For 30 years, Kiminari Togawa has been making sushi in his Tokyo restaurant, Sushi Karaku, the old-fashioned way, using a traditional process called edomae. But when it comes to choosing something to drink with his sushi, he eschews traditional drinks and instead chooses wines from around the world — Togawa is as enthusiastic about food-and-wine pairings as any Soho sommelier. In fact, Togawa actually is a certified sommelier as well as knowing his way around a kitchen.
This spring, Togawa came to the United States with a small entourage of assistants to give a master class on pairing wine with sushi. Admittedly, it was a somewhat unusual venue — Dierberg Vineyard’s Star Lane winery at Happy Canyon in the foothills of the San Rafael Mountains, far inland from California’s Pacific Coast.
“Edomae is about 400 years old,” Togawa said through an interpreter as he prepped for the pairings inside the impressive winery, “and it was the style of sushi until about 50 years ago. Few people still make this style.”
What happened around 50 years ago was the advent of refrigeration and commercial food transportation. In Japan, Togawa says, that meant that the fish used to make sushi no longer had to be preserved, sushi could be made from less-expensive grades of fish and areas that were far away from the ocean coasts could still enjoy sushi because of fish transported inland by refrigerated trucks.
But when he was younger, Togawa decided to continue the tradition of making sushi the edomae way, which has in part led to his restaurant’s popularity as a go-to place in Tokyo’s Ginza district. To simplify Chef Togawa’s approach, he uses food acidity, such as that which appears in wine, to mildly cook or even pickle fresh fish much the same way that ceviche is traditionally prepared in Latin America.
A few years ago, the Japanese chef was introduced to Dierberg wines through JiaMin Dierberg, who was born in Shanghai, went to university in Japan, and is married to Michael Dierberg of the St. Louis banking family that owns First Bank as well as Dierberg Vineyard. JiaMin Dierberg serves as the winery’s international marketing director and made Dierberg (Burgundy varieties) and Star Lane (Bordeaux varieties) brands available to Togawa for his Ginza restaurant.
If the wine-and-sushi pairings went well in Tokyo, the two reasoned, why not in Santa Barbara County?
With Dierberg serving as translator, Chef Togawa went through eight different pairings of sushi and wine. Some of the takeaways:
— The chef began by adding coriander to yellowtail marinated in white wine to match the grassiness of a Star Lane sauvignon blanc.
— The nutty flavors of sea bream pickled in sesame soy linked up well with the light toastiness of a Dierberg chardonnay. “Sesame with chardonnay is one of my favorite pairings,” he said.
— Similarly, the broiled skin of tai (red sea bream) also paired expertly with another Dierberg chardonnay from a different vineyard.
— Togawa is not at all afraid of using red wine with sushi. “I think sushi with soy pairs well with red wine,” he says, and matched a Dierberg pinot noir with a fatty tuna sprinkled with wine salt.
— A conger eel marinated in mirin, a rice wine that is lightly sweet and lower in alcohol than most rice wines, had enough heft to pair with an older, 2011 vintage of Star Lane cabernet sauvignon.
Togawa and Dierberg say they hope the seminar will encourage sommeliers and restaurateurs to experiment with offering their customers wine pairings with their sushi instead of beer, rice wine, or sake.