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Sad Passing – The Sake Industry Loses a Giant

Sad Passing – The Sake Industry Loses a Giant

I have an admission to make. When I first opened the store roughly twenty years ago, Niigata prefecture sake was considered the best sake and the best sake producing prefecture. Was this accurate? I could not say, but Niigata had done a good job marketing itself as the best and it sort of stuck internationally like the best wines come from Napa and Sonoma. Was it true? It didn’t matter because perception is everything in the booze business. 

So being the equal opportunity sake lover, educator, and promoter, I recoiled a little from this perception and made a greater effort to sell other prefecture’s sake (And full disclosure I had not yet been to Niigata at the time, and didn’t really know the true power and magic in Niigata sake, of which I am a very large fan today).

After a few years of sneakily encouraging the exploration of other prefecture’s sake, I heard about a guy who was starting a Niigata-only sake group. Oh great! The only other "purely dedicated to one prefecture" group was a biz out of Los Angeles called Maruto Sea Vegetables that only imported Yamagata prefecture sake (They actually were the first to import Juyondai). And there I was waiting until this guy called on me to sell his Niigata sake. 

Ataru at SAKE DAY 2019, San Francisco.

When I first met Ataru Kobayashi I thought he looked like a Japanese folk music singer, and he had these very round glasses that made him look very Japanese (can I say that these days?). He didn’t have to say a word before I fell for this guy because his smile was a deal-sealer! Ataru had one of those smiles that makes the world the good place it should be. And so my friendship and bro-affair started with this quiet, but confident, sensitive soul. I greatly enjoyed our dinners and time spent together, and he did change my mindset on Niigata sake, so I guess he was good at that!

Over the years, Niigata Sake Selections became one of the best-run portfolios in the sake industry with some very impressive and creative breweries. They did an amazing job at educating the sake world to the ways of Niigata-made sake. And quite frankly, they made it easy on retailers and restaurants by providing the necessary quality sake and intel to move the products. Then Ataru fell ill with cancer. 

At Onda Shuzo with Ataru Kobayashi, Nori Kobayashi from Hosoda Bros, Chris and his wife Laura (photo credit: Chris Cabrera) 

When you’re a little guy to begin with, the battle with cancer makes one even smaller. I remember meeting with him and he told me about his battle, how difficult it was, and what kept him going. A few years later, I had my bout with cancer and Ataru was the first to email me and tell me how to get in a mindset to win. He won that round with the dreaded C and told me with a big smile that he wasn’t supposed to drink sake anymore. 

A special dinner in Niigata with the Kobayashis, no relation.
(photo credit: Chris Cabrera) 

Ataru supported me as much as I supported his business and his brewers. He was a HUGE player for our annual SAKE DAY celebration. His attendance was almost always guaranteed, and I think he greatly enjoyed the event. He smiled a lot. He was the king of the sake kingdom in my eyes. And he worked so well with the guests of SAKE DAY. They loved him. How could you not? This little guy with a quiet voice, killer glasses, and a massive smile is very welcoming to people eager to learn sake. Even when he was tired (fighting illness), he attended and did his best. 

True Sake manager Mei at a special dinner with friends, hosted by Ataru in Tokyo.
(photo credit: Mei Ho) 

Sadly, Ataru passed away on June 13th, losing yet another battle with a vicious disease that he did not deserve. I am numb and feel hollow still, knowing that he will never again smile at me or entertain my SAKE DAY friends in that magical way. When I found out, I felt like I had to do something. I still feel like I need to do something. But I’m not so sure he would want me to do anything except to just do what I do. 

We created a hashtag called #toast2ataru so if you ever want to raise a glass of sake to this wonderful man-spirit, then please do. I might say it could be any sake, but I knew a guy who would say make it a glass of Niigata sake. 

I love and miss you dude. 

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