Jamie Paquin pulls out the cork from a chilled bottle of 2008 Closson Chase Beamsville Bench Chardonnay and pours some of the Ontario-produced wine into two glasses on the small, wood-topped counter of his Tokyo store.
“There is some of that lemon character you’d expect from a cool climate,” he says after swallowing a mouthful of the golden-hued liquid from the Niagara Peninsula.
“I opened it last night, but I like it more today. I wish I had a lobster.”
Paquin, 42, might be without a crustacean, but the shelves of his narrow shop, Heavenly Vines, in the upmarket area of Ebisu, are lined with bottles of premium and award-winning Canadian wine.
Introductory brochures to Canadian wine in Japanese sit stacked on the counter, images of vineyards in Canada and a map of the wine-growing appellations of Niagara hang on the walls.
Since opening his store three years ago, the Brockville, Ont., native has been working to raise the profile of Canadian wine in Japan, where wine accounts for only 3.5 per cent of all alcohol consumed. (Ten countries, including the likes of France, Chile and Italy, supply 98 per cent of the country’s imported wine.)
It’s been a swift transition from wine layman to purveyor. It was only five years ago that Paquin’s interest in wine was piqued over a bottle of Spanish tempranillo with friends. His curiosity expanded to his homeland.
“When I started looking at what was going on in Canada, the industry had reached this level where it had started taking top awards in all kinds of categories,” he says.
“I started looking around Tokyo for interesting [Canadian] wines but could find little beyond the staple ice wine.”
He saw a business opportunity. “I felt really strongly that we needed a store because, as Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator rightly said, we’re the least-known great wine zone of the world. So this provides us an environment where, if we do get people in the door, we have their undivided attention and we can tell our story,” he says.
Heavenly Vines’s shelves are furnished with the bottles of about 35 producers, largely from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and Ontario’s Niagara and Prince Edward County wine-producing regions, and range in price from $23 to $175.
The intimate nature of the store reflects Paquin’s approach to developing the premium Canadian wine market in Japan. He says he is trying to expand the business incrementally through social media, tastings, presentations to restaurants and word of mouth, all in a country renowned for its record number of Michelin stars and deep-rooted appreciation for cuisine. And according to a 2014 U.S. government report on Japan’s wine market, sales of high-end wines are on the rise.
“People pore over the nuances of this sake comes from here and it uses this rice and this water, and people drive across the country for a different type of noodle,” Paquin says. “That’s why I believe this [wine] is a perfect fit.”
Paquin, who originally came to Tokyo in 2006 as a York University doctoral student on a scholarship (he still lectures part-time) and ended up marrying a local woman, Nozomi Mihara, says much of his job involves educating people about the range of Canadian wine available beyond ice wine.
Junko Kanayama is a frequent visitor to Heavenly Vines.
“I’m interested in Canadian wine,” she says after taking a sip of the Closson Chase chardonnay.
“It’s very pure and clean and has a Burgundy feel.”
Kanayama is typical of the wine-aficionado clientele looking for reasonably priced, quality wine from somewhere different.
Acclaimed pinot noir and chardonnay winemaker Norman Hardie has been selling his Prince Edward County wines through Heavenly Vines since the shop opened.
“Japan is a huge market for Burgundy and, given that we make Burgundian-style wines, I thought we would have a chance,” he says.
Hardie says he is happy with sales in Japan and believes the market has plenty of potential. “We have been consistently doing around 100 cases a year since 2011,” he says.
“I thought the numbers might drop as Jamie was bringing in more and more estates. However, this has not proven so.”
Although Canada produces far less wine than major wine-producing countries, Paul Thoppil, former commercial minister at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, says Canadian wine exports to Japan have grown every year since 2009 and last year reached $1.2-million, for around 75,000 litres, making Japan the fifth-largest export market for Canadian wine by value.
“The potential lies in mining the demand among highly discerning consumers for a new and unique wine experience – something Canada can offer,” Thoppil says.
Draining the bottle of Ontario chardonnay, Paquin reflects on his path to Canadian wine ambassador. He says Canada has plenty to offer wine lovers. “What I’m aiming for is that we’re understood as premium wine at reasonable prices,” he says.
“We’re not going to out-compete Chile on price points, or Argentina. That’s not our niche.”