Alcohol-free World #5: An Interview With Opia Wine Japanese Importer Pacific Yoko

Pacific Yoko imports French non-alcoholic wine brand Opia to Japan and shares about their experience on this market.

Hello, Market Shakers! 

On the menu today, a fantastic interview with Eriko Suzuki, Brand Manager at Pacific Yoko, a Japanese importer of bakery machinery, products, and beverage products. Pacific Yoko is the sole distributor of Opia, a French non-alcoholic wine, on the Japanese market. 

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From bread to wine, the story of an importer strongly tied to Europe

Established in May 1986, Pacific Yoko started as an importer of confectionery and baking machinery, equipment, and ingredients from Europe. They supported Japanese factories to get set up with all that they needed for their bakery business. The wine import and wholesale division came later on, in the late 90s early 2000s. Since then, Pacific Yoko has engaged in importing and selling wine from Europe, with a focus on France and Italy. They mainly import for business use and wholesale to restaurants and hotels. In 2018, the company started to handle the Opia brand from France and gradually diversify its beverage line up outside of wine. Passionate wine connoisseur Eriko Suzuki brought up the idea to branch into the non-alcoholic wine business after her maternity leave. 

This adventure starts with a personal story. During my pregnancy, I obviously couldn’t drink, which sparked my interest in non-alcoholic beverage options. At the time, alcohol-free beers were standard in Japan, but the wine was an untapped market. I found limited choice, and most felt too sweet to my taste. I believed there were higher quality products out there for people that do not drink alcohol.

She enthusiastically spoke to her team about non-alcoholic wines back to the office, and her division felt this new category was worth researching. Pacific Yoko offers the right environment for employees to bring up ideas and challenge themselves with something they want to do. Eriko Suzuki was also confident that there would be many people who felt the same way because of her own experience, so she was able to challenge herself in a very positive way. The company has ties with the winery behind Opia, and the timing was right to explore this new category. 

Opia is a 100% non-alcoholic wine—with no alcohol from the start, bringing non-alcoholic wine to another level.

In the alcohol-free world, beverage manufacturers, breweries, and wineries are faced with two options. They can de-alcoholize an alcoholic beverage until they reach the legally required ABV limit. Or they can reproduce an alcoholic beverage with an actual production process that doesn’t include alcohol at any step. Opia is the latter one. 

The de-alcoholization process consists in removing the alcohol content from wine after it has been made. Opia, however, goes through a different production process. Like conventional alcoholic wine, the grapes are harvested and crushed to extract the juice. Usually, the fermentation process comes next, but Opia wines do not go through this process thanks to controlling the temperature in the wine tank—under four °C for white wine, over 75°C for red wine. That’s what prevents the yeast to start fermentation with the sugar to produce alcohol. Finally, the pasteurization process is also done without the use of additional preservatives such as sulfur dioxide. 

The production process isn’t an easy one to explain to consumers, though. When people hear the wine isn’t fermented, they tend to question whether Opia isn’t the same as grape juice in that case. 

Many of the earlier options on the market failed to convince consumers with taste—a challenge the wine industry is still facing today. The image is another barrier, with people feeling that perhaps a non-alcoholic wine is merely a juice. But the premium quality of Opia’s wines has the power to turn the table around. On top of a great taste, the French brand brings health to the front scene. 

On top of being a great non-alcoholic wine, Opia doesn’t add preservatives at all. Wineries usually add preservatives, although some naturally occur with the fermentation process. Opia doesn’t add any to the natural ones. Additionally, it’s a low-calorie product. A glass of Opia contains a third of the calories of regular wine, so approximately less than 20 calories per glass. A standard glass often reaches up to 90 or 100 calories. 

The nutritional qualities of wine—polyphenols, and anthocyanins are present in Opia like a conventional wine, making it a solid competition from a health perspective. Still, Opia isn’t a product intended for minors and consumers under the legal drinking age (20 years old in Japan). However, it’s a wine suitable for people with drinking restrictions. 

The wine is halal-certified, so people who have religious requirements can drink Opia. We also have the vegan certification, so suitable for people who are vegetarian and vegan. Perhaps in Japan, these restrictions are not familiar yet, but I’m glad to say people of all religions and customs can enjoy our products. 

Japanese consumers were not familiar with organic products back when Opia was launched on the market.

The process of importing food and beverage products to Japan isn’t an easy one. But in Opia’s case, the biggest challenge to its distribution was the relatively niche organic market back in 2018. 

When we first started selling the product in 2018, Japan was a bit behind the times in organic products compared to today. As a result, the interest in organic products was a little lower than it is now, so I felt it didn't have much of an impact at the time.

Consumers with an even remote interest in organic products noticed our wine was the world’s first certified organic non-alcoholic wine, and the news spread. But getting seen by consumers with no interest in organic products at all was challenging. 

No matter how much I explained the merits of the product, it just didn't seem to resonate with them, so I felt like there were two extremes: those who were very interested and those who had no interest at all.

Times are changing, though, and since last year, the interest in organic products—regardless of the product category, is growing. But even with organic certification, the taste must convince, or consumers will not purchase the product again.

Today, Japanese consumers can easily find Opia wines on e-commerce sites, at some upscale supermarkets such as Kinokuniya, and large department stores liquor section, like the luxury shopping complex Ginza Six in Tokyo. 

The price range is about 100 to 200 yen higher than the usual non-alcoholic products from other companies, so we focus on high-end stores and organic supermarkets such as Bio c’Bon. Our products are also available at Aeon Liquor stores, and we’re also available on Pal System and Coop (grocery delivery cooperatives). 

While Opia hasn’t reached the shelves of general retailers, the brand is available through an impressively wide range of channels that includes hotels, restaurants, bridal catering services, variety stores, mail-order catalogs, golf centers, and sporting events. 

I’m pleased to say that we’ve also been recently catering to hospital cafeterias and retirement homes. There’s a need for healthy non-alcoholic products, and Opia, organic and without preservatives, is a great choice. 

Opia is available in three bottle sizes: 750ml, and recently launched 375ml and 200ml. The bigger size is an excellent fit for restaurants, hotels, and social gatherings, while the half and smaller versions better fit the need at-home or outdoor consumption. 

We launched the two new formats this summer. The 375ml is perfect for a couple’s dinner, while the 200ml is a great choice to find in a hotel room’s fridge or for outdoor lunch. 

On the way to grab consumers’ attention

The strength of a non-alcoholic wine is to be proper for any given occasion—consumers can refresh themselves with Opia at lunch without worrying about getting drunk. Moreover, Opia goes exceptionally well with meals, enhancing the dishes’ flavors. After all, this wine is made-in-France in line with the local wine and gastronomy culture! 

Whatever you eat when you drink a glass of Opia—bread, ham, cheese, the flavors will be much more pronounced. I highly recommend cooling the wine and drinking it with your favorite food for a great tasting experience. 

On top of being an excellent wine alternative for the sobers, Opia offers an ideal mocktail base. So, the brand promotes some recipes on social media by adding a few herbs or some syrup for a renewed drinking experience. 

Aside from the sangria and some well-known cocktails, using wines for mixes isn’t something you see often. But in the non-alcoholic category, mocktails are growing in popularity, especially abroad. Innovative recipes are spreading, and while it hasn’t reached Japan yet, a few mocktail bars did pop up recently. The trend is bound to come here, too, and Opia will be a perfect choice for wine-based recipes. 

The pandemic gave the brand a little nudge as well. Facing the spread of Covid-19 in Japan, the government decided to temporarily restrict the sales of alcoholic beverages at bars and restaurants. This measure pushed the foodservice industry to turn to non-alcoholic alternatives. As a result, the recognition of available brands, Opia included, increased.

Interestingly, the restriction offered an opportunity to be noticed by people who otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of non-alcoholic options and whose attention would have been hard to catch. When the government lifts the state of emergency, I hope this new awareness will stay to some extent, focusing on organic  products. 

What’s sure is that, like in overseas markets, Japanese consumers are also more and more sober-curious. Offering high-quality alternatives could be all that they were looking for to embrace an alcohol-free lifestyle. The increased recognition of Opia is a big step toward expanding what’s currently still a niche market. 

Until now, the number of non-alcoholic wine brands has been relatively limited, but I think this boom will create many different brands, so I believe competition will intensify. On the other hand, it is an excellent thing because various options will increase for consumers. However, non-alcoholic wine is not as every day as non-alcoholic beer.

Non-alcoholic beers are sold at convenience stores, drug stores—nearly everywhere, with pricing starting at 100 yen. So they’re already a daily commodity, but non-alcoholic wine isn’t there yet. Pacific Yoko’s mission is to open the door to a future where Opia could be a regular choice. 

At the moment, non-alcoholic beverages have a negative connotation in Japan. For a lot of people, the story goes, “you’ve got no choice but to settle on a substitute because you cannot drink alcohol.” We’ll be happy the day people opt for Opia for its taste and not necessarily as an “alternative.” In overseas markets, however, consumers are positively choosing non-alcoholic beverages and enjoying them truthfully. Japan hasn’t reached that extent yet, but we’ve seen increased products in the last few months

See you next Tuesday! 

We’ll share an insightful interview with historic sake manufacturer Gekkeikan, behind Japan’s unique non-alcoholic rice wine Gekkeikan Special Free

Reach out for questions and comments!

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