Heavenly Vines: world’s only all-Canadian wine store
Heavenly Vines, a wine store in Tokyo, Japan, is the only store in the world that sells only Canadian wine. Founded by Brockville, Ontario native Jamie Paquin in 2011, the store promotes Canadian wine to the Japanese market, one of the fastest growing wine markets in the world.
Paquin moved to Tokyo in 2005 while pursuing a PhD in sociology. During the 18 months he was there, he fell in love with the city – the daily life, quality of everything and efficiency of Tokyo inspired him to leave York University and enter a university in Tokyo.
It was in Japan that he first fell in love with wine. He developed his palate and, on trips back home to Canada, dug deep into the Canadian wine market. The quality available excited him and he was inspired to bring it to Japan. He opened Heavenly Vines in 2011, with his wife Nozomi Mihara, in order to show his new Japanese community everything that his home-country had to offer.
I spoke with Paquin about his journey from sociology major to wine store owner (and sometimes Canadian vacation planner).
How did you first get into wine?
After living in Japan for a few years, the culinary sophistication of the country helped me better appreciate quality and place with regards to food and wine, and I began to shop for wine in order to better appreciate terroir and quality. On trips back to Canada, I started to dig deeper into who was producing the best wines and I was excited by the new level of quality in Canada at the time. Japan has thousands of years of local food production, so it’s really natural here for everything to be based around season and place. It’s a real primer for appreciating these things.
When and why did you decide to open Heavenly Vines?
We opened officially on Canada Day 2011. Why? I wanted to bring the exciting wines passionate Canadian winemakers were producing to this market. Japan’s major cities are full of extremely serious wine lovers. The emphasis on formal education here results in many thousands of people taking wine courses. Academie du Vin’s schools have about 40,000 students on their register, for example. While the market is very crowded and price competitive, it’s also a very rewarding market to work in given the level of interest and knowledge. I also felt that the cool climate wines of Canada were a good fit for the preferences and food culture here.
How is Heavenly Vines different from other wine stores in Japan?
We are unique in being 100 percent Canadian. Shops typically feature a variety of countries, though there are some specialty shops devoted to major wine producing countries and regions, like France, or with a specific theme, like New World wines. We also strive to have a very personalized relationship with our customers. We offer to help them plan their trips to Canada, and we hold a number of wine dinners and events throughout the year.
Why focus only on Canadian wines?
I am Canadian so it suited me, and Japan doesn’t need another French, Italian, Spanish or Californian wine. Having a niche and having something special to offer that I was truly passionate about and well-suited to represent made perfect sense to me.
How many wines, regions and producers do you keep in stock?
At the moment we have about 200 different wines from across the country. Similkameen, Okanagan, Niagara, Prince Edward County and Gaspereau Valley producers. We are also keen to have some great wines from Vancouver Island, LENS and Quebec to complete the picture. Though this approach means buying fewer bottles from a small number of producers, I think it’s important to avoid being pigeon-holed in the market by only having a few items. Entering our store or visiting online and seeing this variety helps to stress that while Canadian production in minuscule, it’s also diverse and that’s my long-term goal in this market.
We have also introduced great gins and bitters from Edmonton from Hansen and Strathcona Distilleries and Token Bitters. Those in the bar trade are really impressed with the quality and artisan nature of the products.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome to open Heavenly Vines?
The image of Canada here as a cold place and the reiteration of that image by Canadian tourism entities. Canada is firmly established as a place to view the northern lights, or the crisp and cool mountain climates of Banff. Maple syrup and in the case of wine – Icewine – are constantly featured in promotions. These things get in the way of us introducing Canada as a country with climates and soils that produce premium wines.
The language barrier in Japan is also an issue for benefiting from international accolades. Though we disseminate these results as best we can, they don’t have the same impact as they do in other countries, like England and the US. This language barrier also makes inbound visits to Japan generally less impactful as it’s hard for producers to establish rapport through interpretation. So we much prefer organizing trips to Canada with buyers who will have the full experience of the regions, producers and the wines, and then be able to return to Japan and enthusiastically advocate for the wines in Japanese to their Japanese customers.
Have you received support from Canadian wine groups and tourism officials?
We have a very hard time securing support from the Canadian side so we have to do most of the marketing and education on our own. It’s surprising how associations in Canada never reach out to ask for our insights or to explore ways to support us.
Provincial offices can be quite supportive with the right personnel or policies. The Quebec Delegation has a local sourcing policy which is obviously what you would do if your goal is to help grow markets for your products. Prior to the change in government in Ontario, we had help from the Ontario trade office to bring our buyers to Niagara, which was a great help. The BC office is an occasional customer. And the Alberta trade office and the City of Edmonton have been real champions for their products.
The federal level is another story. The DFAIT program that subsidizes wine shipments to Canadian embassies around the world is a complete contradiction to the mandate of trade offices to support the growth of new markets. We get ZERO business from our own embassy due to this. It would be the easiest and most sensible thing in the world for this program to be modified with a local sourcing component so that a businesses like ours spending years to build a market could benefit from the business from our own embassy, instead of taxpayers subsidizing the opposite.
There is also major potential in cross industry synergies. The various mandates of provincial and federal offices for different sectors could enhance the results by incorporating the food and wine side into the promotion of Canadian business in general. We are natural partners for any Canadian business here and and food products will be enhanced by pairing them with Canadian wines.
What is the Japanese market like for wine in general, and Canadian wines specifically? How is the Japanese market different from other so-called “Asian” markets?
The market is very mature and full of other importers, so we really have to establish a deep understanding of our regions and the character and quality of our wines in order to be viewed as an essential part of any interesting wine list. Japan has an incredible number of very serious wine lovers with accreditation and many thousands of serious restaurants that take wine seriously as well. This is not a market that is going to absorb large volumes of wine based on a newfound interest in wine and it is not a market interested in Icewine. Success in this market is about having wines that reflect the terroir and about putting in the time and effort to establish an understanding of our regions and wines.
What’s your favourite Canadian wine?
Can’t pick favourites – depends on the day, the food and the mood. One of the reasons I love doing what we do is that there is such a variety to choose from. I really enjoyed the 2013 Rosewood Select Series Pinot Noir I drank two nights ago though.