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True Sake – The First Real Sake Summit

I sort of chuckle every time I hear about some importer or distributor having a “Sake Summit, because I tried to organize a real sake summit 13 years ago for all the players in the sake industry. It’s true! As I really started looking at the sake industry I noticed a lot of fragmented attempts by businesses essentially trying to do the same thing. And I noticed a lot of businesses in the industry doing the wrong things for the advancement of sake. This sort of alarmed me and thrust me into action.

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I had a different perspective on sake which was far different than most of the other players. As the first real dedicated retailer I was privy to the good parts of the sake segment and also the bad parts. My optics were innocent, but it was apparent that there were some really bad habits in the relatively young industry. And I could tell way back in 2002 that the fledgling sake industry needed help, but more importantly it needed unity! And that was sorely lacking. I was on the spear tip and I watched in shock as importers tried to sell sake by saying negative things about other importers sake. This was insane as it was basically doing the same as saying negative things about sake itself. I saw firsthand the effect that this had on the industry, and paired with the distributors who had very little clue on how to take care of sake I felt like I needed to sound the alarm bells to help sake!

This is not a joke! But I literally faxed every business that was in the business of sake to inquire if they would like to get together to talk about sake in the US and to share resources for making a better sake industry. Each fax had an invitation to come together to explore the many similar issues that faced each segment of the industry from the importers and distributors to the vendors and retailers and large restaurant groups to find a common ground to help make the sake industry smarter and more in tune. I was simply asking for unity and pointed out that high tides raise all ships. I wanted to impress upon each player that we were in it together as the sake industry and our “enemies” were not each other, but rather the beer, wine, and spirits segments. We were brothers and sisters and we needed to hold a family meeting.

Sake Summit February 2016

So a fax went out! This fax from that crazy guy at True Sake in San Francisco spelled out many of the common issues, misunderstandings and outright negatives that most businesses shared. For example one importer took it upon itself to try to educate the market by calling the sake categories known as Honjozo, Ginjo, and Daiginjo to Honjozo, Honjozo Ginjo, and Honjozo Daiginjo. Huh? Talk about mixed messages. What kind of signal did this send to the industry if we didn’t know and agree upon the proper terms for sake classification? Likewise many distributors didn’t store their sakes properly and sold sakes that were well past their prime. Sakes that were old and damaged from one distributor gave all of the sake market a bad name. We all had a duty to make a customer’s first sip of sake a good one!

Likewise the “fax” informed all the business entities that we needed to offer the end user more information on the back labels for educational purposes and that if we could use the same terminology and verbiage in unison that it would be easier for the customers to understand. We needed a unified language. If each player was saying and teaching something different then the industry would remain fragmented and this wasn’t good for anybody including and most importantly the customers, who literally had a less than zero understanding of this crazy Japanese beverage. At this time there were not a lot of sake education offerings in place and it was up to the importers, distributors and restaurant/retailers to educate the very naïve customer base. And their messages were mixed at best!

The ancient “fax” also shed light on the fact that in terms of the actual business of sake that we needed and active lobby group to protect the rights and interests of the sake industry. There was absolutely nothing in place and to make matters worse each importer went and did battle on their own with zero momentum and dealing with a government body that knew even less about sake than the customers who knew nothing. And it was this government body that was in charge of defining the sake industry and they simply knew nothing about sake. Therefore I proposed that we needed a lobby to act on behalf of the sake industry when it came to the government and its over-reaching hand.

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For example at this time they were considering taxing sakes with added alcohol as a “fortified” beverage that required a higher tax rate. I let it be known that the government itself had no clue about sake and that it was up to us – everybody- to inform the government so that they got sake right! Because they simply did not! Rather than each business doing it on their own, which was costly and potentially distracting and damaging. We needed each other and I asked them if they would consider attending a Sake Summit to work through these issues and many more. I laid it out very simply that we needed unity and this would benefit everybody in a business sense and would define a sake industry for the better of sake.

So what was their reply?

What is the sound on game shows when you say the wrong answer? Whon Whon Whon Whaaaaaaaaaaaa! The response was terrible. Not one Japanese owned sake concern replied. Three American run importing companies did reply and say that it was a good idea. In fact one company forwarded me their entire “play book” on each of the issues and said that they had been waiting for somebody to arrange this effort. They felt better that I was an independent “3rd party” who was not competing directly with them. Still I was a little embarrassed that not one Japanese company felt the need to reach out. And what is even funnier is that several of these Japanese directors are very good friends of mine today, and they – to a person – admit that they should have responded and participated. Would have, could have, should have!

So when I hear today about one of these importers hosting a “Sake Summit” it’s actually code for an event where they simply try to raise awareness for their product offerings with a little bit of education, and has nothing to do with the meaning of a real summit that has a big picture focus and implications.

Maybe the problem was that damn fax machine!

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