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Meet The World's Only Non-Japanese Master of Sake Tasting - John Gauntner

Bill Zeeble

When you have a wine question at a restaurant, you might ask for the sommelier. The best of the best are Master Sommeliers. Well, Japan has experts for its own national alcohol drink, sake. And there’s only one certified Expert and Master of Sake Tasting in the world who’s not from Japan. He’s John Gauntner.

“First thing is sparkling sake, Hou Hou Shu it’s called, from the Okayama prefecture”

John Gauntner’s conducting a taste test for his packed 55 student course in a room with more than a dozen different sakes.

“Next we have Kijoshu which is sake made from replacing some of the water with already brewed sake. It’s also matured for a while, 8 years.”

Most students in this class last weekend are alcohol beverage professionals. They want to advance their careers by learning from the best in the business. Certified sommelier Dario Naxera, from Houston, calls this teacher the sake guru.

“I do believe everything he preaches and teaches is the best out there, the best out there definitely,” says Naxera.

Gauntner’s been at it 25 years. Born in Ohio, he moved to Japan to work as an electrical engineer. Then sake lightning struck

“New Years Day, 1989, someone that I worked with, an older gentlemen, had me over to his house and introduced me to half a dozen different kinds of sake. I was blown away by the depth, the subtlety, the differences and elegance of it.”

So was Lamonte Heflick, one of the few non-professionals in this $825 class. He first tasted sake while working in Japan. Now he lives in Indiana and flew here to learn more about what he calls his Yuppie retirement hobby. He’s raiding the leftover tasting samples.

“This one smells like, almost like raisins, apricots. Is that a little odd? This one is cloudy, the Nigori – very cloudy sake. Some are sweet, some are very dry. The spectrum is just incredible.”

A few times a year John Gauntner comes back to the states to teach eager students the basics of sake, as it grows in popularity here. It’s brewed like beer, but from rice, not barley and hops.  Yet the 16% average alcohol is much closer to wine. And for the unschooled, who think rice is just rice?

“There are about a hundred used to make sake. There are another thousand or so that are used just for eating and not making sake.”  

Kind of like the many choices of wine you may find at a well-stocked restaurant.

John Gauntner busts some sake myths when he teaches his Level One Sake class. 

Are the best sakes clear? 

Gauntner says not necessarily. Sake has been around more than 1000 years and it started out amber. But recently, he says clear sake is preferred in Japan for its pristine clarity. So the amber color has been charcoal filtered out. Filtering can change color and taste, depending on how the filtering's applied. But Gauntner says it doesn't exactly make the sake better. Some are cloudy.

Is warm sake bad or of lower quality?

Gauntner says it's believed by some that bad sake is warmed to mask lower quality flavors. And while he acknowledges that is sometimes done, he says there are excellent sakes that taste even better warmed up. Some are made for cold temperatures, when drinking a warmed sake is a winter treat.

Why is sake traditionally served in small cups?

The only reason small cups are used, says Gauntner, is because one pours sake for a guest, or friend. Small cups are easier to use. But he says sake is consumed in Japan like wine is here. So large wine glasses are used in Japan too, and there's nothing wrong or incorrect in using large glasses. Gauntner even helped design a sake glass made by a famous wine glass maker. It's made to enhance the taste and aroma of the sake, and it's slightly smaller than some of the maker's wine glasses.

Does sake go well with food?

Yes, says Gauntner, who LOVES the many varieties that can (like wine) go with cheeses, chocolate, spicey foods, and especially beef. After tasting a wide variety of sakes in the Irving class Gauntner taught, some of the sommeliers concluded sake would be a great match for steak, not just sushi. But they also concluded it might be a hard sell convincing their restaurant manager to add it to a drink list, where red wines are often the only choice. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.