Wine experts held at gunpoint, encountering ravishing women in tents, or literally sniffing out the direction of a potential forest fire... While not the usual fare of wine writing, these are just some of the events that occur in "The Drops of God," a Japanese manga (which roughly translates as a comic book for adults).
"New World," the latest English-language installment in the series (and, for now, the last) has just been released, with the characters traveling to California and Australia in an attempt to decipher clues and find an elusive bottle.
The overall theme of "The Drops of God" is that the raffish hero, Shizuku Kanzaki, must learn about wine while fighting for his inheritance. Upon his death, Shizuku’s father, Japan’s best-known wine critic, has left his fortune and vast wine collection to only one of his sons – the winner of a contest decoding his cryptic clues to identify the 12 “apostles,” or what master Kanzaki viewed as the true gifts of Bacchus here on Earth.
Shizuku, his birth son, who has shown no interest in wine yet has a knack for tasting, battles against his adopted brother, a sommelier and critic with a vast knowledge of the subject. The story is serialized in Japan and has been ongoing for several years; the end is not in sight – even in the Japanese edition, where only eight of the bottles have been unveiled.
As a narrative device, the setup works, since the reader joins Shizuku on his voyage of discovery about wine. Of course, it helps that his attractive sidekick is training to be a sommelier; he has the camaraderie of his co-workers; and he always manages to score top bottles, one way or another. Dramatic flare aside, the carefree character combines the joy of wine (turns out he really loves the stuff) with the obsession of many wine geeks today for tracking down specific bottles and tasting widely.
Issei Tomine, the adopted brother, by contrast, represents more of an establishment figure, egotistical and calculating. While Shizuku frantically chases down bottles through his friends and connections or travels to parts of the wine world in his quest, Issei is such an oracle of wine knowledge that he simply needs to go to the Mongolian desert to find the answer to the riddle within the recesses of his own encyclopedic taste memory.
When the story was released in Japan, as well as in other Asian countries soon afterward, the impact was huge as named bottles quickly disappeared from stores. The New York Times reported that the authors’ Francophilia was so contagious that the wines of Burgundy, previously neglected in Japan, saw restaurants stock them again – only to have them quickly disappear. The connection to France led to their translation into French, yet no English-language edition appeared. This changed last year when Vertical, a publisher in New York specializing in manga and graphic novels, decided to publish the first few volumes.
The series received good reviews from critics and consumers, yet something was lost in translation; sales have not been quite as high as the publisher had hoped. According to Yani Mentzas of Vertical, “Publishing comics for a post-teen audience is much harder here in the U.S. than in Japan and the rest of East Asia – or even France for that matter.” Thus, this volume does not follow chronologically from the others, skipping ahead to the quest for the seventh “apostle,” when volume 4 ended with the discovery of No. 2.
"New World" is the most conventional of all the volumes to date since it is self-contained, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Shizuku and his nemesis get an 11-page set of clues that includes a lion, a grand melody, and Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. Both brothers interpret the clues as a testimonial to man’s power over nature, which sends them searching for New World wines. Issei Tomine justifies his search by stating that Napa’s wines “require a lot of hands-on skill that obscures characteristics of the terroir.” Shizuku tastes a Torbreck Woodcutter’s Shiraz and sees artistry of the winemaker in “reviving vineyards with high potential that had gone fallow.”
Wines from Ben Glaetzer of the Barossa Valley and Manfred Krankl’s Sine Qua Non in California feature prominently, but Krankl confessed to Wine-Searcher that he had never heard of the manga! Glaetzer, by contrast, has just returned from three weeks in Asia and he said "The Drops of God" was frequently mentioned. While his Amon Ra Unfiltered Shiraz is produced in small volumes – making it difficult to calculate demand based on the comic – the perception and following of his wine has increased since its inclusion in "New World." Requests for vineyard visits from Japan also reflect the series’ influence.
"The Drops of God" is a lyrical and captivating romp through the wine world. While not recommended as the sole text when studying for the Master of Wine exam, it’s the type of storytelling that has the potential to bring interest in wine to a new audience, particularly younger consumers. Rather than revering wine, we can follow Shizuku’s lead by having an insatiable thirst for learning about it, uncorking a few good bottles, and having fun.