ST. PAUL, MN–Determined to gain an appreciation for the fermented Japanese rice drink, Chris Gibson and girlfriend Valerie Estes made a fourth attempt to enjoy sake Saturday.
"Sake is really good stuff," said Gibson, 29, following the couple's most recent failed sake-appreciation attempt. "And it's a cool thing to be able to say you're into. I just don't think our palates are refined enough to get everything out of it just yet."
Gibson and Estes reached that conclusion after sipping a small amount of namakaze, or cold unpasteurized sake, at a dinner party thrown by mutual friend Roger Deroia, a self-professed "Japanophile" who spent 10 days in Tokyo last year.
"Chris and Valerie took a small drink, then sort of grimaced," Deroia said. "Maybe they should just stick to white Zinfandel."
The couple's interest in the Japanese wine began five months ago, shortly after they received a porcelain sake set as a housewarming gift from Deroia. The Arita ceremonial sake kit Deroia gave them contained a tokkuri, a porcelain decanter used to heat and present the sake, and four porcelain sakazukis, or bowls.
"Chris and Valerie seemed interested in Asian culture," Deroia said. "They've got a Japanese screen in their bedroom, and Chris loved the animé tapes I once lent him, so I thought the sake set would be a perfect gift."
According to Estes, the couple's first-ever sips of sake were poorly received.
"I wanted the first time we used the sake set to be special, so we made a whole night of it," Estes said. "Chris ordered sushi and rented [Akira] Kurosawa's Ran. We planned to drink a bottle of sake with dinner and another during the movie, but after about half a bowl each, it was obvious that neither of us really cared for it."
A few weeks later, while perusing the sake kit's instructions, Gibson discovered that sake is supposed be heated somewhere between lukewarm and body temperature before drinking.
"It said you're supposed to heat the tokkuri in a pan of hot water," Gibson said. "When I told Valerie, we were like, 'Oh, that's why it wasn't that great.' So we heated up the sake and gave it another go. It was a little better, but we still couldn't finish a whole bowl between us."
The couple's third and most successful sake-appreciation attempt occurred in January while eating with Deroia at Origami, a Minneapolis Japanese restaurant.
"We were eating vegetable tempura when Roger suggested we order some sake," Gibson said. "Valerie and I just sort of looked at each other. She said she just wanted to get some plum wine, which we've both had before and enjoyed, but Roger insisted. And you can't really argue with Roger when it comes to things Japanese or, as he might say, 'Nipponese.'"
"Chris and I enjoyed the sake a little more with Roger there," Estes said. "Like, he taught us that you toast the server by saying 'bonzai' or 'kampai' after they pour your bowl. Learning about those sorts of traditions must have distracted me from the taste, because I actually drank my whole cup that time. But, in all honesty, it still wasn't that good."
Deroia is sympathetic to his friends' sake-enjoyment struggles.
"I remember the first time I tried sake, I thought the cork was left off for too long, because it tasted like spoiled wine," said Deroia, who noted that since sake is made from rice, which is a grain, it should technically be considered more a beer than a wine. "But as with any acquired taste, it takes time. And once you start actually enjoying the taste, it's wonderful. It's just that the taste-acquisition phase can be rather long and painful."
Unbowed by their lack of success, Gibson and Estes are preparing to take a fifth stab at sake enjoyment.
"Roger suggested that Valerie and I try yakoman sake," Gibson said. "He says it's not really sake, but has the qualities of sake. Real sake is just water, rice, and a mold called koji. He said that once we got used to drinking yakoman, we could work our way up to trying 'the good stuff,' this dai-ginjo he special-ordered. I think that might have been the problem the last four times–not having the right kind of sake."