The manga that moves the Japanese wine world
The most influential force in the Asian wine market isn't expert Robert Parker -- or technically even a person. It's the protagonist of the wine manga "Kami no Shizuku," (aka Les Gouttes de Dieu, "The Drops of God") written by brother and sister team Yuko and Shin Kibayashi and illustrated by Shu Okimoto.
The estranged son of a renowned wine critic, the manga's protagonist Shizuku Kanzaki suddenly finds himself in a competition to inherit a wine collection worth ¥20 billion. The challenge: to uncover the identity of the world's 13 finest wines -- the 12 "apostles," plus the legendary "Kami no Shizuku" -- described in his father's will. The young hero must learn everything about wine to defeat his newly adopted brother, who just happens to be a talented sommelier.
The plot of "Kami no Shizuku" is an intoxicating swirl of family drama and page-turning suspense, with just enough practical knowledge to make it useful as a wine guide.
Manga leads the Asian wine boom
This blend of pop accessibility and oenophilic obsession has been a recipe for success in Asia. Wine sales have skyrocketed since the manga's 2004 release in Weekly Morning magazine. Wine sales in Japan rose 130 percent during the first year of publication. The phenomenon quickly spread to Taiwan, China and Korea, where the comic sparked a wine boom that increased sales by 150 percent. Wine shops all over Asia regularly advertise the fact that a wine has appeared in one of the comic's 24 issues.
"Kami no Shizuku" has been translated into Chinese, Korean and French. According to the authors, the long-awaited English version will be out by the end of this year. Impatient fans, however, have already started posting their own translations of the manga -- as well as subtitles for the 2009 Nihon Television program based on the comic, starring Kazuya Kamenashi -- on the Internet.
Last year, the wine magazine "Decanter" listed Yuko and Shin Kibayashi among the 50 most influential people in the wine world, and the two were invited to join one of France's most exclusive wine societies.
The Kibayashis' backstory
The Kibayashis grew up learning about wine and French food from their grandfather, but their interest turned into a passion after one taste of 1985 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, a celebrated wine from Burgundy. Now, they each have their own cellars, plus an extra apartment to store their shared 3,000-bottle collection.
"It's a mania," Yuko laughs. "Even the bathtub is full of wine, but it's not enough."
Unsurprisingly, the duo came up with the idea for "Kami no Shizuku" over a bottle of vino after work.
"It started out as a game," says Shin, "saying that the wine resembled an attractive woman with black hair."
Writing under the pen name Tadashi Agi, the Kibayashis are known for their fanciful, hallucinogenic descriptions of wine. Mont-Perat from Bordeaux has been famously compared to the rock band Queen, while a Vosne-Romanee Cros Parantoux from Burgundy is like a kiss from a beautiful maiden in a strawberry field.
The most important thing, Yuko says, is to find wines that have a story to tell. While searching for a wine to pair with spicy Korean food, the writers stumbled upon an unusual Italian red from Calabria.
"It was a perfect match for kimchee," Shin recalls. "Then, we found out that the winery was located next to a chili pepper field, and a story came out of that."
The authors are inundated with samples from wineries hoping for a mention in one of the upcoming volumes, but they make it clear that they will only write about wines that have impressed them.
It's not all about super-exclusive wines
Although the manga showcases a number of pricey bottles, reasonable wines get equal billing. This egalitarian approach to wine is part of what gives it such wide appeal.
"In a serious wine comic, it's easy to focus on very rare and expensive wines," notes Yoshihiko Takemura, wine director for importer and online store iwine.jp. "They do that, but they also feature wines that can be drunk on a daily basis, that go for ¥1,900 or ¥2,500. People can get them at a retail store and taste for themselves.”
Despite a clear preference for French wines, the Kibayashis have incorporated wines from other regions -- Italy, Australia and California -- into the manga. At the moment, they're especially interested in wines from Germany, Portugal and Spain.
So far in the series, seven of the thirteen wines have been discovered. The team plans to finish "Kami no Shizuku" in the next three years, and they're already thinking about their next series.
"It's still a secret," Yuko says, "but it will probably have something to do with wine."