Sake, Wine, and the Theoretical Physicist Who Brings Them Together


Sugiyama Asuka, the sommelier with a PhD in theoretical physics, is a woman of action. Falling head over heels in love with both wine and Japan’s own sake, she spends her life with the globe as her stage, commuting between Tokyo and Paris every two weeks to pursue her passion to convey the appeal of wine to the Japanese public and the joy of sake to France. We asked Sugiyama what drives her philosophy of work.

Sugiyama Asuka

As a doctor of theoretical physics, a wine researcher, and a certified sake taster, Sugiyama Asuka is a woman of dynamism. While teaching math at a famous college prep school, this polymath oversees a training class for sommeliers at her wine school, Asuka L’ecole du Vin. She also produces the wine bar Goblin in Tokyo’s posh Nishi-Azabu district and has now opened her own sake and champagne-themed Japanese restaurant, Enyaa, in Paris. Her books include Wain no jugyō Furansu-hen (Wine Class: The French Wines Edition) and Oishii wain no erabikata (How to Select a Delicious Wine).

A Surprising Meeting of Math and Wine

INTERVIEWER  You are working constantly to proselytize wine in Japan and nihonshu in France as a sommelier and a kikizake-shi, a certified sake taster, even as you continue to teach mathematics at a college prep school. And at your sommelier school, some 90 percent of your students pass the official qualifying test.

SUGIYAMA ASUKA  Yes, that’s true, thanks to everyone’s great help and assistance! I’ve had a talent for teaching ever since I was little. Somehow, while I was pursuing my two great loves—math and physics on the one hand, and wine and sake on the other—I just wound up living this life. Recently I’ve also been managing a wine bar in Nishi-Azabu and a sake and champagne restaurant in Paris, as well as working as both a math and a wine instructor. And since I also have my own import/export business, I find myself flying back and forth between Tokyo and Paris every two weeks.

INTERVIEWER  Your energy is incredible. And that combination of mathematics and wine is very intriguing.

SUGIYAMA   From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved math. When all the other girls my age were drawing with crayons and playing house, I was playing with building blocks and Lego and doing math drills on my own. In fact, the counter at my wine bar in Nishi-Azabu has seventeen seats, because seventeen is my favorite prime number! [Laughs] It’s a rectangular counter with eleven seats in the center, and three seats on each side. Prime numbers everywhere.

INTERVIEWER  A real prime number counter! [Laughs] How old were you when you became a private tutor?

SUGIYAMA   I started tutoring the kids in my neighborhood after I finished my junior high entrance exams, and I kept on working as a home tutor and as a juku [cram school] instructor all the way through high school and college. I started working professionally at a college prep school while I was a graduate student.

INTERVIEWER  How long have you been a lover of wine and sake?

SUGIYAMA   I’ve been drinking every kind of alcohol since my college days. However, since at heart I’m a science geek, I’ve always assigned myself themes for my drinking. For instance, when I started drinking wine I decided to drink at least one bottle a day and would drink only one variety of wine until I knew it thoroughly. Or with whiskey, I would focus on drinking every brand from a given distillery. Since when I’m drinking I always find myself thinking, “Why does it taste like this, what makes it like this . . .” I ultimately wind up drinking an incredible volume! [Laughs]

Training Math Students and Sommeliers

INTERVIEWER  What was your motivation for opening your Nishi-Azabu wine bar back in 2008?

SUGIYAMA   Back then I was always thinking to myself how great it would be if there was a place where I could have a really good meal with really, really good wine in the dead of night. At the time, I was teaching classes for rōnin students who were putting in another year of study after high school to try to pass the entrance exams for better universities in the morning hours. In the afternoon, I taught classes for current high-school students who were trying to boost their scores. At the end of my work day, it would already be past ten at night. By then there aren’t many places still open where you can enjoy a superior glass of wine and a delicious meal—so I thought I’d better open a full-fledged wine bar myself.

Sugiyama says that with training, anyone can distinguish the “nose” of different wines.

INTERVIEWER  In 2011 you opened your own wine school.

SUGIYAMA   After I’d qualified as a sommelier myself, I had all of my wine bar staff take classes at a wine school, too. But the results were not as good as I’d hoped. In fact, all of them succeeded magnificently in failing the qualification test.

Maybe it would be faster, I thought, if I just taught them myself. I gathered them together, along with friends from the neighborhood involved in the restaurant business, and I passed on all I knew to them. The next time the test rolled around, a splendid 90 percent of them passed. This seemed promising, so the very next year I opened my own wine school for future sommeliers, Asuka L’ecole du Vin.

INTERVIEWER  And in 2016, you went into business in Paris, too.

SUGIYAMA   During those five years I had also gotten into the wine import/export business, and I was going to France once every two months to meet the winemakers themselves. Thanks to the time I spent with them in France, I naturally found myself greeting them when they came to visit Japan. Since they had taken the trouble to come all the way here, I thought that I should at least make sure they enjoyed some real Japanese cuisine. I also used the opportunity to ask them to test out the “marriage,” so to speak, of the champagne that they had produced with Japanese sake.

It may come as a surprise to many Japanese as well, but the rich umami flavor of the dashi used in Japanese cooking matches very well with the umami that comes from the maturation process for champagne. And moreover, after you’ve been drinking sake for a while, if you have a little champagne for a change of pace, it refreshes the palate perfectly. The combination of sake and champagne is simply the best. You can go back and forth between them with no clash at all!

Once my guests from France found this out, and since they kept talking about how the combination of champagne and sake was such an “amazing marriage,” I started thinking to myself: “Well. It looks like I’ll just have to open a champagne and sake restaurant in Paris!”

Helping Parisians Understand Sake

INTERVIEWER  It’s been more than a year since you opened your Paris establishment. How’s it going?

SUGIYAMA   There’s a lot of talk these days about the global “sake boom,” but I personally believe that we’re still just at the dawning of this new age. When you’re actually on the ground in Paris, you meet lots of people who mistakenly believe Japanese sake is something like China’s baijiu, a high-alcohol liquor that you toss down after dinner. In reality, in many cases the sake that you get overseas hasn’t been stored with the proper temperature control. That brings out a strong hineka—the aroma of poorly aged sake—and it’s in that condition that the drink is being served to customers. It gives them the wrong impression of what sake should really be like.

Originally, sake was intended to be a fruity, easy-to-drink alcoholic beverage that went down well together with dinner. I think it’s terribly unfortunate that it’s spread around the world in this incorrect form. That’s why, at my own restaurant, I want to be a proselytizer for sake as it was meant to be enjoyed, something delicious that’s drunk with food in exactly the same way as people drink it in Japan.

One thing I’ve felt strongly over this past year is how truly accomplished the French are at enjoying themselves. They’re absolutely passionate about food. At our counter, they pepper the chefs with questions while they’re watching them prepare the meal. “Why did you slice this fish that way?” “How do you make the dashi broth?” “How many ingredients go into this dish?”

They have the deepest interest in food, and many of our guests are very outspoken with their opinions, so it’s very stimulating for us as well. It gives us a real sense of accomplishment when they’re satisfied.

Enyaa, the Japanese sake and champagne restaurant Sugiyama has produced in Paris. There is a sake gallery in the back room.

INTERVIEWER  What is the question your guests ask most often?

SUGIYAMA   I would say that it’s probably the difference between the types of sake, like daiginjō and junmai. One thing I’ve discovered from talking with Parisians is that many believe that junmai daiginjō, pure rice sake made from the most highly polished grains, is the Japanese equivalent of the highest-ranked Grands Crus from France’s Burgundy region. There are people who seem to have this simple equation in their head that “daiginjō equals quality sake,”and refuse to drink anything else.

Now, of course daiginjō is the most expensive variety of sake, but that does not mean at all that the other varieties of sake are inferior. Once I explain to them that the sake categories are determined by the “rice-polishing ratio” of the rice used in making it, and by how they’re brewed, then everyone is willing to give junmai sake a try as well. Then, once they do, many guests decide that they actually enjoy the refreshing acidity and dryness of junmai more than daiginjō.

INTERVIEWER  Wine is being consumed all over the world. Yet sake still seems to be a “local” presence. Why do you think that is?

SUGIYAMA   One of the reasons sake hasn’t become more popular around the world has to do with the personality of the Japanese people. Japanese are simply not very good at promoting themselves. There are many Japanese who are a little reticent, and I use that in the very best sense of the word. They’re good at taking in and adopting things from the outside, but not very good at putting themselves forward and promoting Japanese things to others.

In contrast, the French are quite self-assertive, and are very skilled at presenting themselves to the outside world. By the time of the 1855 Exposition Universelle, the First Paris International Exposition, they already had a classification system in place for their wines, which I think is truly remarkable.

There are many reasons wine has spread around the world. Some of it has to do with the unique characteristics of the grape itself, and some of it to do with the historical background of its long association with Christianity. But I think the biggest factor of all is that wine has a shared association with all the food cultures of Europe, and this has made it easier for it to spread outside Europe and around the world as well.

Right now, what we need are professionals who can help put out the good word about Japanese sake. What is it about different kinds of sake that makes them particularly delicious? What are their different bouquets? What kind of foods do they pair with best? If you can’t explain these kinds of things to people in precise terms, then it’s very hard to convey sake’s true allure. It’s not enough just to tell people “Try it. You’ll like it.” You have to tell them much, much more.

Another reason wine has developed such a global following is because it’s possible to describe its flavor and bouquet in the minutest detail using language developed just for wine, and it’s also possible for anyone to understand those elements and that language if they study hard enough. Without the talent to convey such abstract sensations as flavor and aroma in specific language, you can’t convey the qualities of a drink to people from different cultures.

Blazing New Trails with Overconfidence

INTERVIEWER  I understand you have a new project for 2018.

SUGIYAMA   That’s right. I’m planning to open a kakuuchi, in other words, a sake retail store with its own “stand bar” where you can sample different kinds of sake right where you buy it. It’s going to be at a location in Paris, near Enyaa. This will be a very casual bar, where you can buy a bottle of sake and drink it right on the spot.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking that it would be great fun to establish a “wine kakuuchi” in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu, too. And then I have an idea for providing wine lessons on streaming video, plans for a wine school and a sake school in Paris . . . So many plans!

Enyaa, the Japanese restaurant produced by Sugiyama in Paris, is next door to the Palais-Royal in a building that was the birthplace of the renowned seventeenth-century playwright Molière.

INTERVIEWER  So many roles for one person. What’s the source of all that energy?

SUGIYAMA  Why, it’s because I drink delicious wine and sake every day! [Laughs] And after that, I’d say it’s because I simply love teaching new things to others. Teaching mathematics, talking to people about wine, sake, and French and Japanese culture . . . In the end, all these things are the source of my energy.

When I look back over my life so far, it feels like the common thread running through everything that I’ve done, no matter what kind of work it was, has always been teaching. Whether I’ve been opening a restaurant, writing a book, or standing up in front of a class as the instructor, at root it has always all been about teaching. Since at heart I’ve always been a science geek who gets totally obsessed with whatever I’m doing at the time, whenever I find something that I like I just throw myself into it, study anything I can about it, and then—once I’ve internalized enough knowledge—I find that I want to teach everyone around me all about it.

Sugiyama’s own books about wine. She publishes an updated version of her book on how to pass the sommelier test (second from right) every April.

INTERVIEWER   It seems to me you have twice the curiosity of anyone else.

SUGIYAMA   The more you know, the more fun it is! I think that spirit has been rooted in me since my childhood. That’s why I have a habit of learn everything and anything I can about whatever it is that catches my interest. Whether it’s wine, sake, or cuisine, it’s just so much more enjoyable to know what the ingredients are, how they combine together. Everything there is to know. And in the end, knowing all of that information makes everything taste so much better.

INTERVIEWER  I once interviewed someone who said, “It’s only the overconfident people who have the power to change society.” What do you think of that?

SUGIYAMA   I have total confidence in my “overconfidence”! [Laughs] Way back in junior high school my friends all told me I was overconfident. In fact, my best friend in high school once told me, “Asuka, you’re so excessive in your overconfidence that every time you try to do something you wind up succeeding, and it makes you even more overconfident!”

As I often tell my own students at the prep school, “If you don’t care enough about yourself to believe totally in yourself, then who else is going to believe in you?” You’re always your own greatest ally. Life is all about preconceptions and assumptions. Whether it’s an entrance examination or work, if you assume from the outset that you can do it, then you truly can. That’s what I really believe.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 2, 2018. Banner photo: Sugiyama Asuka at Goblin, her wine bar in Nishi-Azabu, Tokyo. Interview by Usami Rika. Photographs by Ōkōchi Tadashi.)

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