These interviews began as a way to introduce you to interesting people in the wine industry. Now, the interviews are broadening to include craft spirits, saké, beer and food as well. For many, the journey is not only intriguing but often quite an adventure. These talented individuals are what make these industries what they are today so follow this series to meet this group of passionate people who have dedicated their lives to their passion.
Why Saké? An interview with Monica Samuels of Vine Connections
Was there a specific saké, moment or place that unlocked your passion?
Monica Samuels: Right after I moved to NYC I worked for a restaurant group that celebrated the flavors of Japan, Brazil, and Peru. I had some wine education before then but it was very classic, based on matching wines with European styles of cuisine. Suddenly there were fiery rocoto chiles, smoky black beans, spicy citrusy ceviches, and other flavors that defied traditional wine pairings. Saké became the answer in so many of these pairing conundrums, and I also grew to love the pleasure of introducing someone to a premium version of a beverage they had previously understood as “inexpensive rice wine.”
What did you study in school and what were you doing before you started in the saké industry?
MS: I changed directions several times in school, originally setting out to major in political science and possibly pursue a law degree, and eventually latching onto marketing and sociology. Before I was in the saké industry full time I juggled working for different marketing and entertainment firms during the day and working in restaurants in the evening. As much as I tried to follow a more traditional path, I knew deep down that my true calling was in food/beverage/hospitality.
How has being in the saké industry changed you?
MS: It’s certainly given me a lot of patience. I think that in the US, as people enter the work force, there is often an expectation of immediate gratification as well as a timeline of adulthood that people are expected to follow. In Japan, the “shokunin” or “craftsman” culture takes pride in what can often seem like a lifetime of apprenticeship as people slowly, reverently move up the hierarchy in their professional roles. There’s something so amazing about meeting a saké brewmaster in his nineties who has spent half a century honing his craft, or a sushi chef in his seventies commenting that he is “still working” on achieving the perfect balance in his sushi rice. No one can change the industry overnight, and the patience and dedication that I’ve been exposed to has taught me to celebrate the small victories, as they often build up to something truly remarkable.
What’s your favorite part of being in the saké industry?
MS: Without a doubt, our saké producers! The producers that I’m fortunate to work with are brilliant, dedicated, hilarious, and inspire me to work harder every day. With this kind of true artisan saké, where production size tops out at 20,000 cases annually, sending the fruits of their labor across the water to the US can often feel like sending their own children off to college, and hoping that they’re treated with love and respect when they land. I feel entrusted with something very special to have the opportunity to grow their business overseas.
Looking back, was there something in your past that led you to saké?
MS: I certainly couldn’t have ended up where I am now without the tireless efforts of my mother to keep me speaking Japanese. As a kid, when all your friends are playing soccer, going to amusement parks, going on camping trips, the long Saturdays in Japanese school and hot, humid summers in Tokyo going to summer school felt like punishment more often than not. I was a stubborn kid and thanks to an equally stubborn mom, as an adult I was lucky enough to have an understanding and comfort level of two very different cultures. Although my parents don’t really drink, my grandfather actually worked in a saké brewery for a period of his life, so perhaps the passion for saké skipped a generation in my family.
Find Monica Samuels online