Photographer: Noriko Hayashi

Working Women in Japan Are Drinking More Wine Than Ever

  • Kirin’s Mercian predicts wine sales volumes to gain 3% in 2017
  • Japan’s four-bottle average offers ‘big potential’: Mercian

Japan’s swelling ranks of working women have grape growers 10,000 miles away cheering.

Chilean vintners have emerged as the biggest beneficiary of Japan’s booming wine market. Their low-priced, fruit-driven product has found a receptive niche among women in their 40s and 50s, who have helped boost wine consumption to a new record every year since 2012.

“Women drink more as their participation in the labor market is increasing, and their disposable incomes are expanding,” said Naoko Kuga, an analyst who tracks lifestyle changes at NLI Research Institute in Tokyo. “This trend works positively for wine consumption.”

And for Chile. The Latin American nation overtook France as Japan’s top wine supplier in 2015, commanding a dominant presence in supermarkets and convenience stores – fertile ground for marketers targeting women. Vina Concha & Toro SA, the Santiago-based producer of Casillero del Diablo cabernet sauvignons and merlots, reported a 24 percent jump in third-quarter sales volumes to Japan in November.

Japan imported 74.6 million liters of wine from Chile in the 11 months through November, compared with 57.7 million liters from France, data from the Agriculture Ministry show.

Aeon Wine

Aeon Co., the nation’s largest supermarket-chain operator, hired wine judge Yumi Kunimi in 2014 to help promote sales through in-store tastings in Osaka, Japan’s industrial heartland.

“Some customers said they’d never tried wine before, and became big fans from the tastings in our shops,” Kunimi said.

Featured lines are typically priced at less than 2,000 yen ($18) a bottle and picked by an annual gathering of female sommeliers, wine buyers and consultants as being the most appealing to women, and the best to enjoy with Japanese food, Kunimi said.

Sake, made from fermented rice, is the dominant wine consumed in Japan, though sales volumes haven’t increased since 2011, according to Euromonitor International.

In contrast, consumption of still wines made from grapes has increased an average of 4.5 percent a year in Japan over the past six years, Euromonitor data show. Consumers in their 20s and 30s are starting to drink wine at home after trying it in tapas bars, which have become popular in Japan, the market researcher noted in August.

On a per-capita basis, consumption of wine from grapes has swelled 50 percent since 2006 to an average of 2.4 liters (81 ounces) a year, Euromonitor estimates. Still, Japanese consumption is a fraction of the 40.2 liters of wine the average person in Portugal swills in a year and much less than the 8.6 liters Americans knock back.

‘Big Potential’

“Wine consumption in Japan is still four bottles a year per person,” said Kiyoshi Yokoyama, president of Mercian, the wine-making subsidiary of Kirin Holdings Co., and the chairman of Japan Wineries Association. “We have a big potential for growth.”

Japanese local wine "Nagano Merlot" offered at Chateau Mercian Tokyo Guest Bar.

Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

Mercian plans to boost sales by 3 percent to 7.22 million cases this year, helped by a 10 percent expansion in imported wine and 7 percent growth in sales of wine made from locally grown grapes, said Hirofumi Mori, a director in the company’s marketing department. Sales of wine made by Mercian from imported grapes are predicted to decline 3 percent.

“Our main target is women,” Mori said in an interview in Tokyo. “We want to increase products that will attract their attention.”

Midori Saito, a 32-year-old music teacher in Tokyo, said she drinks wine almost every day after work, and chardonnay is her favorite.

“We emptied four bottles in five hours,” Saito said after having drinks with three of her friends in a Spanish-style bar in Tokyo. “We all love to chat over good food and wine.”

Saito is fairly typical of the clientele at the bar Kiyofumi Iwasaka runs in downtown Tokyo. “A majority of our customers are women working in nearby offices,” Iwasaka said. “They come here after work with their colleagues, and enjoy drinking with a casual bite to eat.”

In volume terms, wine sales will probably grow only marginally through 2020, researcher Euromonitor International predicted in August. Kuga at the NLI Research Institute said Japan’s stagnating economy has meant fewer businessmen are going out drinking with work associates, hurting demand.

Industry stalwart Yumi Tanabe is trying to bolster growth. Tanabe, whose father Kaneyasu Marutani founded Japan’s first public winery on the northern island of Hokkaido 54 years ago, is working to double per-capita consumption in the decade through 2020.

Tanabe began the Japan Women’s Wine Awards three years ago to help match wine with Japanese food, and help other women find jobs in the industry. This year’s event attracted 4,212 entries from 37 countries including Australia, Chile and the U.S. The results, decided by more than 400 female judges, will be announced on Feb. 14.

Rose for Yakitori

“We’re the only organizer of a global wine competition that selects the best bottle for sushi,” she said, noting that a sparkling wine from Spain won that title last year. Judges said the best pairing with yakitori, or Japanese-style grilled chicken with vegetables, was a locally made rose from Suntory Holdings Ltd., Japan’s second-largest winemaker.

Female wine professionals judge the entries at the Sakura Japan Women’s Wine Awards 2017.

Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

Chilean wines featured prominently too, with more than a dozen garnering top “double gold” honors, including bottles from Concha & Toro and Spanish producer Miguel Torres SA.

Chile is expected to continue to expand sales volumes through 2020, according to London-based Euromonitor. Tariffs on Chilean wine will be gradually reduced to zero by 2019 from 4.6 percent in 2015, giving it a major price advantage over other countries, the company said.

The average value of Chilean wine imported by Japan in 2015 was $2.97 a liter, compared with $9.74 for wine from the U.S. and $7.95 for French wine, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in June.

“Japanese favored French wine for a long time, but the trend is changing,” Tanabe said. “Chilean wine is seen by Japanese as affordable and tasty to drink.”

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