In Search Of Organic Saké

I have come to the very un-New York conclusion that I hate brunch.

My body is a sensitive machine powered by a complex engine requiring specific fuel to run at peak performance (no ethanol jokes, please). Things like fruit, yogurt, coffee, the occasional bottle of Champagne… What it does NOT crave are deep-fried minor parts of minor animals, trundled about on carts and thrust in your face like so many Canal street handbags. Ah, the obligatory New York dim sum experience – just one of many things (cross-country skiing comes to mind) for which the appeal escapes only me.

Despite all that, last Sunday at the unholy hour of 11am, I marched over to Oriental Garden on Elizabeth St, dodging parasols and little red plastic bags at every turn. Why? Because Michael Simkin told me to.

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Michael J. Simkin is one of the top minds in saké in New York. More than one A-list NY sommelier credits him with their saké education. I met him a few years back and have been enthralled ever since (largely due to his absolutely frenetic energy… also his potty mouth). There is little I enjoy more than a night out with MJS as he whisks me about the city, ducking into underground dumpling holes in Chinatown, overcrowded Korea-town night clubs and secret Tudor City kateidyori bars…

So when the chance came up to join him and his wacky friends for brunch I could hardly decline. Joining us at the table was a graphic designer, a marketing guru, a woman best described as half corporate spy/half human search engine and a fervent Big Head Todd and the Monsters Fan.

Never one to miss a chance at self-promotion, I steered conversation to my brand-new blog. Perhaps organic saké might make a tasty topic?, I ventured, walking my chop sticks through an assortment of greasy inscrutables. Michael frowned. “Well, to be honest, I don’t really think there are too many organic sakés floating around the U.S. yet… it’s a bit complicated.”

Michael was right. Straining my brain, I could only come up with one known organic producer, the wonderful Yuki No Bosha (Cabin In The Snow) brewery that my friend Russell represented for one hot minute several years ago. (imported by Joto Saké, newly distributed through Southern).

Yuki No Bosha is located in the prestigious northern Akita prefecture and is one of my all-time favorite saké producers. Their “basic” junmai daiginjo sets the high-water mark by which I measure all competitors. The brewery holds the added distinction of being (to my knowledge) the only USDA-approved organic saké of Japanese origin.

A google search later yielded Sak̩One, an Oregon-based company that offers a selection of sak̩s made from certified organic Sacramento valley rice. Sak̩One is one of only 5 domestic sak̩ breweriesРall owned or, in this case, advised by, successful Japanese companies transplanted onto American soil.

But why so few? How in the wide world of saké, and in such a health-conscious cultural time, could there be only two organic sakés? Two quick phone calls, one to Henry Sidel, president of Joto Saké, and one to Ami Nakanishi of the NY Mutual Trading Co., helped to clarify.

According to both, the largest obstacle is that JAS (Japanese Agricultural Standards) rulings are not automatically recognized by the USDA, requiring any brewery recognized as organic by JAS to undergo re-certification under an American board and by American standards. Contrast this to France wherein whatever is considered organic in France can be exported to the U.S. and marketed as organic, no questions asked.

If there’s one thing my eight years in the wine industry has taught me is that the line dividing an organic producer from a CERTIFIED organic producer is drawn in red tape. By and large, certification is an invasive, laborious, and costly process with dubious (marketing) benefit at best. Most Japanese breweries are small, family-run affairs without the surplus cash to throw around in an attempt to legitimize a product which, as a whole, is highly natural to begin with.

There is an illuminating article in John Gauntner’s Saké World that explains the Japanese certification process in great detail. I will attempt to summarize it here. In order to be certified organic, a saké must be comprised of at least 95% JAS-certified organic rice (yukimai). For the rice to achieve certification, the paddies in question can not have come into contact with agricultural chemicals in three years. The rub is that the very topography of the land combined with the irrigation practices of the rice farmers makes this incredibly difficult to control. Often, one farmer’s paddy is flood-irrigated with the run-off from another paddy, leading Ami Nakanishi to joke that the only way to be certain of a rice field’s organic standing is if it is grown at the top of a mountain.

But stepping back from all this, the biggest question of all is perhaps: Is there even a point to this line of inquiry?? If by ‘organic’ we mean ‘natural,’ then talking about organic saké is like talking about round circles. In the world of wine, there are giant commercial wineries that rape and pillage their soils, slathering on agro-chemicals like Crisco on a watermelon. They are, it can be argued, declining in number and favor but still, they’re out there. In Japan, this has never been an issue. They don’t need organics and biodynamics to reawaken their soils after the Dupontific ‘50s. Their limited agricultural landscape has been, and remains, largely untouched by the greedy hand of mass-production.

In fact, saké contains ZERO sulphites and far fewer hangover-causing congeners than is found in wine! Of course, consume enough of anything and it will mess with you (take my word for it, my father once nearly overdosed on Echinacea tea!), but there is a lot more room for Responsible Hedonism with this particular libation than with many of its counterparts.

In the end, with all the facts examined and stones overturned, I propose that those of us truly concerned with what we put in our bodies (while unwilling to put down the bottle) consider the following permanent exchange: that complete Riedel glassware array you received last birthday for a nice set of porcelain ochoko.

It’ll certainly fit a lot better into my little slice of New York real estate.

Links from the article:

www.sakeone.com
www.yukinobousha.jp
www.nymtc.com
www.jotosake.com
www.mjssakeselections.com


Comments

5 responses to “In Search Of Organic Saké”

  1. Diane White Avatar
    Diane White

    Another masterpiece. How I love her writing
    We love you
    Mom

  2. david burke Avatar
    david burke

    correctamundo!! yuki no bosha!! yummy not icky. brought to us by joto saki and the esteemable henry sidel. another of the real good guys out there. any sommelier worth their salt would do well to know henry and his juice

  3. Jerry Izzo Avatar
    Jerry Izzo

    Biodynamic, sustainable, organic. It seems in an ever-changing world, people’s concern with near useless marketing ploys remains constant. Let us be very wary of putting our trust in an organization as historically and consistently corrupt as the USDA (think Upton Sinclair, presently). Like the EPA (run by politicians who also conveniently own the very companies the organization oversees)and PETA (with their persistently counter-productive tactics), the USDA remains impotent in achieving any semblence of credibility that should impact a consumer’s buying strategy. Shopping for the term “certified organic” is akin to self-congratulatory masturbation. It remains another way for people in need of dispelling guilt to make mental and emotional compensations in a social milieu heading steadily into an “organic is trendy” world. Let us be true to wine, folks. The next perfect wine moment is my only concern. I find that paying too close attention to any and all certifications, awards and to the ridiculous objectification of wine ratings is far too tedious a pursuit that only stands to detract from the overall esoteric pleasure that only a wine and the people with which it is shared can deliver. It is why I am here.

    … in vino veritas

    Jerry Izzo
    Wine Consultant
    Chicago, IL

  4. Adam Morganstern Avatar
    Adam Morganstern

    Wow Jerry, quite the speech there. For the record, this magazine doesn’t exist to endorse, defend the USDA or crass marketing. We’re here to support winemakers who truly care about the product they make and are skilled enough to do so without resorting to the mess of chemicals and winery witchcraft that conventional wineries need.

    Yes, there is an “organic is trendy” movement, and hardly any of the winemakers I know are trying to cash in on it. In fact, the biggest problem for people looking for organic wine is that a number of winemakers do not point out that they are organic. They want to be known for their wines over their methods. But when questioned, they are glad to point their own reasons for being organic or biodynamic and speak quite intelligently on the subject. The commitment to being organic takes years more than a trend will last.

    One question for you… which is the bigger farce? Organic wineries with a USDA label, or the majority of conventional wineries with huge ad budgets that try to create an image of beautiful vineyards and “handmade wines” while they have workers covered head to toe in protective gear spraying chemicals over their grapes, packaged yeast to provide their flavors and every new machine Clark Smith can sell them?

  5. Jerry Izzo Avatar
    Jerry Izzo

    Adam:

    I believe my response may have been misconstrued. My issue is not with winemakers/wineries who are being ecologically responsible, rather it is with anyone who shops organic wines exclusively. As a wine professional, I am consistently surprised by the number of clients who put ridiculous restrictions on themselves when purchasing wine. Ethical motives notwithstanding (anyone interested in the converse to such claims should check out Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative of Ethics) it seems a shame to deny a wine simply on the grounds that it is not “certified organic”. I fear redundancy, yet feel compelled to repeat: my issue is NOT with responsible wineries, rather myopic consumers. If I had it my way, all wineries would be sustainable by law. This is the ONLY way to receive truly individual wines showing true terroir. However, that sort of idealism died out with puberty a few years back. Too many countries, too many producers to police properly. This sort of world will most likely never happen. That aside, again I stress that to shop wines only certified organic is a drastic disservice to ones palate. My loyalties lie with the wine.

    As a side note, I always appreciate a spirited discussion. They are most invigorating.

    Jerry Izzo
    Wine Consultant
    Chicago, IL

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