Raised in Southern California, Michael Khoo moved to Tokyo after university and in the mid-1990s took charge of Robert Mondavi for the Japan market. In 2005, he selected a handful of the most promising wines from Napa and Sonoma Valleys and founded WineInStyle as a way to introduce Japan consumers to high quality California wines. Today, with a portfolio of critically acclaimed wine brands, WineInStyle is considered the premiere importer of California wines and respected throughout the Japan wine world.
What was your first impression of the country?
My first experience of Japan was that of Tokyo, and I vaguely recall that it was quite intimidating versus the relaxing pace and “space” of Southern California. It seemed as if everybody and everything was moving so fast, and it was really hard to keep up.
How has your perception of the country changed over your time here?
After arriving in Tokyo, I really felt the need to escape and eventually moved to Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture. It was there that I found the true beauty of this country through the local culture, food and, of course, sake. I eventually returned to Tokyo, but with open and more experienced eyes — you just have to look past the concrete.
What have been your greatest successes working in Japan?
In just five years, WineInStyle has put together an amazing portfolio of fine wines, most specifically from California, and our wines are served in some of the finest restaurants and hotels around the country. There are a handful of top wine importers out there today, and I think we have to be considered one of them even with our short history.
What obstacles you have encountered ?
From my days with Robert Mondavi up until now, I have been focused on growing the “new world wine” market, most specifically California wine. Although things have changed over the past decade or so, Japan is still very much an “old world wine” market, with France and Italy owning well over half of the total wine market. However, with per capita wine consumption under 2 liters, there is still lots of room for growth for everyone.
What has been the most surprising thing that you have learned working in Japan?
It is commonly thought that it is difficult to do business in Japan and that there are barriers to entry and bureaucratic red tape especially for foreigner businessmen. I am not saying that it is not difficult, but I have learned over the years that there are loads of opportunities out there — you just need to know where to look and how to go after them.
The holidays are coming up — is the Christmas season particularly busy for your company?
December is absolutely the busiest time of the year for wine. Restaurants are full with bonenkai parties, hotels occupancy is up
with holiday travel and retailers are busy with oseibo and Christmas gifting — as they say, “‘tis the season … to drink wine!”