Weekend Beat: Manga uncorks French wine
French winemaker Thibault Despagne has a new appreciation for Japanese manga. Ever since the oenophile (電影迷 passion for cinema ) manga "Kami no Shizuku" ("The Drops of God"「神の雫」 a story about two guys who fights over 2000000000 yen assets which were left by world's greatest wine commentator who had been controlled a world wine market. ...) described one of his wines as the band Queen in a bottle, consumers across Asia have been clamoring to buy the elixir.
|A Japanese manga has given Thibault Despagne’s wine a boost in Asia. (Takahiro Yanai/ Staff photographer)|
"I'm amazed with the influence of that manga in Asia and in Japan, in particular," Despagne, 34, said during a recent interview in Tokyo. "I've had some good articles from (Robert) Parker and other wine people, but the impact of the manga is huge."
The manga, a collaboration between a brother and sister duo writing under the pen name Tadashi Agi, delivers a bit of mystery along with wacky wine descriptions. Overtones of blueberry, chocolate and spices? Boring. Try rock concerts and psychedelic nature scenes.
The manga has already been translated into Korean and Chinese, with the French version due next year. Despagne looks forward to seeing how far the phenomenon will spread.
What does he think of comparing a bottle of his 2001 Chateau Mont-Perat to Freddie Mercury? "Tasting is a very personal thing," Despagne says, grinning. "But I do think we had special vibes when we made that wine because it was the year of my son's birth."
The publicity has been good for the vineyard that Despagne runs with his sister, Basaline, in the Entre-Deux-Mers region of Bordeaux. "We were lucky, because we were one of the first wines to be highlighted, and they wrote really nice stuff about us."
In 2004, Despagne collaborated with Japanese wine distributor Vintners Inc. to create an original brand Les Amants du Chateau Mont-Perat. The wine's label features a photo of a sculpture that Despagne's wife, Sophie, made from clay collected at the chateau. When 20,000 bottles of the wine hit the Japanese market in September, they sold out within a day.
For Despagne, the manga's creative wine descriptions are a relief from conventional wine reviews. "People really want to have Parker tasting their wines. They'd sell their daughters to get good Parker ratings. I never really got into that," he says. "It was pretty unexpected help, that manga."
The popularity of Chateau Mont-Perat after the mention in "Kami no Shizuku" is similar to the pinot noir boom after the film "Sideways," Despagne says, adding that pop culture is an effective way of reaching people who are curious but perhaps intimidated by wine.
"It doesn't have to be taken seriously, and there has to be a casual way to look at it, especially for the French. We're too sophisticated in our wine drinking and too serious about wine. We have to relax--it's only wine," he says. "Basically, the idea with wine is just to get together, have some food, and wine will open your heart and your tongue a little bit. It's just to make people comfortable."
Despagne is determined to change the image of his native region, both in France and abroad. The area where Despagne and his sister make their wine, Entre-Deux-Mers, is considered one of the worst areas in Bordeaux for winemaking.
Calling his wine an underdog is an understatement, Despagne says. "Entre-Deux-Mers is a synonym for headaches for a lot of people, which is of course not true when you put in some passion and hard work."
About 95 percent of the Despagne wines are sold overseas. "I have to travel to find people who will appreciate this wine," he says.
Though his family's winemaking history goes back 250 years, Despagne didn't grow up thinking he'd become a winemaker. "I guess it just soaks into you. I was always used to seeing my parents spend a huge amount of time with their friends, having lunch and wine," he says. "For me, spending five, six, eight hours at the table with friends, drinking bottles and bottles of wine, seems pretty normal. I also used to help my father on the weekend during the harvest, but I never imagined myself making wine. That came later."
For several years, Despagne used his family's winemaking as means to pursue his passion, traveling the world. He worked on vineyards in Chile, California, New Zealand and Australia before returning to France. From there, it's a simple story. "It was fun and the wine was good. I got into it."
Since Despagne took over the vineyard from his father, he's been something of a wine ambassador to the younger generation.
His vineyard is now a part of Oxygen, a group of 16 young winemakers from Bordeaux who hope to convey that the region is not an old-fashioned place run by stodgy oldsters. "We're not sitting locked in our chateaux," he says. "We like to drink wine, be with people and have dinners together just like everybody else."
Having an eye on the next generation also means environmental sustainability, Despagne says. His vineyard has been a pioneer in the region in promoting recycling as well as water and energy conservation. For the past 10 years, the vineyard has consulted a vine nutritionist who promotes preventive health in plants. Despagne and his sister have also started growing sunflowers so they can produce vegetal oil to be used as fuel in tractors and other machinery.
In 1997, the Despagne family was recognized by the International Organization for Standardization for their quality control management and traceability systems. In 2004, they received additional certification for environmental friendliness.
With all of Despagne's concern from eco-friendly wine, his take on organic wines comes as a surprise. "I'll never make organic wines--never," he says, explaining that he disagrees with the rules applied to organic wine production and considers copper--a common additive used in organic wine--to be harmful to the environment.
"I prefer right now to use synthetic molecules that I think are less damaging than copper, which is natural but saturates the soil," he says. "Everywhere in the world there's a race for everything organic, but we'll see how it goes."
The vineyard's newest wine, Girolate, won a blind tasting of 2001 vintage wines. Grapes for the wine are picked by hand and no machinery is used in the winemaking process. "It might take 10 years, but this one will be recognized as one of the best in the world," Despagne says.
Better than Queen in a bottle? "This is another dimension, this one."(IHT/Asahi: November 10,2007)