When New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov recently wanted to write about sake, he rang up Jamie Graves.
Graves, a 2002 Oberlin grad who’s managed wholesaler Skurnik Wines’ Japanese beverage division since launching the division in 2017, answered Asimov’s questions. But there was more he wanted to tell the journalist about the mind-boggling growth of fermented rice-based alcohol; for example, the U.S. now imports twice as much Japanese sake as it did a decade ago.
“Through my discussions with him it was clear that I had originally been thinking too small,” Asimov says of the modest inquiry, which blossomed into a splashy full-page article. “Jamie is a superb advocate for the beauty of sake, not because his job is to sell it, but because he believes in it.”
Officially, Graves’ day job involves supervising the logistics of warehousing and legalities of labels, but his overarching mission is to find and share stories that illuminate the subtleties of the Japanese drink landscape. He first discovered his passion while attending trade shows as a manager of high-end restaurants in New York City: Using his Japanese language skills, he learned the sake industry was less corporate and conservative than he’d imagined.
“It’s a big extended community, where everyone knows each other and they’re not trying to tear each other down,” he says of Japan’s network of producers, which includes many family-owned brands. “They’re really challenging themselves and each other to be better. That’s what drew me into it.”
Considering Graves’ attraction to casual collectivism, it’s hardly surprising he chose Oberlin because he wanted to belong to a co-op. He was a member of both Keep and Harkness and served on the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA) board. Like most co-op cooks, he specialized in curries, beans, and rice, but in a portent of him becoming the only American in the 2014 finals of the Sake Service Institute’s World Sake Sommelier Competition, Graves “spent a lot of time and care seasoning and salting.”
Although Japanese would later become central to his career, Graves decided against majoring in East Asian studies at Oberlin because he didn’t want to fuss with the language requirement. (Instead, he majored in history.) But his interest in Japanese culture—sparked by playing Nintendo games as a kid in Connecticut and stoked by hearing the Osakan experimental rock band the Boredoms—was nurtured by Ron DiCenzo, a professor of history and East Asian studies who offered his students “an unromantic view of Japan. He painted it as a real place.”
After graduation, Graves took a teaching job in Japan, followed by several more years in the country as a restaurant cook, before moving back to New York.
These days, he visits Japan about once a year. Lately, he’s taken a particular interest in shochu, the relatively low-alcohol distillate that outsells sake in Japan. “It’s just delicious and has so much variation and history,” he says.
He’d love to tell you more about it.
Miso Marinated Cream Cheese
2 tablespoons mirin (rice wine)
¼ cup (60 ml) miso, preferably sweet white miso
1 block (8 oz) cream cheese
Heat mirin in a pan and bring to a boil. Remove pan from heat and allow mirin to cool.
Once the mirin has cooled, whisk in the miso until mixed completely.
Ladle half of the mirin mixture into a small glass or plastic container large enough to accommodate the uncut block of cream cheese. Place the cream cheese on top of the liquid, then ladle the rest of the mixture over it.
Seal the container with plastic wrap or fitted lid and refrigerate. Marinate for 3-5 days.
When ready to serve, scrape off the miso mixture and save it for use in miso soup.
As long as it’s properly refrigerated, the cream cheese will keep for weeks.
How to Serve
Serve on crackers or with chopsticks and condiments such as shiso leaves or mint. But “given the intensity of its flavor,” Graves advises serving miso-marinated cream cheese in very small portions.
Hanna Raskin is the creator of The Food Section, a newsletter covering food and drink in the American South. She is based in Charleston, South Carolina.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine.
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