The Challenge: Pair sakes with five courses at San Francisco’s Fifth Floor.
On the blustery last day of January, the Bay Area’s wine elite gathered at the Fifth Floor restaurant and lounge in San Francisco’s Hotel Palomar to taste and judge a flight of sake-and-food pairings selected by David Glancy, MS, CWE, CSS, FWS, founder and chief education officer of the San Francisco Wine School (and a member of the Sommelier Journal Editorial Advisory Board), and Emily Wines, MS, wine director of the parent Kimpton Place Hotels.
We were greeted by Yoshihiro Sako, sake specialist of San Francisco’s Izakaya Yuzuki; Toshiro Okada, chief executive director of event co-sponsor JETRO San Francisco, a branch of the Japan External Trade Organization; several sake distributors; and sake producers from the Akita prefecture, clad in traditional attire. Akita, nicknamed the "Empire of the Beautiful Sake," is considered one of Japan’s top producing areas, famed for its tradition of cold brewing. Also on hand to translate for her Japanese-speaking colleagues was Linda Noel Kawabata, a Certified Advanced Sake Specialist and U.S. brand manager for the Akita Sake Promotion & Export Council (ASPEC). Imported by Winebow and distributed on the West Coast by Young’s Market Company, ASPEC also served as a sponsor for the Winter Sake Sommelier Challenge—the first in a series of events to be presented across the country this year.
During the networking reception, we enjoyed samples from Smart Assist Boutique Sake and N.A. Sales Co., including the Dassai Sparkling Nigori Junmai Daiginjo 50—a creamy, lactic, and tart bubbly to whet our appetites. Then we were led to our tables in the dining room, appropriately overlooking a rooftop Zen garden. Among the judges for this intriguing competition were restaurateurs such as Philippe Gardelle of Chapeau!; beverage professionals like Rebecca Fineman and John Vuong of Ame, Gordana Jošović and Petra Polakovičová of Epic Roasthouse, and Shane McDermott of Hakkasan; and several Master Sommeliers, including Geoff Kruth of the Guild of Sommeliers and the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, Calif., and Sur Lucero of Constellation Brands and Oenotri in Napa, Calif. K&L Wine Merchants sake buyer Melissa Smith also judged.
As we settled in, Sako and Okada led us through a brief presentation on pairing sake with Western food, enlightening us with quips like "sake never fights with food" and "when pairing sake, consider two things: umami and temperature." Finally, the first of five courses prepared by Fifth Floor executive chef David Bazirgan arrived at the table. Comments from the sommeliers are listed below their pairings.
Shrimp Ceviche with Chilies, Avocado, and Radish
Glancy: Dassai Nigori Junmai Daiginjo 50, Yamaguchi Prefecture $33
"With the delicate shrimp and fresh radish, I liked the crisp, clean purity of this sake." Wines: Chokaisan Nigori Junmai Ginjo, Akita Prefecture $40
"The creamy, Riesling-like tang offered a nice contrast to the avocado mousse."
Lobster Salad on Brioche
Glancy: Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai, Niigata Prefecture $31
"The slight sweetness of this sake mirrored the sweetness of the lobster; it is pretty, soft, floral, and delicate, so it doesn’t overpower the dish. It’s also creamy, with some texture and weight that match the unctuousness of the shellfish." Wines: Kikusui Hiyaoroshi Junmai Ginjo, Niigata Prefecture $30
"It’s interesting that both of our choices for this delicate dish are from Niigata. I liked the umami of this aged sake. It has a fat richness to complement the lobster, reminiscent of banana custard."
Truffle Flan with Yellowfoot Mushrooms
Glancy: Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo, Akita Prefecture $46
"The Kimoto style, with heavy stirring, has a lactic, creamy character. Once I tasted it, I knew it would be perfect for this dish. It is dry, with bright acid to balance the richness of the flan as well as floral, savory, and mushroom aromas to complement the truffles. I requested that it be served slightly warm to release its aromatics." Wines: Dewatsuru Kimoto Junmai, Akita Prefecture $30
"Kimotos have a longer fermentation than most sakes and natural lactic-acid bacteria, so their profile is lactic, mushroomy, and creamy. This one is also lower in alcohol (14.5%), so it’s closer in style to a white wine, almost Meursault-like. Serving it warmer brings out its lushness and softness.
Confit Lamb Belly with Spiced Eggplant Puree
Glancy: Osagekko Junmai Nama Genshu, Akita Prefecture $53
"I love this dish and couldn’t wait to get to it. I selected the Osagekko because it is rich, creamy, meaty, and aromatic, like shabu shabu. Not only does it have complementary mushroom, spice, and earth tones, but its sugar/acid/alcohol balance ties the pairing together, while its long, clean finish works well after the richness of the lamb and hint of spice in the eggplant." Wines: Minato Yamahai Nama Genshu Harbor, Akita Prefecture $36
"I chose this undiluted ‘bad boy in a can’
because I wanted to serve something rich, full, and lush with the slightly spicy lamb belly. I felt the perceived sweetness from the alcohol, at 22%, would pair nicely with the tangy, barbecue-like flavors."
Glancy: Dassai Nigori Junmai Ginjo, Yamaguchi Prefecture $33
"With this rich and salty cheese, I thought about four things—acid, fat, sugar, and salt—and went with the sugar angle. It would be nice if this sake had higher acid, but its sweetness gives it a rich, round mouthfeel, and its lactic, creamy aromas—it’s unfiltered, so the live culture gives it a yeastiness—are also perceived as sweet to counterbalance the qualities of the cheese." Wines: Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo, Akita Prefecture $50
"I chose something fresh, floral, extremely fruity, and honeyed to go with this slightly aged, funky blue."
After the judges submitted their scores and the results were tabulated, it was revealed that Wines received the highest score for a single pairing—that of the fourth course—but that Glancy won the overall challenge by two points. Ever the professor and mentor to hundreds in the trade, he said, "I would rather not think of this as a competition, but as a learning experience for us. There are no bad pairings; sake is so versatile. Play and try it with all kinds of food."