Next Week, Our Hero Chooses a Médoc
SIPPING a 2001 Bordeaux from Château Mont Perat, a bead of sweat trickling down his left cheek, Shizuku Kanzaki is suddenly overwhelmed with images of a turntable, guitars and Freddie Mercury.
“It’s powerful,” he says of the wine, “but it also has a meltingly sweet taste, with an acidic aftertaste that catches you by surprise. It’s like the voice of Queen’s lead vocalist, sweet and husky, enveloped in thick guitar riffs and heavy drums.”
Since coming out of nowhere four years ago, this 20-something Japanese would-be sommelier has quickly become the most influential voice in Asia’s wine markets.
In Tokyo, wine sellers monitor his weekly pronouncements before adjusting their stocks accordingly. In newer markets like Taiwan and urban China, his recommendations are turning the newly affluent into wine converts. And in Seoul, South Koreans now hold forth on “terroir” and how a bottle “marries” with a particular dish without blinking.
Never mind that Shizuku is a comic-book figure, the hero of a manga series, “The Drops of the Gods,” created and written by a middle-aged Japanese sister-and-brother team. Asian readers who have never heard of Robert M. Parker Jr. scrutinize the comic hero’s every sip, learning about wine in words and images that may seem strange to traditionalists.
The series has evoked images as disparate as the painting “The Angelus” by Jean-François Millet (to explain a wine’s richness) and a marsh north of Tokyo (to describe a difficult yet rewarding vintage).
“These are images that emerged from wines that we actually drank,” said Yuko Kibayashi, 49, who created the series with her brother, Shin, 46. “It’s like a game.”
The Kibayashis, who write under the pseudonym Tadashi Agi, came up with the series while collaborating on another comic more than four years ago. During their work sessions, their spirits ran high as the wine flowed.
“We found ourselves looking for the drama behind the wines we were drinking,” Mr. Kibayashi said. “It started with one wine, ‘This wine is definitely a woman.’ ”
His sister said, “Right, with black hair.”
In a recent interview at Mr. Kibayashi’s home in suburban Tokyo, the brother and sister, who tended to complete each other’s sentences, said they have long been wine lovers — so much so that they rent an apartment just to stock their 3,000-bottle collection and pay for an earthquake-warning system to protect it.
Neither has any professional wine-tasting credentials; they say they are interested not in using the sommelier’s jargon but rather in describing wine from the average drinker’s perspective.
Indeed, their series “The Drops of the Gods” follows Shizuku as he learns about wine, allowing the reader to do the same. At the start of the series, Shizuku has rebelled against his father, a famous wine critic, by refusing to drink wine and working instead for a brewery. Suddenly, though, his father dies and leaves in his will a description of 12 wines he considers the world’s best, comparing them to the disciples of Jesus.
Pitted against his adopted brother, who happens to be a sommelier, Shizuku must catch up in his knowledge so he can find the 12 wines mentioned in his father’s will and inherit his father’s vast cellar.
The comic — which appears every Thursday in Japan in a magazine called the “Weekly Morning” and has been compiled in 17 books so far — rapidly became a hit in East Asia, where people are still learning to drink wine and may feel insecure about it. Even in Japan, the region’s oldest and biggest wine market, annual per capita consumption is around 2 liters, compared with nearly 9 liters in the United States or 56 liters in France, according to the California-based Wine Institute’s figures for 2005.
In Japan, wine sellers grab copies of the magazine as soon as it comes out on Thursdays, quickly showcasing a featured wine in their stores or on their Web sites. According to Enoteca, a large chain, men in their 30s to 50s tend to ask for wines from the magazine, especially those priced around $30.
The comic’s impact has been perhaps greatest in South Korea, where the Mont Perat and other wines like Emmanuel Rouget sold out after earning praise in its pages. On their first visit to South Korea last year, the Kibayashis were stunned to be greeted like stars. Television crews filmed their arrival at the Seoul airport and they were introduced to candidates during the presidential election.
Kim Jun-chul, 56, who is the vice president of the Korean Wine Society in Seoul and also runs a wine academy, said the appearance of the comic in Korean translation fueled an interest in wine that began around the year 2000. South Korea had been closed to all alcohol imports until 1987, and only a tiny fraction of the population had tasted wine.
The comic thus served as wine primer for the nation, influencing tastes in sometimes unpredictable ways. For example, there was so little demand for Burgundy that even top hotels did not bother stocking it. But after the comic extolled Burgundy’s virtues, stores and hotels scrambled to secure stocks, which immediately sold out.
“I felt the comic’s impact in my skin,” said Mr. Kim, adding that his academy attracted large numbers of wine novices. “Even my own kids, who had never expressed an interest in wine despite their father, developed an interest.”
At Addiction Plus, a trendy Italian restaurant in central Seoul, men in their late 20s to early 40s often ask about wines featured in the comic, said the owner, Kim Chin-ui, 38.
“They won’t mention that they’ve read the comic, though it’s pretty obvious,” Mr. Kim said. “They try to insert terms like ‘terroir’ or ‘marriage’ to show off — normally, to their colleagues or dates.”
“But I don’t think the women are impressed,” Mr. Kim added. “I can tell from their faces. I mean, the women know where the terms are coming from, because they’ve read the same comic.”
The wines featured in the comic are selected by the Kibayashis, who say they have no sponsor. They do, however, accept free bottles from wine importers, though “our stance is that we won’t necessarily feature them,” the sister said.
In general, French wines have gotten the most attention in the series. The Kibayashis are unabashed Francophiles who say they do not feel American wines have the Old World’s depth.
“I don’t feel the terroir,” the brother said.
His sister said: “They’re too simple. Wines are like human beings. The first time you meet, instead of being all smiles and wanting to become friends right away, there has to be some formality, some conversation, before gradually becoming close. When you open an American bottle, it’s all big smiles.” It may be fortunate for Americans that there are no plans for an English translation of “The Drops of the Gods.”
For France, though, whose share of the Japanese wine market had been falling in recent years, the series has been an unexpected blessing.A French translation of the first book was published in France in April and, thanks to strong sales, was followed rapidly by the next four titles in the series. There’s no word yet, though, on whether French readers think 2001 Château Mont Perat tastes like Freddie Mercury.