Competition performances make a name for “Oka the Osaka Sommelier”
And then you came back to Japan.
Right after I came back to Japan, I entered a sommelier competition sponsored by SOPEXA Japon. The competition tested wine knowledge and tasting abilities, and various skills from uncorking to decanting. I entered it twice. The first time was before I went to France. I took a two-day training course in French wine in Tokyo, then entered the contest with a superior of mine to test our abilities. Somehow both of us made it through the preliminary round.
Then I tried again when I got back from France. I made it into the top six, but Gilbert was displeased with me. He served as the lead judge at that time. He said, “How could this be, after everything I’ve taught you?” I didn’t manage to win the overall the third time, either. Eventually, starting in 1980 I entered the competition six times, earning 3rd place once, 2nd place three times, and top runner up the rest. But in those years in the 80’s word started getting around that there was this guy named Oka in Osaka.
In a sense, by never actually winning the overall championship, you may have been driven to keep improving. I think that hunger to win was sometimes a strong motivating force.
The keys to being a great sommelier.
When you returned to Japan, were you resolved to continue on the course of being a sommelier?
I was. It happened gradually. For a period of time I actually aimed for a restaurant management position, and I worked as a supervisor at the same time as being sommelier. But the company decided that it would be a better branding strategy for the hotel to sell me as “Oka the Sommelier.” And even though I was essentially doing the job as one part of a management position, I still felt the position of sommelier calling to me. In the end, I became singularly devoted to being a sommelier and resolved to stay on that course.
Now in your position supervising sommeliers, you are also responsible for educating. What kind of things do you believe are essential to study for those who hope to become sommeliers?
It is not all about wine. You have to have mastery of other alcoholic beverages, even water and coffee. And of course you have to know about food. And then, you have to offer service with flawless hospitality. Recently I have felt that it is a good start to show results in competitions, but after all, the most important thing is on-the-job experience. Competitions are a great opportunity for self-improvement.
Another thing is that now we have the convenience of the internet for obtaining knowledge. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips, so we tend to wrongly think that we know everything. Having not studied aged wines, for example, we might judge their taste using only biased information. This is not a job one can master in a day; you need to be tenacious and keep studying.
In our day, you could do just fine studying only French wines; now in Japan we’re thinking about Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the U.S., Canada, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand… how can you even remember all that (laughs)?
You have to really be impressed with the extent to which sommeliers now have to keep on the lookout for everything.
When I do a tasting, I treat it like drinking. Traditionally, you would observe the color, smell the aroma, hold it in your mouth, and then spit it out. But you don’t really know the wine by just doing that, and it’s boring. Letting it pass down your throat, and gently flow to your stomach, that way you can sense whether it’s pleasant, or if it’s harsh. Still, it’s difficult to do that with hundreds of wines, but if I do up to about 20, I can drink them and ascertain their taste.
For tasting, intuition and sense are more important than knowledge, correct? How does one best polish those skills?
Intuition and sensitivity are the most important things. Polishing them is simply a matter of training. For example, there are many categories of aroma. Even with plants, grass and flowers have different aromas, and trees are in yet another category. Even within citrus fruits, lemons and oranges have different aromas. Pears and peaches are different. And a European pear has a different taste and aroma than an Asian pear. Through training, you start to build a system for storing these kinds of things.
With that in place, when you doing a tasting, you will start to understand many things, like “This wine has an aroma of sweet strawberries, so what variety could that possibly be?” or, “Wines made from this variety usually produce a raspberry note, but the flavor is different. Is there some secret in how it was made?”
There are many theories about how to train for this. Are you doing anything unique in your training of the sommeliers working at Rihga Royal Hotel?
We are creating opportunities to train within the company. For example, we currently have five sommeliers, and one of their key roles is conducting wine education lectures for other employees. They cannot teach what they don’t know, so they are forced to keep studying. It also gives them a chance to improve their techniques for how they talk about wine.
If something is a bit difficult to express, they can identify it right then and there. It’s the same for a waiter, but when you are describing food, you tend to go straight to technical terms like, “This beef was prepared a la poelé.” The most important thing is to communicate.
Are certain types of people more cut out to be sommeliers?
It is alcohol, so a person that can drink a lot will probably advance quickly, but I know some people who can’t drink much and still have excellent intuition. And you have to be sociable. A surprising number of our candidates are wine nerds, but if you cannot communicate with the guests, you have no chance.
So are people who started out as waiters like you quicker to learn?
I think that is very important. Hotel sommeliers especially help provide service as part of a team of cooks and waiters. They have to have the ability to see the situation in a cohesive manner. That is why at our hotel you cannot suddenly start out as sommelier. You need experience as a waiter first. A hotel like this where you can learn a variety of things, including about cuisine, is an ideal environment for those hoping to become sommeliers.
What are your dreams for the future?
Service is a mood. Now matter how refined the space, or great the food or wine. What is most important is how the people serving you inspire you. I started at the Rihga Royal Hotel 44 years ago. One of the things I have always maintained is a little bit of pride. Now that I’ve come this far, I want to stand here until I can no longer stand at all.
(Interviewer: Osamu Saito, Writer: Tomoko Tanaka, Photographer: Kenichi Hisaoka)