The Floating World

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, September 2011

Deborah Fleig and Linda Tetrault’s warehouse looks like some sort of long-term art project. In a way, perhaps, that’s what it is—a sifting expression of the last 12 years of their lives, from the strings of paper origami globes that drape off the windows in their office, to the bakers racks packed to their wiry gills with fabric-covered boxes and multicolored scissors, to the walk-in cooler in the back stuffed with towering stacks of freshly imported sake bottles. It’s a place where Fleig walks barefoot over wood floors and Tetrault’s two boys come after their first day of school to play and wait for their mom. The Floating World warehouse is also a home to a breed of wine you may know nothing about.

Sake is a wine, after all—a rice wine; and the good stuff is made with not much more than rice, water and yeast. It’s a combination that leaves out the sulfites and tannins and therefore the headaches and other ornery byproducts of drinking. But we’re not talking about the sake you’ve sipped hot from a sushi bar, the kind that tastes and feels like nothing more than warm, astringent vapor. Fleig and Tetrault’s sake—soon to be your sake, too—is an entirely different beast, and it may make you turn your back on your beloved beaujolais. 

The stuff you find at most Japanese restaurants in the U.S. is called futsu-shu. This normal table sake corners 80 percent of the market. The differences between it and higher-grade sakes start with temperature—the premium beverages are served cold, not hot. Referred to as tokutei meishoushu collectively, higher grades are smooth, almost syrupy, but without any saccharine hints. Fleig likes to drink hers in a chilled glass with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps the most interesting thing about these varieties is that their flavors range robustly, from airier, champagne-like sakes to those that resemble a good port.

Fleig and Tetrault will be teaching people about this relatively unknown form of sake along with two other panelists in a seminar at this year’s Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta. It’s the first time a sake seminar has been included in the Fiesta’s lineup of events, and it’s something Fleig and Tetrault have been lobbying for over the last few years. The hour-long course aims to expose people to the delicacies and complexities of sake, through tastings, lessons on how sake is made, tips on how it should be drunk and advice how to order good sake at a restaurant.

Take, for instance, this little nugget: The thing that most determines a sake’s quality and flavor, as one might imagine, is the rice. There’s table rice, and then there’s sake rice. About 100 different varieties make up the latter. When rice is used to make sake, it’s first polished to rid it of the fats and proteins on its crust (the good stuff if you want to put it on your plate instead of in your glass), leaving a pure starchy center. The more polished the rice is, the higher quality sake you get. The really polished stuff, the rice that’s rubbed down to 50 percent of its original size, looks like slightly translucent pearls.

This rice range helps determine flavor, but the rest of a good sake’s taste comes from nuances in the local water at each brewer and the yeast used. “In old factories, the yeast occurs naturally,” says Fleig, adding that brewers leave vats open for a time to let the yeast in the air infuse them. “They’re living things.”

Unlike other kinds of wine, sake is meant to be drunk fresh, not aged, says Tetrault. “Sake is more about consistency,” she says. Therefore, much of the sake you drink may have been brewed within the last couple years. An interesting juxtaposition is the fact that sake keeps longer than other wines. “Sake doesn’t oxidize like wine,” says Tetrault. “You can keep it in the fridge for weeks or months.”

Fleig and Tetrault got into sake after starting their other business, taking over the Ten Thousand Waves spa store in 1999. The two have known each other much longer, though, since they both attended St. John’s College. Both were vegetarians when they were juniors, and the school let them take over the kitchen every Friday night to make veggie-friendly entrées for the whole student body. Perhaps that’s what led them to start their first business fresh out of college as caterers. That first venture was short-lived, and soon both went to the East Coast for graduate school, Fleig to earn an MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in NYC and Tetrault to get an MBA from Dartmouth.

In 1999, the two joined forces again at Ten Thousand Waves, and their new ownership of the store led them to take a series of trips to Japan to look for new spa products and antiques. It was during these trips that they both began to fall in love with sake, or the higher-quality forms of sake they hadn’t yet encountered in the U.S. Fleig would stuff as many bottles of the stuff as she could into suitcases to lug back, proudly claiming to have squeezed in 36 bottles into a single suitcase on one trip. Eventually, they decided that they wanted to bring the sake they loved back home legitimately and share it with others, so they began the arduous two-year process of becoming importers. That was two years ago, when The Floating World was born. Fleig and Tetrault acted as distributors while waiting for their federal importing license to come through, and this summer, it finally did. The two ladies got the first shipment of their own imports in July.

Over the last two years, Fleig and Tetrault also studied sake in New York City under John Gauntner in his Sake Professional Course and followed it with a round of sake exams in Tokyo. The two now have the highest level of sake sommelier education available, and they belong to a group of only about 80 people worldwide who can claim the same.

Another panelist is on her way to the same status, though. Ayame Fukuda is a general manager with the Shohko Café, her family’s business, and the vice president of sales at a sake distribution company run out of the restaurant. Fukuda has completed the NYC course and hopes to make it to Tokyo to complete her training in the future. 

What she loves most about sake is how it makes her feel—or how it doesn’t make her feel. “I’m Asian, and a lot of Asian people can’t absorb alcohol very well,” she says. “Some of us get super, toxic red ... I never enjoyed drinking because it made me feel red and icky.” Sake doesn’t give her that reaction, though. “It’s clean,” she says. “It’s not as acidic as wine, there are no sharp edges. It doesn’t have that bite.” She describes it as “harmonious” to drink, and she’s right, because it melds with so many things—from other beverages to a wide scope of cuisines. “I can drink it warm, cold, on the rocks, with juices,” she says. “It’s clean and it allows me to drink alcohol.”

Don Weston, regional sales manager for Vine Connections and the final panelist, likes sake because it’s so easy to pair with a variety of cuisines, he says, especially the lighter, fish-oriented fare he’s accustomed to where he lives in the Pacific Northwest. “In the seminar, I would like customers to take away that sake is not your parents’ or your grandparents’ sake,” he says. “It’s a whole different dimension.”

Fukuda echoes that sentiment. “I want people to walk away with their curiosity being piqued to learn even more about sake,” she says. “Like, oh my god, my whole world has been busted open ... this is the drink of life.”