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Know Your Sommeliers: Toshio Ueno

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18/09/2023 With his passion and expertise in Sake, Shochu, and Wine, Toshio aims to further promote Japanese food and Sake cultures to new, international audiences

Toshio Ueno is an International Drinks Specialist, and Business development professional in Japanese food & alcohol beverage distribution, plans and leads multiple corporate projects. He is also the creator of Sake School of America, a provider of SSI International, WSET, and Japan Sommelier Association certification programs.

Your current place of work?

Sake School of America, Inc. & Mutual Trading Co., Inc.

Tell us about yourself.

Toshio is the creator of the Sake School of America and English Shochu Adviser Certificate program, and the first one in the world to hold Master of Sake (酒匠), Master Sake Sommelier (日本酒学講師), WSET Sake Educator diploma and WSET Diploma in Wine & Spirits. Born in Japan where his family has grown the Japanese wine grape, Koshu, for generations, Toshio grew up helping the business from a young age. Following his college education in the US and employment at an international trading company in Tokyo, Toshio joined Chateraise, a pastry and wine company as Director of Sales. There, he was put in charge of overseeing the personal wine collection of the company's president, which intrigued him to enter the world of wine stewardship and research.

Toshio joined Mutual Trading Company in 2002, where he is Director of the Sake Specialist Division in marketing Japanese foods, Sake, and Shochu to the mainstream American trade. With his passion and expertise in Sake, Shochu, and Wine, Toshio aims to further promote Japanese food and Sake cultures to new, international audiences. Since 2010, he has been Vice President and executive Instructor at Sake School of America. In 2016 he was awarded the industry’s most prestigious title Sake Samurai from Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association.

In February 2021, he was appointed as The Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassador by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In 2023, he was awarded a Foreign Minister’s Commendation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. Toshio is also a Board Director of the Society of Wine Educators and a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and International Drinks Specialists.

Why did you want to become a sommelier?

I like drinking wine, interacting with people, and seeing people open their eyes to discover the wine they like.

Image: Toshio Ueno at Sake International Association

Questions you would ask a customer who doesn't know anything about wine?

What kind of wine did the customer try and like in the past, and ask how that person liked the particular wine.

What are some of the most important skills for a sommelier?

Insightfulness, humbleness, experience, self-training.

How I would train my new staff member in their first 7 days of joining.

Enforcing them to memorize our menu both food and wine and taste food and wine, training them on table work (presentation, opening bottles, how to pour, etc.), the flow of the floor, and how to approach and talk to customers, and how to smile when they are busy.

What methods do you use to grow wine sales - top line? Please explain with examples.

Ask what the customer wants first, suggest appropriate wines, cross-selling & upselling, ie. suggesting better food pairing with higher quality wines.

What methods do you use to grow net profits?

Cross-selling & upselling, ie. suggesting better food pairing with higher quality wines and recommending water, aperitif, sparkling wines, digestif, and coffee or tea to complete their meal.

How do you self-learn and improve your skills?

Expose yourself to more tasting food, drinking wine, reading books, watching videos, and practicing skills continuously.

What's the best part of your job?

Seeing your customer enjoying their time.

How do you elevate the guest experience? Please give 4-5 examples and insights here.

Special occasion recognition, personalized services, seamless reservation, and waiting experience, attention to detail in ambiance, and post-dining follow-up.

How can suppliers work with you to drive sales?

Promotional support, sharing success stories, staff training, marketing support, and exclusive offerings...

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Can you share with us an example of a solid wine program?

Diverse wine selection, balanced pricing, wine pairings, regular menu updates, wine education, wine events and tastings, and collaboration with suppliers.

What are the four main things you focus on daily?

Inventory management, staff training, customer interaction, menu and wine list evaluation.

What are the points you look at when selecting a new wine for your wine program?

Comparability with menu concept, addition or replacement, current inventory, and timing.

According to you, what makes a good sommelier, and what qualities do you look for when hiring a sommelier?

Humility, neatness, business mind, team player, teachable and flexible person.

What do you look for when you have to evaluate the effectiveness of the wine program?

Improvement of profitability and increase in the number of returning customers.

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