“This tastes like Burgundy . . . . ” Daniel Deny’s eyes open wide and he smiles, nodding in approval. Deny, owner of Primitivo Wine Bistro on L.A.’s hip Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice, is tasting Tentaka (Silent Stream), the top-of-the-line saké in the portfolio of Bay Area importer Vine Connections. “It tastes like a really dry white Burgundy,” Deny repeats, obviously impressed.
Deny knows wine. He was born in Metz, in the Lorraine region of France, and his parents were restaurateurs (think quiche Lorraine). Twenty years ago he came to the States and landed in Los Angeles, eventually becoming a wine salesman. “A few years ago I looked around and I saw that wine bars were really happening, “Deny says. “There were great wine bars in New York and in San Francisco, but not in L.A., so I opened Primitivo.”
The place is a certified hit with neighborhood locals and trend-setting celebs, who rub shoulders in the intimate space nightly over creative tapas-style food from Chef Adam Bussel. The other draw is Primitivo’s adventuresome 300-plus-label wine list, and with 85 wines sold by the glass, Deny has to be on his toes when buying wine.
Buying – and Understanding What You’re Buying
But today Deny is up against a challenge: selecting some sakés from the Vine Connections portfolio (distributed by Epic Wines) for Primitivo’s growing list. Like many Westerners, Deny is curious but a little confused about saké. “Is this one cloudy because it’s unfiltered?” he asks, holding his glass up to the light. Fortunately, Markus Pentkowski is on hand to make things clearer for Deny, as well as for your humble correspondent.
Pentkowski, a sales rep for Epic, knows the ins and outs of saké as well as anyone this side of Yokohama harbor. Moving to Japan to visit a girlfriend, he wound up staying for nine years. Not speaking a word of Japanese at first, he got a job as a gofer in a wine shop. Soon he was learning the language and eventually became a saké salesman – a remarkable achievement in a society that values insider relationships.
Now in charge of a sizeable chunk of Epic’s So. California territory, Pentkowski reps the saké portfolio. “I like the challenge of trying to educate foreigners about saké,” Pentkowski remarks. (His long experience as an expat in Japan is still showing; when he says “foreigners,” I know he means “Americans.”) “But there are a lot of sophisticated consumers out there,” he adds quickly, “so you’ve got to know what you’re talking about.”
As with wine, when it comes to saké, more knowledge is better. As he guides us through the flight of top sakés, Pentkowski helps dispel some popular misconceptions about this ancient rice-based beverage. First of all, it’s not rice wine; it’s actually brewed, like a beer. Second, premium sakés should be served cold, not hot. “There are only two reasons to serve saké warm,” Pentkowski explains; “one is to disguise the taste of an inferior product, the other is to warm you up when it’s snowing.” In California, you can bet it’s the former.
“In Japan, saké is usually served in a small ceramic cup called an ochoko,” Pentkowski continues, “but for high quality sakés like ours the ochoko is too small. You only wind up tasting the saké on the tip of your tongue.” Daniel Deny says that sakés at Primitivo are usually served in an aperitif-style glass, since many restaurant patrons take their saké as a pre-dinner drink. “I prefer using a white wine glass,” Pentkowski suggests, “especially if saké is being served with a meal.”
Vine Connections addresses one problem by translating the names of individual sakés in their portfolio to English equivalents. Sometimes the translations are rather loose, but all are poetic: Divine Droplets, Dreamy Clouds, Hawk in the Heavens. These names make an effective “handle” for consumers to reach for when considering a saké purchase.
The range of saké types is confusing to most Americans, but Vine Connections has helped solve that problem, too, by adding informative back labels to all the sakés in their portfolio. The labels include short descriptions of the product as well as information on the grade of sake, the type of rice used and the brewery. Vine Connections co-owner Ed Lehrman and his partner, Nick Ramkowsky, came up with the idea for the informative back labels, written in conjunction with colleagues in Japan. “We asked ourselves what a typical ‘wine guy’ would like to know about a wine he was drinking,” Lehrman explains, “and we went from there.”
The Vine Connections website (at vineconnections.com) provides a virtual course in Sakéology 101. The grades of saké are determined by the amount of rice hull that’s milled away before the saké is made. More milling is better, meaning that the best sakés, called junmai daiginjo, are made from only the tiny interior portion of the rice grain, with up to 65% of the grain being polished away. The type of rice is also of paramount importance, and the place where it’s grown is equally important, giving the finest sakés a sense of terroir as defined as that of any Burgundy.
Vine Connections has the largest portfolio of high quality sakés imported to the U.S. There are currently 23 individual products in the line-up, with some available in both 750 and 375 milliliter bottles. Most are of at least junmai ginjo grade (at least 40% of the rice polished away), or better. They include the beautifully long Nambu Bijin (Ancient Pillars), a junmai daiginjo with an intense citrusy finish, and the elegant, aromatic Ginga Shizuku (Divine Droplets), with cocoa and racy tropical fruit tones. The affordable Tozai (Well of Wisdom) is a honjozo grade (at least 30% of the rice polished away) that’s soft and alluring; it would make a great substitute for Pinot Grigio. The ne plus ultra of sakés may well be the astounding Tentaka (Silent Stream) which retails for around $140 a bottle and has the elegance and poise of a Puligny-Montrachet.
“There’s a big buzz about saké right now,” Pentkowski says. “Two years ago it was Spanish wines; now it’s saké. You have to jump on it. Epic is definitely ahead of the curve with the Vine Connections portfolio in its book. I just got three new placements today.” As I leave the restaurant, Daniel Deny is still swirling and studying his glass of junmai daiginjo. Make that four placements.
Photo A: Daniel Deny, proprietor of Primitivo Wine Bistro, gets some sake advice from Epic Wines sales rep Markus Pentkowski.
Photo B: “Wings”
Photo C: “Mountain Crossing”
Photo D: Silent Stream