Japan’s first Master of Wine

by Catherine Shaw
Ned Goodwin How one man won the trade’s ultimate endurance test

Born in London, raised in Australia and educated in Tokyo and Paris, Ned Goodwin is the only resident of Japan to join the esteemed ranks of the world’s 281 Masters of Wine. But rather than simply extol the virtues of the world’s finest wines, he says he is more proud of the interesting wine lists he has created for family restaurants in Tokyo.

“It’s not difficult to come up with excellent wines to recommend, but much more challenging to find wines that will suit a variety of cuisines at an acceptable price point,” he explained to me in Tokyo soon after being awarded the notoriously challenging MW qualification after nearly seven years of intensive academic study.

Goodwin laughs as he recalls his entry into the Japanese world of wine. “When I first arrived in Japan 10 years ago, I came from a very high-end restaurant in New York as a well known sommelier — I had lots of energy. I came to a country dominated by tuxedo-wearing sommeliers and I really thought I would shake up the system. I was young then and I very quickly learnt that you have to work within the system to understand and change it.”

Goodwin also quickly realized he needed to understand the unique nature of the wine market here. “Every wine has its place. There are plenty of wines out there that are simple but well construed and good for the price. The Master of Wine course taught me objectivity because I had to try many entry-level UK-centric supermarket wines together with more premium styles and had to taste wines from all around the world. I realized that if you have a quirky wine list because you want to introduce unusual wines, you need to be there in person to explain those quirks, especially for those new to wine. What is more important is trying to provide interesting and user-friendly wines that go well with food.”

What is more important is trying to provide interesting and user-friendly wines that go well with food.

Japan’s first Master of Wine Although Goodwin says the best wine he has ever tasted was a Burgundy, for everyday drinking in Tokyo’s warm weather he likes to drink a German Riesling like Heymann-Lowenstein Schieferterrasen, which is fresh and very complex, but not too sweet. “German wines are not very popular at the moment, except in the United States where they are considered quite trendy. For reds I change a lot,” he said. “I like a simple Sangiovese or a good artisanal Beaujoulais on a day-to-day basis.”

What about the “anything-but-chardonnay trend,” I ask? “People in the know are talking about the new way of making chardonnay, particularly in the new world like New Zealand and Australia,” he said. “The best chardonnay for the money that I’ve tasted recently is from Kumeu River Village, and is made by a fellow Master of Wine, Michael Brajkovich. I would say it’s trying to emulate a Macon and doing it very well. It’s imported by Jeroboam, costs around 2,000 to 3,000 yen and is excellent.”

Although universally acknowledged as the most important wine qualification in the world, many leading wine experts have failed to complete the rigorous course that involves extensive theory and practical examinations plus a dissertation. “It took a lot of discipline,” admitted Goodwin. “It doesn’t matter how talented a person is in the world of wine, the Master of Wine course is an endurance test. There were some very difficult moments for me. My strategy was to pass theory first and then as an experienced sommelier I thought that the practical would be easier,” he recalled with a smile. “I quickly realized it was not just about knowing your wines — it is also about being good at time management, adopting a systematic way of tasting wines and getting on with the writing. A lot of people get stuck in the glass and then find the practical exam time has gone. You have to understand the whole process and hone the examination technique.”

So how is he celebrating the award? “It hasn’t really dawned on me yet. While I am of course very, very pleased, the optimal word is really relief. I’ve been on this quest for 6½ years so I feel quite exhausted. But in a good way.”