Like many other people, I started drinking sake at the local mom-and-pop sushi joints, the now relocated Sushi Mambo, the legendary Fujiya at the Napa Outlets owned and operated by the late Eiko Nakamura, and some San Francisco gems such as Blowfish Sushi.
Sake was hot by default and accompanied by a beer almost every time. This memories stay with you forever; it makes you warm just thinking about the company, conversations and the fare, which was traditional and also playful at times.
It wasn’t until Go Fish by master chef Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Back Street) and sushi master Ken Tominaga (Hana Sushi, Pabu) came to town that I tasted cold, premium sake in the hands of sake expert Stuart Morris.
I vividly remember ordering a flight that included three sakes from Japan, I cannot tell you exactly what the selections were but I can certainly recall feeling like everything turned from black and white to color, from that moment on I became a believer.
Fast-forward a few years, while in the meantime I was enjoying sake casually then I had the opportunity to be part of the Morimoto Napa opening. This transition inevitably put me on a path of a romantic relationship between the Japanese culture including the food, the people and, of course, sake and me.
Part of the opening training involved an in-depth look at this mystical beverage led by two people who have become big influences in my newly discovered passion, Yuno Hayashi and Eric Swanson. Days of education included tasting every sake selection featured, almost 60 labels, a component tasting, which consisted of pairing sake with several different elements such as celery, Doritos, peanut butter, salt and sauces and experiencing the reactions in the palate. Each pairing was tasted and discussed with the team, which made it resonate, and needless to say, quite a fun exercise.
Understanding sake is by no means an easy road as it is produced in a very peculiar way and there are plenty of factors that influence the final product. Rice strain: hundreds of different ones are used. Water, which can be hard or soft, determines the texture. Yeast strains bring aromas and determine fermentation are only some of the factors.
I would say the most important part is that you enjoy it, and that is exactly what happened to me. I immediately had a connection as if we had known each other from past lives. Just as with wine, beer or other intellectual beverages, it is about finding it pleasurable, factors can be the setting, the people you are sharing the experience with, a time on your life or the food that is involved. The steps in which the beverage is produced becomes secondary.
In the following years after the Morimoto Napa opening, and thanks to great mentorship, I became the corporate beverage director, a position that allowed me to do what I most love, create beverage programs that included the wine list, beer selections, liquor, cocktails, non-alcoholic options and, of course, sake.
Aside from the creating and executing process, educating the staff was the most rewarding. This is where I paid forward everything that I learned and shared the knowledge with new friends in places such as Mexico City, Maui, Chicago and Las Vegas at other Morimoto restaurants.
During this time, I also spent time learning myself, moving up the Court of Master Sommeliers and getting the certified sake professional title from John Gauntner, a “Sake Evangelist” and expert in the field. This period only attracted me more to the culture, which eventually led to the motherland, Japan.