In our series In the Bag, wine and spirits sales reps discuss the bottles they’re tasting with customers today.
Selling beverage alcohol products in New York City has inherent challenges, but as the national sake sales manager of Vine Connections, an import company based in Sausalito, California, Monica Samuels faces an even more difficult task. In a market where wine, spirits, and beer generate far more sales than sake, Samuels must convince buyers that the rice-based alcoholic drink is versatile and will complement their beverage program.
Born in a bilingual household in Los Angeles to a Japanese mother and an American father, Samuels spent summers visiting family in Japan; she first developed an interest in sake after learning that her grandfather had been a professional brewer. In 2004, Samuels took her first job involving sake at Sushisamba, a Brazilian-Japanese fusion chain restaurant in New York City. She started out as a server, then rose through the ranks into managerial positions. In 2007 she became the corporate sake buyer for the entire Sushisamba restaurant group.
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In 2008, Samuels became a certified Advanced Sake Professional with the Sake Education Council. She notes that there weren’t a lot of people professionally dedicated to the category at that time, and soon after receiving her certification, she was offered a position as the New York sake sales manager for Southern Wine and Spirits, now known as Southern Glazer’s, which she accepted.
In January 2014 she accepted her current position. Vine Connections has 16 sake producers in its portfolio, comprising approximately 40 SKUs. Sake accounts for about 38 percent of the company’s total sales. Samuels says that working at Vine Connections particularly appealed to her because the company, which specializes in Japanese craft sake and fine wines from South America, employs a lot of women and because its portfolio represents a significant number of “strong women brewers and winemakers.”
She also became one of the first sake instructors for the WSET in 2014 and is still teaching for the organization. In 2017 Samuels was named a Sake Samurai, a prestigious title conferred by the Sake Samurai Association of Japan for her work in promoting sake and helping expand the market for it within the United States.
Samuels’s approach to selling sake involves learning what characteristics her buyers are looking for in the wine, spirits, and beer they purchase and using that information to draw parallels between those products and the products in her sake portfolio. Educating buyers about sake is also a crucial part of the job. Rather than focusing on the distinctions between rice-polishing rates, Samuels prefers to categorize her sake products by aroma, flavor, and body. “When someone is building a sake program,” she says, “it’s important to hit all the styles: light and refreshing, vibrant and aromatic, and savory and earthy—and then more specialty styles, like cloudy sake, sparkling sake, aged sake.”
Samuels also believes that the growth of the sake category fully depends on the strength of its educators. “People are often intimidated or misinformed about sake,” she says, “and the more we can get out there and make sake approachable, the more we will all succeed.” Finally, the current trend toward craft beer and natural wine has been beneficial for her sake sales, she says, noting that there are many similarities among the three industries. For example, she explains, there is an emphasis on the specific type of water that’s used in both sake and beer brewing, and the trend toward nonintervention in sake production in Japan is also growing rapidly in response to an increasing interest in natural wine.
The samples in her bag today all highlight alumni producers of the Tokyo University of Agriculture, or NODAI, a program that Samuels likens to the “UC Davis of sake making,” saying that it provides exceptional training and research within the sake field. (Listed are Vine Connections’ average national suggested retail prices.)
Bottle 1: Taka Noble Arrow Tokubetsu Junmai, Yamaguchi; $34
Takahiro Nagayama’s affinity for Burgundy wines led him to move to that region for a year to study vinification. He returned to his family’s brewery determined to make sake through the lens of a winemaker. “There is pronounced limestone in the water used for the brewing, which you can detect immediately on the nose,” Samuels says, adding that she appreciates “the tension and energy” in Nagayama’s style of sake making.
Bottle 2: Kawatsuru Crane of Paradise Junmai, Kagawa; $33
“This sake is known as umakuchi style, which I generally gravitate toward for its balance between sweet and dry and layers of umami,” says Samuels. Crane of Paradise is made with estate-grown Yamadanishiki rice on the island of Shikoku. It yields a “juicy and herbaceous sake,” Samuels says, “with aromas of fennel, pastis, grass, and grapefruit.”
Bottle 3: Rihaku Origin of Purity Junmai Ginjo Namazake, Shimane; $40
Origin of Purity is made from Omachi rice, an ancient heirloom variety known for its smoky earthiness, and yeast isolated from rose vines. “This sake is a 17% ABV, undiluted powerhouse and will drink beautifully for a year if stored refrigerated,” says Samuels, noting that most unpasteurized sakes have a shelf life of only approximately six months.
Bottle 4: Takatenjin Soul of the Sensei Junmai Daiginjo, Shizuoka; $47
“I love this sake because it’s quite unique to have a dry Junmai Daiginjo,” says Samuels. Consumers tend to fall in love with this category first because of its “heady and gorgeous” aromas, she says. “This sake has concentrated green melon and Muscat grape aromas, but has a crisp, refreshing white pepper finish that makes it a great ‘session’ style [lighter style] Junmai Daiginjo.”
Bottle 5: Tensei Endless Summer Tokubetsu Honjozo, Kanagawa; $32
“This sake comes from the Shonan region, also known as the surfer region, of Japan, and this particular brew captures that feeling perfectly in my opinion,” she says, describing the sake as bright and refreshing with “oceanic salinity, apple, melon, and a touch of yeasty fortune-cookie savoriness.”
Bottle 6: Mana 1751 True Vision Yamaha Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Genshu, Fukui; $38
“This brewer definitely subscribes to the noninterventionist sake movement,” says Samuels. The product is bottled from a single tank. There’s no tank blending, no fining, no lactic acid introduced, and no alcohol added. It’s produced with an obscure local yeast, known as FK-3, which Samuels says yields a “dizzyingly complex” sake, showing notes of black pepper, tart yogurt, mushroom, and orange marmalade.
Vicki Denig is a New York-based wine and spirits journalist and wine educator, discovering the world through the lens of a glass, one sip at a time. When not tasting or traveling, she can most likely be found running through Astoria Park or sipping on Cabernet Franc.