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Sake Spotlight - Tamiko Ishidate Gets Organic

"Sake Spotlight" is a unique section within the Newsletter that takes a closer look at specific sakes that may be purchased at True Sake. I approach different professionals within the industry to give their perspectives and insights to the how, what and why's for very special sakes. These insiders are importers, brewers, authors, sake sommeliers, or just enthusiasts who will take your knowledge base a little further. What I like about this segment is that often my review is quite different than that of the guest professional's adding to the point that there is no right or wrong when discussing your opinion about sake.

This month's "Spotlighter" is a friend and true professional within the sake industry. Tamiko Ishidate is not only a sake "seller" but she is a complete sake enthusiast, who pushes the envelope in her desire to learn all things sake. She is the Director of Sales (Western Division) for Joto Sake and has been a true friend to me and to team True Sake. We sell several selections from her portfolio and look to add more. She participated in the Blind Hot Sake Tasting and if you read below in the "Sake Challenge" section you will discover that she participated in this month's "Sake Challenge" using the very brew that you are about to read about. Coincidence or good timing? If Tamiko is involved, it's always good timing! Take it away Tamiko.

Chikurin Organic Karoyaka Junmai Ginjo
By Tamiko W. Ishidate

There has been much talk and hype about organic, sustainable, biodynamic etc. in the all industries surrounding food & beverage over the past years. In the world of sake, the hype seems superfluous as the sake industry is inherently sustainable and pure - even today. Nevertheless, a number of sake breweries introduced organic sake, all made from USDA-certified organic rice that's grown in the U.S., and in some cases flown to Japan for brewing. (See July 2010 issue) When I heard the news that Marumoto Brewery received a global organic certification (including USDA) for their sake that's "estate grown and estate bottled", I have pondered over the meaning of such an accomplishment. What does it mean, and how significant is it?

The sake that is now globally certified organic is Chikurin Organic "Karoyaka" Junmai Ginjo. The sake is pretty: with notes of champagne, cherry, "fresh" glue, lemon verbena and pine. The word "Karoyaka" means "lightness", yet the sake is no light, fluffy and superficial brew - acidity is assertive and a bit on the wild side. The sake takes itself to the Olympic level when it's paired with food. (See Sake Challenge below)

A sip of this sake takes me back to the gently terraced rice paddies in front of Marumoto Brewery in the beautiful countryside of Okayama prefecture. Passion was evident when Mr. Marumoto, 7th generation president, talked about his rice, the renowned Yamadanishiki. It was a crisp early February, and the rice paddy was bare and brown, with a few crows busily pecking on whatever little goodies that may live in the soil. Funny, I thought, when I looked to the rice paddy next to his, which belongs to his neighbor - there were no crows. Mr. Marumoto said with a smile: "Even crows know what's tasty."

In order to get the Japanese government's nod to be certified organic, one is not allowed to use pesticide or herbicide. Mr. Marumoto explained about the wind-panes that were elected at the four corners of his precious paddy. "These panes help us see the direction of the wind. When my neighbor is spraying his rice paddy, we have our staff stand at the two corners, making sure that wind doesn't carry the pesticide into our paddy." What happens when the wind is indeed to his direction? "Well, we ask our neighbor to kindly postpone the spraying until the wind changes." Wow. It takes some communal corporation to keep up an organic rice paddy.

The biggest challenge to maintaining an organic rice paddy is in the battle with weeds. Weeding is pure manual labor, and, during the dry paddy season, Mr. Marumoto hires a person to weed for a total of 100 days. He even told me how much he pays this person: 10,000 yen (approximately $120 USD) per day. That's $12,000 on top of his cost for the main ingredient of his organic sake, practically doubling his cost of ingredient.

Fully organic rice growing is in some way a natural extension of how Mr. Marumoto has been cultivating since he started over a decade ago. He has been growing rice with maximum exposure to sun and air, and with little human intervention and help. Fertilization has been minimum, and increasingly sparse. The harsher and natural condition inherently makes the rice stronger and healthier, bringing out the best of the gene. A typical rice paddy in Hyogo starts off with seedlings of about 5 to 8 rice stalks per planting. This by the harvest time will result in 36 stalks of rice. Mr. Marumoto, on the other hand, plants only 2 to 3 seedlings per planting, which, surprisingly, results in about 24 stalks of rice at harvest. Partly as a result of this practice, his rice grows in a greater spread than the typical Yamadanishiki rice from Hyogo, and with the roots equally spreading underground, giving structure and support. Hyogo Yamadanishiki rice, on the other hand, tends to grow taller and slimmer, with roots growing in proportion - skinny and down, making them prone to falling. Nitrogen fertilizer is typically used to help alleviate this problem. Mr. Marumoto over the course of time stopped adding nitrogen to his soil all together - his rice is naturally healthy and well rooted.

Mr. Marumoto's approach to growing rice cost him plenty. The yield is naturally less: one "tan" (base unit of rice paddy size) yields about 6 "hyo" (360kg), while a typical Hyogo Yamadanishiki rice paddy yields 8.5 "hyo" (510kg). The quality of rice, however, makes up for it somewhat. The protein content is 6.1% (as opposed to 6.5% average for Yamadanishiki). His rice is less prone to cracking during polishing. For 50% Seimaibuai (polish rate) rice, Mr. Marumoto's breakage rate is 2% less than industry average for Yamadanishiki. This translates to 3% in seimaibuai, as the milling rate is measured by weight of the rice.

"Terroir, that mystical melding of light, water, soil and human touch, is critical to creating world-class wines", reads a back label of a popular Sonoma wine. As I sip Chikurin Organic Karoyaka Junmai Ginjo, I close my eyes and trace the subtle ricey sweetness and "genki (fine, healthy, jumpy)" acidity back to the rice paddy. I imagine how happy and "genki" the rice must feel: plenty of sunshine and air during the day; with cool, restful night; roots spread wide and deep, taking in all the natural goodness of the yummy soil. As the sake pleasantly travels down my throat, leaving a hint of champagne and lemon verbena lingering on my back palate, I ask myself: would I buy this sake because it's organic?

Thank you Tamiko - well done! The sake will be available at True Sake for $55 (720ml).
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