Sake Way – Sake People Helping Sake People
I remember the evening very well. It was one of the most surreal times in my life, and was the perfect example of the phrase, “Every storm cloud has a silver lining.” Except for this storm cloud was huge, one of the largest mankind has ever seen, and it happened roughly 18 hours before meeting Kazuhiro Shiokawa in Niigata City.
I was to have dinner with Kazuhiro on this night to taste his amazing line of sakes, and meet a person that a friend of mine (who knows sake very well) refers to him as one of the best sake makers in Japan. Of course we were excited, but between that excitement and that meal, Japan was struck by one of its largest and most violent earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis in the history of that nation. You know the rest. You know the pain and suffering. You know the devastation. And you know how Japan dropped to its knees for a very confusing and hurtful period of time. What you may not know is that during the aftermath people didn’t exactly know how to go on with a sense of normalcy, because there was none.
I asked my friend if we should cancel the dinner - for good reason. But he said no. Was this his call or Shiokawa’s call? Regardless, I felt really weird about going to a small little izakaya in Niigata City with a nation in mourning to drink sake and presumably have a good time. Gulp! It was really trippy! (I would later come to realize that of every appointment, dinner, brewery visit etc, not one person canceled, and in fact for the next two weeks they called me a “hero” for not flying home to escape the “toxic cloud” from Fukushima like most of all the tourists and expatriates did.) These people wanted life to carry on. They wanted to keep things moving forward to take their mind off what was behind them. And I was very happy to be a part of it, a very very small little part of it. (I would later come to know that my little part played a very big role for one of these people.)
So there we were. Sitting around a small tatami table with several wonderfully prepared dishes and several bottles of sake. It was difficult, but we managed to create a vacuum that was void of talk of the tragedy that unfolded around us. The owner of the izakaya turned off the small TV set that was showing horrible images of destruction and despair, as well as the multiple alerts of the thousands of aftershocks that rocked the country. Off. It was off. And we began a somber slog that started out uncomfortably, but then with the warmth of the sake and the warmth of the company became a glowing affair that will remain with us always.
I do remember laughing that night. I also remember drinking more than I usually do, and looking back I think this was a product of the incredible tension that was Japan on that day and night. We released. And yes we told stories and laughed about better days. Once such chuckle came when I tasted a sake that the brewer had made, and declared it, “amazing!” I was blown away by the balance, the flavor, the feeling and the overall impression of the sake that just floated my boat! As mentioned before I was a little tipsy and I said the following, “This sake is so good, and I am so sick of the rules and regulations with importing sake that I want to do something crazy. I want you to send this sake to me directly through the mail and be damned with the ‘man.’ I want to go cowboy on this sake and fly it in under the radar, and sell it to my customers so they can taste great sake and we can honor this great night.”
And voila “Cowboy Yamahai” was conceived. We never did fly it in under the radar, because it cost too much to mail and we would have to charge too much to cover the costs. Bummer! But we worked out a way where Shiokawa-san could export this special sake to the US, something he said at the time he was very nervous about doing. What’s funny in looking back at that evening when I said that his sake was so good that I was prepared to break the law to get it to the people, he looked puzzled and yet intrigued. He asked me why I wanted to do that, and I said that I believed in his sake so much that I would take that chance. I think that resonated with him.
Fast forward to last month when Kazuhiro came to San Francisco to help with a project with some friends. He made a point of really trying to get on my busy calendar. He said that he’d like to stop by the store, but he really wanted to take me out to dinner. He had something to tell me. (I did not know that he had something to share with me, and when he was in town I was incredibly busy, so we almost didn’t get a chance to meet up.) As fate would have it an opportunity arose and we did have a chance to have dinner together with some friends. I suggested the Brazilian steak house in Hayes Valley where I have brought the now famous “Cowboy Yamahai” numerous times.
Shiokawa’s English is not great, and my Japanese continues to be not good, so he arranged for a friend who could translate the message that he wanted to impart upon me during dinner. It was a nice meal, but I could see that Shiokawa was processing something, as if he was trying to formulate an idea. And finally he was ready to speak to me in a way that he wanted to know that he was really going to tell me something filled with sincerity.
And so it began. He mentioned that fateful night many years ago. He mentioned the national pain and suffering that was all around us. He mentioned that he didn’t know if I was going to even show up for dinner. Then he touched on how much I enjoyed his company and especially his sake. He made a point of saying that my intrigue was infectious. I was slightly embarrassed as he said this, because he went further. He told us how he used to be afraid to export his sake. He relayed to us that he was envious of his friends who did export and did travel to foreign lands and said that he did not have the courage to do so until he met me.
Kazuhiro looked across the table at me and thanked me. He thanked me profusely. He basically said that I pulled him out of his shell and I was the motivator for him to not only export, but to brew in several countries other than Japan. He had a sake epiphany that night and the result was he went on a mission to get his sake out to anybody in the world who would have it. He was no longer afraid and he owed it all to me. His eyes welled a little when he said this and there was a huge frog in my very own throat.
Do you know how good it feels to shake hands with a person who has attributed a small little gesture on my behalf that morphed into a turning point for a very respected gentleman in the industry? It felt and continues to feel really good. I was really glowing on the inside, and I kept saying to myself, “See – sake people really do help sake people.” He used our night after a massive earthquake to shake up his own reality and he attributed it all to me and he just had to tell me that face to face. And the message was well received.
I am very proud to report that not only is the Cowboy Yamahai doing very well in the US, but he is also soon to release a second sake that is good for – you guessed it seafood! The “Fisherman” Sokujo will soon be available at the store and you will get to taste another example of what an amazing brewer Kazuhiro Shiokawa is and will continue to be here in the US, there in Asia, and soon the entire globe over!
Let’s Go Cowboy!