Jane Anson meets the creators of the Japanese manga The Drops of God – a comic so influential that a mere wine mention leads to sell-out stocks
Imagine you’re the son of a famous wine critic. Your childhood was spent being taught delicate flavour combinations, but by the time you’re a teenager, you’ve had enough of pushy parenting and drop out to go work in a brewery. Your father, disgusted at your betrayal, adopts another boy who happens to be a talented sommelier, and lavishes his efforts on him instead. After your father dies suddenly, you find out he was clearly still smarting, and has driven the point home by stipulating in his will that you and your ‘brother’ be pitted against each other to inherit his extensive wine collection, worth US$18 million.
Father-son epics have always been the source of great literature. What’s surprising about this one is it’s played out in the pages of a Japanese manga (comic), yet its hero has become more powerful than Robert Parker at shifting cases of wine in Asia. Each weekly instalment has millions of readers in Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan following hero Kanzaki as he races against brother Issey to find the wines their father called the ‘12 apostles’, culminating in a 13th, most desirable of all, known as Kami no Shizuku (The Drops of God, the name of the comic). To have a chance, Kanzaki has to quickly brush up his wine knowledge and, along the way, finds a passion that would have made his father proud.
Readers of the manga have increasingly followed suit. This cult comic was created by brother and sister Yuko and Shin Kibayashi, writing under the pen name Tadashi Agi The first issue appeared in The Weekly Morning magazine in 2004 and the stories have now been compiled in 21 books. In five years, it has become the main mover of wine in Asia. According to figures from the publisher, wine sales in Japan jumped 130% in the first year; in Korea, the main wine store saw its sales rise 150%. Sommeliers regularly report diners
coming in with the latest copy and asking for the featured wine. It has been so successful that the pair were ranked no.50 in Decanter’s biennial Power List this year.
‘We came up with the idea while collaborating on a different comic book about a psycho killer,’ says Shin. ‘But even then I was always trying to slip in wine references. When we decided to follow our true passion, I was surprised how quickly people responded to it.’
Neither of the authors have professional wine qualifications but they grew up learning about French food and wine from their grandfather.
They are now fully paid up wine geeks – they even rent an apartment in Tokyo just to house their 3,000-bottle collection and pay for an earthquake-warning system to protect it. And a lack of formal training frees them up to describe wine in their highly distinctive way, which lends itself perfectly to the picture-book format of a manga. A powerful Bordeaux, Mont-Pérat 2001, is compared to Freddie Mercury’s voice; a Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1999, is ‘like walking in a quiet forest chasing butterflies’; and a Miani Rosso from Friuli in Italy has ‘the consistency and thickness of blood’.
‘Every wine we include has moved us in some way, and nothing goes in that we haven’t tasted ourselves,’ says Yuko. ‘But it is not just about quality; we are looking for a story – something that comes to us from the taste, the label, the name or the history. The first thing we might decide is whether a wine is male or female, and from there we will build up images, and weave it into the wider story.’
The plot of the comic unwinds like a mystery story, with the brothers as enemies trying to decipher the clues that will lead them to the wines. This might take them through the world of art or Japanese cinema, or into their father’s mythical cellar. So far, six ‘disciples’ have been found (the first one isn’t discovered until the sixth volume of the book) and according to the authors, the saga will run for at least three more years, culminating in 40 volumes.
For the first few years, most overseas winemakers only learned about the existence of Kami no Shizuku when their wine sales suddenly jumped up, or when their Asian importers contacted them for more stock. D’Arenberg in McLaren Vale, South Australia, was shocked when stocks of its 2006 Laughing Magpie Shiraz-Viognier suddenly sold out in Japan after talonit was featured in a 2008 issue. And after the Freddie Mercury comment, a Taiwanese importer of Château Mont-Pérat sold out of 50 cases in 48 hours.
Today, no one is in any doubt of its importance – recently the Kibayashis were inaugurated into one of Bordeaux’s most prestigious wine brotherhoods, the Commanderie du Bontemps, in recognition of their influence on the Asian wine market, and they are actively courted by wineries and importers, who send samples to their Tokyo offices in the hope of appearing in a future issue.
The first stories were heavily weighted towards Bordeaux and Burgundy (Kanzaki is supposed to represent the dynamic Bordeaux while Issey is the more complex and mysterious Burgundy), but increasingly, wines from Spain, Italy, Australia and Napa are brought into the story. Kanzaki’s recent praise of screwcaps was seized on by Wine Australia, the country’s wine industry body, and has sparked industry hopes there that demand in Asia will increase for screwcap wines.
There is still one other Bordeaux experience to look out for. When the authors were recently in the region, Shin ran the Médoc Marathon, pounding past some of the world’s most famous wine estates. His sister hinted that the hero of their manga might find himself doing the same thing in the near future…
Written by Jane Anson