"The Initiates" is perhaps the best book ever for explaining, viscerally, the toils of a terroirist.
It succeeds because of the format: a 268-page, hardback graphic novel that follows a year in a Loire vineyard. And it succeeds because of the skill and voice of author Étienne Davodeau, who says, "I was not, and still am not, a wine connoisseur."
What Davodeau brings to the book, in addition to his beautiful, detailed black-and-white pencil drawings, is an intelligent outsider's perspective. He calls biodynamics "nonsense" but shows up at 5 a.m. to spray silica. He mocks his friend's caterwauling when a vine is accidentally killed, but walks gingerly in the vineyard afterward.
The project came about because Davodeau and vintner Richard Leroy live in the same small village, Rablay-sur-Layon. Davodeau knew nothing about wine; Leroy knew nothing about comics. So Davodeau proposed that they spend a year teaching each other about their professions.
"I noticed, listening to him, that I could use for myself any of his descriptions, simply replacing the word ‘wine’ with ‘comics,'" Davodeau said by e-mail.
We learn a lot about the French comics world as well as wine in "The Initiates." Davodeau takes Leroy to his publisher, his printer and France's second-largest comics convention.
But the vineyard work is the highlight. Davodeau's sense of detail is superb, whether drawing the sweaty work of hoeing, the stretched-out tubes on a mechanical sprayer, or the bare, trellised vines in winter. There are frames where it's easy to forget you're looking at drawings instead of photographs.
Perhaps the drawings have their physicality because Davodeau is a participant, not just an observer. He does a lot of work.
"Pick-axing the brambles for hours under the sun and in the dust was for me an excellent occasion to get some exercise," he said, when asked which job was hardest. He loved pruning, "even if, as an apprentice, I often exasperated my 'boss,' notably in the first few days where I very assiduously massacred a few vines."
When asked what job he was worst at, Davodeau opted for tasting. He couldn't identify one of Leroy's dry Chenin Blanc wines he had mentioned in a previous book.
"I have to admit that the notion of a 'great wine' does not interest me very much if that only implies very expensive or very prestigious wines," Davodeau said, although he did reveal that his favorite discovery through frequent tastings and meals with Leroy were the wines of Jean-François Ganevat, in the Jura.
Davodeau and Leroy discuss many of the issues of wine, technical and philosophical, but both of them are no-nonsense people and the dialogue, while smart, never gets pretentious.
And the book is a page-turner. It starts with pruning and goes through summer chronologically, building a surprising momentum as you wait for the grapes to be harvested.
In one of the more amusing sections, Wine Advocate critic David Schildknecht stops by to taste barrel samples. Schildknecht mutters notes into a dictaphone while Davodeau writes, "I observe my comrade's vain attempts to catch his gaze, to establish a conversation."
Leroy insists on going up with Schildknecht to the vineyard, but when Davodeau arrives two minutes later, he's already gone. "He got out of his car, but he didn't let go of the door," Leroy says.
A few months later, Leroy gets the bad news that Schildknecht has dropped an 87 rating on one of his wines, calling it oxidized. Leroy, who made it without sulfur, says, "Ah, it's always the same! Compared with the wines he's used to drinking, I fully understand why he doesn't understand me. I'm taking an approach that's still too much in the minority for him to comprehend."
You read that kind of conversation all the time, but to see Leroy using a chain to scrape tartrates from a barrel while making the complaint adds a physical element, and you may feel that you are right there in the cellar.
This is how "The Initiates" is most different from the popular Japanese wine manga "Droplets of God," which does not take place in a realistic universe.
"I remember a part where one of the characters tastes a wine," Davodeau says of "Droplets of God." "And to suggest his sensation, the authors propelled him onto a stage with rock music screaming as if in the middle of a concert. A little too lyrical for me."
Instead, in "The Initiates," we see stains on their shirts, sweat on their brows, grass in the field. We can almost hear the birds in the vineyards, or the clink of wine glasses. We feel the passion of Leroy, and the growing passion of Davodeau.
When asked if he will volunteer to help harvest again, Davodeau says, "I am ALWAYS ready to volunteer for the harvest!" After reading the book, this answer is not surprising.
* "The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs," by Etienne Davodeau, is published by NBM at $29.99.