're supposed to put in," she says.

Such efforts are all the more admirable considering that the months ahead look set to be rather tough, even in the capital and other areas outside of the disaster zone. The hospitality industry in particular has taken a battering.

"What is affecting businesses the most, and businesses are severely affected, is the power outages," says Carl Robinson, CEO of wine importer Jeroboam, who explains that though central Tokyo is not yet affected by the blackouts, those living in the outlying areas who might typically enjoy a meal out in central Tokyo are instead leaving work early to reach home before it gets dark.

"Restaurants in the city are pretty much empty. I mean, the Shangri-La Hotel is closed completely."

Many non-Japanese have also left the city, meaning that bars and restaurants that cater to an expat crowd are now extremely quiet.

"Business has been super-super-slow, but when people come, they're really happy that there's a place where they can come, and they've been sharing their stories," says Shannon, around half of whose usual clientele is foreign. "I just hope the industry can hang together, and we're going to have to ask vendors to be patient. I know everyone is going to have trouble paying bills at the end of this month.

"We're going to have to see what happens, but I'm really concerned for the hospitality business in general. I think it's going to be really hard on this community more than others."

Retail hasn't been affected as badly as hospitality. "Concerning the sales of wine after the earthquake, we do not see any changes in trend compared to the days before it happened," says Ai Kaketani, public relations officer for Seiyu GK.

Naito has found that after initially experiencing a period of slow sales, business has appeared to bounce back of late. Though his store had been deserted up until March 20, on the 21st he opened up the shop doors to find more than 50 customers waiting in line.

"I was moved a lot, and tears started forming in my eyes," he wrote on his shop's blog. Profits that week were over 100 percent of those recorded for the same period the previous year.

Though people might be buying wine to cheer themselves up at home, many wine-related events have been canceled. "We were expecting wine producers from France, (but they) canceled," says Robinson, who found himself having to appear as a stand-in speaker for several events at the last minute. "We've got consumer events planned for next month, which we're planning to go ahead with, and we expect consumer wine events will start from next month — although a lot of producers have obviously canceled."

Even if the situation at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is resolved swiftly and foreign business returns, Tokyo faces the threat of rolling blackouts throughout the summer. The issue is potentially difficult for those trying to store wines at optimal temperatures. Heat damage can push corks out and result in wine that tastes "cooked."

"If it is the typical (planned) three-hour blackout, I am not too concerned. I compare it to my refrigerator at home: Although I have meats, vegetables, milk etc. in there, I am not too worried, just as long as the door stays shut and the blackout is just for three hours," says Michael Khoo, president of Wine in Style, who is currently in discussions with his warehouse company, Terrada Warehouse, to find backup sources of energy to solve the problem. "My concern is with the possible longer blackouts," he says.

Despite the threat of blackouts and a reduced clientele, Shannon is keen to soldier on and keep her bar open. "Even if we have a blackout, we can actually use alternative lighting and still be open for people," she says. "I think right now everyone needs to tell their stories and be with other people. I think this has been hardest on people who are here alone or people who have small children, and so I think that a sense of community — which is easy to get over a bottle of wine — is a good thing."


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