Richard Geoffry tasting sake

Richard Geoffroy and the idea of harmony, balance, and complexity

We spoke with Richard Geoffroy to discuss his new passion in lifeJapanese Sake and his own Sake brand, IWA. From figuring out what it’s like to continue working amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, to how he wants to be remembered in the history of sake brewery, Geoffroy gives an insightful overview of the craft he has come to love.

It’s no secret that Richard Geoffroy, the former chef de cave of Dom Pérignon, has created a legacy for himself in the wine and champagne-making industry. After 3 fruitful decades in the industry, he has decided to step down to pursue his newly discovered passion—brewing the traditional Japanese rice wine called Sake.

 On Starting a New Chapter in Japan

The state-of-the art Shiraiwa brewery is nestled in a valley overlooked by Mount Tate in Tateyama

Geoffroy, who fell in love with Japan’s charm when he first visited back in 1991, discussed the impact that Japan has made on him and his career.

 “To me, the whole idea of harmony, balance, and complexity have been more meaningful—so no wonder that the new chapter in my life is Japan. To me, it’s the ultimate destination. It’s the only one. I can’t move to any other place. The beauty of balance, it’s something I’ve been observing my whole life. It’s a very philosophical thing, because I think it applies to anything. The motto of my project is ‘the origin is the destination,’ and Japan is my destination,” said Geoffroy.

The Process of Creating IWA 5

In an effort to master the craft of brewing Japanese Sake, Geoffroy assembled a dream team of craftsmen, designers and experts. He decided to partner with Ryuichiro Masuda, the owner of Masuda Shuzo, a highly regarded brewery in Toyama. They then collaborated with renowned architect, Kengo Kuma, the man who built the brewery and who introduced Geoffroy to Masuda, and with Marc Newson, a talented product designer who created the bottle.

Geoffroy shared that one of the secrets to his success is his ability to ‘assemble’ people. “For quite some time I’ve been saying that I’m so proud to be a blender, but I’m more than just a blender of wines or Sake. I’m blending and assembling people, and it’s possibly more rewarding than blending the liquids. My whole life, my whole career, the greatest succession of all really is assembling people.”

IWA 5 – Bottle designed by Marc Newson

The result of this assembly is IWA 5, named after the brewery’s location, Shiraiwa, which is at Tateyama in the Toyama Prefecture. When asked about the number ‘5,’ he explained that it represents harmony and also reflects the elements involved in the process. These elements are: the five strains of yeast, three types of rice, namely; Omachi, Gohyakumangok, and Yamada Nishiki, origin of the rice, yeast propagation method, and the fermentation.

Working Amidst The Pandemic

Like so many of us, Richard Geoffroy also experienced constraints in his work because of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Currently isolated in France, it is a major shift in his lifestyle, after being used to traveling for more than 30 years back when he was Dom Pérignon’s Cellar Master.

“It’s true, Covid 19 affected my work, and I think all of us to some extent, and I’m very sympathetic. Personally, I’m a great believer that life is about the constraints, and that performance and creativity are always from the constraints. COVID has been making things more difficult, and in turn, hopefully for the better, we’ll perform more and become more creative,” he said.

“I’ve got an outstanding local team; 11 people as we speak. They’re very hands-on, active, and they’re making everything. From brewing to selling strategy, you name it. Everything is so well formulated. So hopefully, as we see in the Spring or next year, I will be able to be in Japan to make the ‘assemblage number 2,’ which will be released next year. We’re still currently enjoying the 1st blend, but the 2nd blend has been made here in France. It was only made during the lockdown last April and May, and it couldn’t go. So all samples and components have been sent over to my place here in France, and I’ve been making it on the bench here, which is not ideal but hopefully close enough. I have to outsmart things.”

Kuma Kengo
Kengo Kuma, part of a dream team who designed the sake brewery in Tateyama © JC Carbonne

While he might be isolated from the rest of his team in Japan and has to make due like the rest of us, the specific location where he currently resides is definitely not the worst place to be to contemplate work and life. Situated near the most famous French champagne wineries, he takes daily walks with his loyal Golden Retriever at his side. This gives him the opportunity to feel a deep sense of gratitude and connection to his origins.

From Champagne to Japanese Sake

However, it is exactly this sense of gratitude and strong bond with his origins that enabled him to go beyond what defined him all his life and open a new chapter with a daunting yet exciting outlook of ‘ending unknown.’ Geoffroy, who has been a champagne winemaker for over three decades, decided to alter tradition by using his expertise in champagne, and applying it to brewing Sake, which is made from fermented rice.

“To me, rice is universal, grapes are not. The culture of grapes in Asia is little; in Africa it’s nothing. With rice, it’s the ultimate food staple, and that little white grain is pure. It cannot be adulterated, it’s pure by definition, and Sake is the reflection of the purity of rice. Japanese Sake is purer than anything in the world of fermented goods—there’s no additive, not a drop, a peck nor a gram of anything—there’s nothing,” Geoffroy said.

When asked if he considers himself as a disruptor in the Sake industry, Geoffroy said that he’s more of an “evolver” than a disruptor, and that despite this, he’s very happy that he’s well received in the industry.

Freshwater, instrumental in brewing the best sake

“Philosophically, I keep wondering if we are disruptors. The French could be pondering on this for years. It’s very French. ‘Are we disruptors or evolvers?’ Maybe we’re more of evolvers than we think. If you look at the history of Japanese Sake since day one, it has come a long way. The evolutions should be in the definition of craftsmanship. In a way, it was a tension of the past and something pushing forward,” he said.

“Frankly, I think Japan needs to be pushed, but in a right way. I’m saying this out of love, because all of my motivation is love. I’m 66, I could be retiring, playing golf In Ibiza, and having a good life. But instead, I’m taking a major risk in re-venturing, and I’m doing this out of love.  So, I say Japan has got to accept being challenged,” he added.

Geoffroy mentioned that even before the Sake project was released, a lot of people considered this new venture of his to be stirring the pot in the industry.

“2 years ago, nobody would refer to blending. But now, it seems that master blenders are everywhere in Japan. And I could be annoyed, but I’m proud, I’m very proud. When I looked at the market 2 or 3 years ago, there was not a single blend of Japanese Sake in the market. Now there’s even a Sake maker saying that we’re copying them,” Geoffroy said laughing.

On Becoming a Master

Although Richard Geoffroy does not and will not consider himself a ‘master brewer,’ he does, however, consider himself the master blender.

“In all humility, I will never be a master brewer. No, no, no. It’s all about being really conscious and all. I’m the best in the game when it comes to blending; I’m the master blender. But as far as brewing is concerned, I can give the vision of the project and I can formulate what I’m expecting from the brewing. I’ve got a really outstanding brewing team, they’re super smart and hyper-talented, but my mission is really to formulate the Sake components to the assemblage I’m looking for.”

According to Richard Geoffroy, each version of IWA’s sake will be a little different from each other, making sure that every edition is continuously refined until it reaches the perfect balance and harmony that he’s going for.

“A time has come for Sake. My belief is that Sake is the next big thing internationally. How long it will take, I cannot read in a crystal ball, but I know it will take some time. These things are not coming up overnight, but we’ll make it for certain,” he said.

How He Would Like to be Remembered

Richard Geoffroy in Tateyama, Japan

“To me, above wine and above Sake, it’s to be a contributor. I’d love to be remembered as a contributor,” Geoffroy mentioned.

“Dom Pérignon was the 1st champagne to be introduced in Japan, and in the 70s there was not a single champagne in the market other than Dom Pérignon. We’ve seen how it became an established champagne brand in the market, and it retains that emotional element which is carried from one generation to the other. It has been the first, the pioneer. And frankly, if IWA could be an element of pioneer, and I know that Sake has been around forever, but if IWA can shake things up in the Japanese Sake industry and make it loud enough to the world, I would be so happy,” he added.

According to Geoffroy, he would be so proud if he could present this product to the world of champagne and wine, and hopes that through IWA, the world of wine and Japanese sake can somehow be connected.

“My intention and mission is to love the idea of embracing; to be able to embrace different cultures and different cuisines. If we manage this, we’re on top of anything. And what is good for IWA is definitely good for the entire cause, the cause of the entire industry of Japanese Sake,” he said.

IWA’s brewery will be complete in October 2021, and will be welcoming followers of IWA from all over the world, providing an unforgettable experience for its guests. Beautiful views of the scenic rice paddles paired with a culinary experience specially curated by Geoffroy and his team are also part of the IWA experience.

Each bottle of IWA 5 retails for around JPY14,300 or $150 and is currently on the list of various highly-acclaimed restaurants in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. Last July, the 1st sake of IWA 5 made its debut in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. As for London, a launch in 2021 is planned, which will then be followed by Paris and Italy.

“With IWA, I’m taking a reputational and financial risk. Sake, it’s the most exhilarating venture in my life. This project is entrepreneurial, but the reward is different. It’s special,” Geoffroy concluded.

Like so many widely admired crafts and teachings of leading figures in the world throughout history, Japan has been absorbing Geoffroy’s supreme contributions to such a traditional craft as sake brewing, and making it its own. It is most likely the highest form of respect anyone could get from the ‘Land of the Rising Sun.’ Geoffroy, on the other hand, continues his path of harmony, balance, and complexity, like a humble Zen master on his way to enlightenment.

We thank Richard Geoffroy for this interview.

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