How This Toyota Executive Became A Sommelier

Food & Drink

Engineering and wine aren’t things you’d typically think are related. But for Shinichi Yasui, EVP of Toyota Motor North America, Research and Development, those two opposites make the perfect pair. In fact, it was his manufacturing career that spurred his interest in the wine industry, ultimately becoming a certified sommelier. Yasui received his qualification from the Japan Sommelier Association, which allows him to work as a sommelier at a restaurant. And he didn’t stop there. After receiving the wine sommelier qualification, he got another qualification called the “Sake Diploma.” Curious about this interesting combination of passions, I chatted with the Aichi native to learn more about how he balances the two and how being a wine expert helps his career.

What got you interested in wine?

“I was the Chief Engineer for the Corolla from 2006 to 2016. The Corolla is a global car – sold in many countries around the world. As part of my work, I visited many places and enjoyed many dinners that featured special and local wines. My work required interaction with many people, so I thought it would be best to learn and understand the local culture – and one way was through its wine.”

Why is wine so fascinating to you?

“Wine has a long history, going back thousands of years, to ancient Egypt and earlier. So, the study of wine is the study of history! I often visit Europe, and each wine provides insight into the local identity, customs, and history. It provides a rich conversation topic that allows me to get to know people better. Also, wine is unlike other alcohols in that wine grapes carry the yeasts for their own fermentation – which are different in each region that grapes grow. The production of other alcohols requires the input of materials from other sources. The uniqueness and cultural significance are some of the reasons I find wine so fascinating.”

 Where did the drive (pun intended) come from to become a somm?

“Technically, I am a licensed “Wine Expert,” according to the Japan Sommelier Association. To be a formal sommelier, I would have to work in a restaurant – I am not ruling that out as a possible second career (laughs), but Toyota keeps me busy now. Naturally, I started from the bottom by earning the lowest-level category, “bronze,” in 2013. The next year, I took on the challenge of becoming certified in the “silver” category as the next natural step. I was attracted by the wine itself, of course. The history also represents and how its history was intertwined with the history of each country. That interest drove me to aim for the expert level – where I earned my “gold” pin. I also studied sake and earned a “Sake Diploma” from the Japan Sommelier Association. After five years, I can become a Senior Sommelier – or Senior Expert – so that could be sometime this year. However, it would require an even deeper understanding of wine and a more sophisticated wine-tasting and evaluation ability.”

How did you hold down a full-time job and become a master?

“Learning about wine was my ‘night job.’ I attended a special wine school at night, on the weekends, attending about once a month. I was introduced to tasting techniques and study the flavors, colors, and history of wine. This continued for about six months.”

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How do you put your somm skills to use now?

“Before COVID, knowing about wine was very useful when visiting restaurants with friends or associates. Often, I could assist with selecting wines suited to the particular meal or cuisine – for example, at Italian or French restaurants, where the selection is often good. Not everyone is knowledgeable about wine, so I would share what I knew about the wine-producing regions and price, or my favorites. In fact, my very favorite is a red wine made by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, a winery in California. Its 1973 vintage won the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine-tasting – causing a stir at the time because a California wine rated the best in every category in blind taste tests. It really changed the perception of US wines.”

How has your day job helped your somm passion?

“Knowing about wine can help in a couple of ways. First, talking about wine before a meal or in a social gathering can be a type of icebreaker. Discussing flavors or preferences can help to build relationships with business partners and others. Learning to appreciate wine has another benefit. When we evaluate a product in our industry, we encourage the use of all five senses: sight, sound, feel, taste, and smell. (Well, maybe not “taste.”) Being sensitive to the factors helps us deliver the best experience to our customers. Evaluating wine is similar, and my training there, I believe, has improved my sensory skills and attention to detail. This is important to creating attractive automotive products.”

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