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Sake Sommelier Linda Noel Kawabata

Beth Ribblett

Fevelo for News

Bronx-born sake sommelier Linda Noel Kawabata found 'soul of Japan,' new career in sake


Monday, November 2nd 2009
Article by New York Daily News
Clem Richardson

Even people who make appointments with her are usually surprised to meet Linda Noel Kawabata.

"I'll come in the door and people will be looking past me for some little Japanese lady," said the Bronx-born, African-American Kawabata.

Blame the mix-up on Kawabata's job as much as her last name. She is a sake sommelier, the U.S. Brand manager for Akita Sake Promotion and Export Council, a consortium of five sake - Japanese rice-wine - breweries.

Two consortium members, Hinomaru Brewery and Suzuki Shuzouten, have been making sake since 1689.

As a sommelier, Kawabata is versed in all things sake - not just which goes with what occasion or which is better hot or cold, but also in minutia like how different types of rice, milling processes and even the containers the sake is stored in affect the final product.

"Sake is the distilled essence of the Japanese soul," said Kawabata, who lived in Japan for more than two decades. "Sake is a part of every important ceremony. Couples aren't considered married in a Shinto ceremony until they take three sips of sake."

As brand manager, Kawabata crosses North America holding tastings for sake experts and initiates alike. She has had several in New York City - the next will be 5 p.m. Nov. 9 at Morrell Wines Bar and Cafe on Seventh Ave. between 48th and 49th Sts.

Scheduled appearances are also listed at aspec-sake.com.

Kawabata gleaned her sake knowledge from mentor John Gauntner, an American and recognized sake expert who has written several books and runs the Sake World Web site (sake-world.com).

But Kawabata came to the subject with hard earned expertise of her own, knowledge that she unknowingly earned throughout her many careers which shared a common theme: "Learn as much as you can from the best people in the field."

It started with how parents Arthur James Noel and Polyanna Noel raised their three daughters in the South Bronx. Kawabata is an identical twin - her sister, an art gallery operator who changed her name to Noel to honor their late father, "has one dimple and I have two," Kawabata said.

Kawabata, then Linda Noel, was an associated health editor for Essence Magazine in the early 1970s when a colleague introduced her to Atsuhiko Kawabata, a Japanese journalist stationed in New York.

"It was like someone struck a match," when they met, Kawabata said, despite his being 20 years older.

Puzzled by how Americans had so much of everything but were still getting sick, Kawabata resigned her position and set out with her husband on a years long quest to find, "somewhere in this world, a formula for wellness," she said.

Their journey took them through Africa, India and Indonesia, ending in Toyko, but only after the Kawabatas spent years living in a farmhouse on Mount Kuju in western Japan, where she taught yoga classes to local farmers.

"Rice was part of the diet everywhere we traveled," she said. "By the time I started studying sake in the late 1990s I knew a lot about the different varieties of rice, so I applied that knowledge to sake."

Atsuhiko Kawabata died in 2000. The couple have a daughter, Hanako, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.

Link to original article: Soul of Japan