Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Subtle Art of Organic Metamorphosis

Richard Geoffroy’s boundless pursuit of beauty steered Dom Pérignon for almost three decades—his new global proposition: Swapping champagne for artfully blended, perfectly experimental sake.

By Gemma Z. Price


“Wow. Just wow,” says Richard Geoffroy, leaning on the wooden deck railing with both hands and inhaling deeply as the sun slips below a canopy of ancient growth clifftop redwoods, the relentless Pacific ocean seething against the shoreline.

 

As former chef de cave, or cellarmaster, for Dom Pérignon—a role he held for 28 years—Geoffroy spent his career dining at restaurants in beautiful corners of the world. This collaboration dinner with Chef Matt Kammerer at The Harbor House Inn in Elk, northern California, is part of a peripatetic global dinner series to introduce food and drinks lovers to Geoffroy’s latest project: IWA 5 Sake of Japan.

Kammerer’s singular ability to conjure this remote coastline’s vital abundance and wild drama through creative interpretations of seasonal products and produce has earned his restaurant, housed within this 10-room inn, two Michelin stars. When Geoffroy asked if he’d be game to create a tasting menu paired exclusively with sake—a first for Kammerer—he jumped at the chance.

 

“There’s so much umami in our food that it’s one of my preferred drinks with our cuisine—it’s almost like I cooked a menu that I would want to drink with,” he says.

 

First, an opening sip of warm dashi, crafted from nori foraged from the cove below, before cured bluefin tuna, caught off the coast of Fort Bragg, 25 miles north, paired with IWA 5 – Assemblage 3, served at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The sake coats my palate, enhancing the sensation of the fat from the fish melting on my tongue, unfurling a textural tapestry, yielding peach, hazelnut, wood, anis, and green tea through a mouthwatering finish.

“Wow. Unconventional, but perfect,” muses Geoffroy. 

IWA has released five lots of sake, each a numbered “Assemblage,” since Geoffroy founded the brand in 2019. Assemblage 3 is also the pairing for the next course—chawanmushi crowned with oysters from neighboring Humboldt County, with lightly smoked red dulse seaweed foraged from the bay below—but this time served at cellar temperature, delightfully cool when it first touches the lips before opening up. Bay laurel-smoked black cod with shishito peppers paired with warm IWA 5 – Assemblage 2. Raw slivers of Knight’s Valley Wagyu beef are served shabu-shabu in broth crafted with the first chanterelles of the season and tiny slivers of Tokyo turnip, paired with IWA 5’s first release, Assemblage 1, yielding a surprising interplay of sweetness and bitterness.

Serving each Assemblage at a precise temperature, defined through dialogue with Kammerer and Harbor House’s wine director Kelly Eckel, is entirely intentional. As much as Geoffroy has sought out chefs like Kammerer, with whom he shares synergy and vibration to showcase IWA 5’s versatility as a pairing for global cuisines, he encourages diners to explore IWA 5’s range through the interplay of temperature and texture and varying stemware.

“The energy that goes into making IWA 5 is mirrored in its drinking. I encourage the followers and lovers of IWA to take an element of risk in experimenting as much as I do,” says Geoffroy.

Geoffroy, a Champagne native, first visited Japan in 1991—a year after his tenure at Dom Pérignon began—and his love of Japanese culture evolved gradually over decades as he made connections and deepened friendships “of few words and loyalty,” spending more and more time there outside company engagements until, by his own admission, he was hooked.

Geoffroy recalls sipping a nameless sake in a glass jar in a shojin ryori, a vegetarian Buddhist restaurant, at Kyoto’s Daitokuji temple and being struck by the unexplainable green flavors in its expression. On countless trips to Japan, he enjoyed many memorable kaiseki dinners, a traditional multi-course Japanese meal that expresses the current moment in nature by highlighting seasonal ingredients at their peak. However, one evening spent with chef Tokuoka Koji at Kitcho stands out.

“It was fireworks at a level never anticipated. In retrospect, I realized that he wanted to honor, demonstrate or prove something. It was a personal thing between him and myself,” he recalls.

“Getting into the maze of cultures of Japan, getting lost on a regular basis, and noticing that some people were trying to get me lost. It was pure joy.”

All good stories bristle with opposing and complimentary characters, including this one. The plot converges at the turn of the millennium. Renowned architect Kengo Kuma introduced him to visionary brewer Ryuichiro Masuda, whose home prefecture Toyama, framed by the Hida Mountains to the south and the Sea of Japan to the north, checked every box for Geoffroy, from its pristine water to outstanding cultivation of rice. Geoffroy had been considering his next project on departing Dom Pérignon in 2018 and said partnering with Kuma and Matsuda to make sake was a natural transition. 

“Sake imposed itself, head and shoulder. In the same way, wine is cultural; sake is more than the liquid in a glass; it’s a culture of Japan: its history, traditions, craftsmanship, feelings, and philosophies, in that transparency.”

Geoffroy profoundly appreciated the unsurpassable work of Japan’s toji and wanted to make a personal contribution to Sake’s millennia-spanning story, informed by his background—a sake that honored Japan’s tradition and essential character of “flow” and made more accessible, opening dialogue with the world.

He set out to make balanced, complex, and age-worthy sake with a paradoxical quality of weightless richness. After two years of experimentation, constantly tweaking sake’s hard-to-master elements of microbiology and timescale, he concluded that a single brew was insufficient to develop these qualities. Blending was the answer.

The name IWA 5 derives from its location, Shiraiwa, the site of its namesake Kengo Kuma-designed kura in Japan’s Toyama Prefecture. The number five represents the assemblage components: rice varieties and strains, yeast strains, starter colonies, and reserve sakes.

“Every year, we test new things in and out; subsequently, each Assemblage is different: an interplay of stimulation and anticipation, discovery, surprise, conversion, and preference,” he explains, noting that industrial designer Marc Newson, who was involved in the development of Apple Watch, transfigured the traditional sake vessel to create IWA 5’s opaque, tactile bottle. 


Typically, sake is enjoyed young, but Geoffroy believes IWA 5 can cellar for at least ten years, likely longer—a hypothesis he’s testing, along with theories in marketing and distribution, during his dinner series. Every restaurant that hosts a dinner is part of the test kitchen: The French Laundry, the Crenn Group, Addison, Honolulu-based Margotto, and now The Harbor House Inn. For Geoffrey, being recognized for this new interpretation of a 1000-year-old cultural icon, especially in Japan, where he hopes to inspire others to follow in IWA’s footsteps, would be the ultimate compliment.

“Wine will always be above the dish. Sake is on par, a lateral extension of the food itself,” he explains.

 

“I think IWA 5 is one of the greatest pairing beverages on Planet Earth.  I believed Champagne was it for a long time, but I think Champagne’s got a great contender.”

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