🥸 Good Chats: Tokyo time machine with Giorgio De Maria

Something you may not have known about Giorgio: his love for natural wine was born from a year-long work trip to Japan. He reckons it’s still the best place in the world for it.

When G opened 121BC back in 2011 there had never been anything like it in Sydney. Or Australia. Or even the world. There had also been no one quite like Giorgio in this country: so intense, so focused, so passionate about beautifully-made sustainable wine. At that bar, Giorgio envisioned a library that would house natural Italian wines from every single region. He made it happen. It was pretty impressive. Every session there was an education, and I loved it so much I ended up getting a job where I would sometimes get yelled at for doing the wrong thing. Later, he would yell at me for being an idiot at Rootstock. He’ll probably yell at me for this intro.

We’re mates though. I admire him a lot. And I wanted to chat to him about the lesser-known time in his life that sparked his love for natural, sustainable wine. I also asked him to dig up some embarrassing photos shot on film. That was 2008 in Tokyo...

DRNKS: Heard you got stung by bluebottles the other week. Are u ok?

Giorgio: Yesss. I went to Gordon’s Bay with a friend, jumped in the water and when I poked my head out the only thing I could see were thousands of bluebottles all around me. I tried to swim underneath them while getting back to shore, but a couple ended up wrapping around my feet...as they do. What made it worse was ANOTHER layer of itchiness from sandflies bites the week before. So much Australian wilderness for one week. An amazing 2021 start!

DRNKS: Bit of an adventure. Onto a less itchy topic—remember that time you moved to Tokyo?

Giorgio: That was a very long time ago, oh dear. Back in 2008. I was there from the end of January to December. 

DRNKS: Who ended up giving you a job? 

Giorgio: Shin Sakata. I met him through a mutual friend when he was working for three years in Turin at a one Michelin Star Restaurant. Later, when I got to Tokyo, he had only just opened his bright, new Ristorante La Barrique, which went on to win the title of best Italian restaurant in Tokyo. It was so generous of him to give me a job, despite the fact I couldn’t speak the language. Funny thing was, everyone in the restaurant was Japanese and spoke fluent Italian! 

DRNKS: Tokyo expectations vs reality?

Giorgio: Shin explained in detail beforehand what to expect—so I was pretty prepared. I went fully into the Japanese experience: my average workday was 14-15 hours haha. Now I know why people sleep on the metro and in restaurants! After work, Shin would teach me some practical Japanese to use around the restaurant, like how to describe dishes, asking for water, directing people to the bathroom, etc. He’d also take me to restaurants and teach me about Japanese food...often about 2-3 AM. What blows my mind is some Michelin restaurants were even open in these early hours! I was sleep-deprived, sure, but I loved those months, and what I got to learn there, in life as much as professionally was worth so much more than what I put in. 

DRNKS: What was your work life like up to that point? 

Giorgio: I was on the move. After a couple of years in Ireland to perfect my English (haha) I decided to travel and work around the world. Few months in Japan, then Australia. I was supposed to go off to New York and Los Angeles after that, but it never happened. Still here :)

DRNKS: The natural wine scene back then. My understanding has always been it was second only to Paris - maybe even better. What was it like then and how has it changed?

Giorgio: I am of the opinion that Japan was and still is second to none for natural wines. Already back then I was coming across wines I’d never seen before in Italy or France...in fact, I don’t remember Paris being particularly exciting in this space until more recently. It wasn’t uncommon to have some cuvées from now-iconic producers that could only be found in Japan. A few classic sommeliers around the world consider Japan the backwater for bad and faulty wines, but I think we should really be thanking the people of Japan for their passion and understanding of food and wine. Without their support, a lot of now “cool" producers could not have made it. Even today, it’s still the best thing to go to a small bar in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Kyoto or Osaka where you can drink an old bottle of Peron, Panevino, Overnoy, Lapierre, Radikon.. you name it… basically impossible everywhere else. They are always a step ahead!

DRNKS: What were you drinking around that time? Were you a natural wine guy before moving there?

Giorgio: At the time my experience with natural wine was limited and I must say I got the inspiration to go deeper into this field in Japan. The first time I tried a Panevino and Cantina Giardino, that really opened a completely different world to me. After moving to Australia, I went back to Italy for a three-month tour of different regions and their wineries. I was suddenly more curious than I’d ever been about wine in my country, and that drive had all come from my time overseas!

DRNKS: Best, weirdest, funnest party you went to?

Giorgio: Despite the hard work and long hours, there were many opportunities for fun. The weirdest and also funniest was at the Matsuri (see the photo). I wasn’t really sure why I was carrying the mikoshi shouting in unison with all of my co-workers and friends, but it was hilarious.

DRNKS: Help our friends drink. What are your three favourite wines in the shop right now, plus one vermouth?

Giorgio: Well, well… we’re going to get there the long way. Let me tell you the story of one of my favourite ever winemakers: Cantina Giardino. I tasted it for the first time in Japan about 13 years ago and later went on to make a collab wine with Antonio from Cantina Giardino on Salina Island in 2019. I loved Salina and the eolian Italian first sight after a memorable holiday with Libby Travers and Luke Burgess in 2018. I met a local winemaker Nino back then who happened to love the wines from Cantina Giardino. So of course, I found myself on the island the following year to make what I consider the iconic wine of the Mediterranean: a savoury darker rosato. Nino called me when he thought the grapes were ready to pick; myself and Antonio took the ferry from Naples (with plenty of fresh buffalo mozzarella and wines) and went harvesting. The vineyard we picked was on a little high plateau on the island, planted with Corinto nero, Nerello mascalese, Perricone. We decided to use a little anforaia (a cellar with 8 anfora of 800 litres buried into the ground). We then left the grapes on skins for about 36 hours and then the juice to finish to ferment and age for about 9 months in amphora before going to bottle. The wine is sooooo unique, screaming where it is from with an incredible salinity and charm.

 Try it here.