Friends who don’t work in the wine industry often ask me what books they should read to better understand wine. I’ve been giving them the wrong answer.
It dawned on me recently that most people who have not made a career out of wine don’t have abundant use for reference tomes that map topographical nuance or chart labeling laws and minutia about obscure wines they’ll likely never cross. Those books are only so helpful for someone attempting to forge a connection with wine. Or really, they’re not helpful at all.
Backstory, context, memory, and taste are resurfacing themes when I converse with curious friends about what they find compelling in wine. People are intrigued by individual bottles, remarkable estates, individualist growers and stories that lend perspective and relevance to wine as part of the larger fabric of life. That was what drew me to wine years ago; it’s what continues to capture the attention of so many people who make wine a significant part of their lives in one way or another.
One series of books that succeeds in humanizing wine and placing it within a larger social, emotional, and intellectual context is the Japanese manga series The Drops of God. Authored by brother and sister team Yuko and Shin Kibayashi (under their pseudonym “Tadashi Agi”) and illustrated by Shu Okimoto, the manga uses wine as a medium for self-discovery, friendship and love—while educating its readers along the way.
Drops of God launched in Japan in 2004, and it still runs to date. Forty issues have been published in Asia (it is also available in Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan), and the forty-first will hit stores in Japan next month. Twenty-nine installments have been translated into French, and five have been adapted to English. To my knowledge, the only way to procure them in America is to buy them from a cookbook store called Kitchen Arts & Letters on New York’s Upper East Side, or purchase them online.
The books are a quick read. They tout engaging plot lines, sharp illustrations and alluring wines that capture immediate attention. Book One’s opening scene begins with the protagonist reverently pouring a ribbon of 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru “Richebourg” into a bulbous Burgundy glass, swirling it patiently and noting that it smells like “the scent of a hundred flowers combined.” Later scenes add texture and meaning.
In addition to highlighting individual wines at various price points, the books touch on and subtly explain larger are more complex themes. Vintage variation, correct wine service, blind tasting as both a sensory experience and an avenue to determining quality, and historical appellations are all topics granted attention. With chapter titles like “The Maiden who Runs Away into Strawberry Fields,” and occasionally gratuitous images of female characters spraying streams of Dom Pérignon while wearing bikinis, this is a different kind of wine book. It’s engaging, informative, gripping and aspirational in a way that traditional wine books are not.
The Drops of God also caters to a shrinking attention span, and it smartly capitalizes on the fact that we are all visual learners. These books are action-packed, and illustration drives the plot more than dialogue.
In Japanese tradition, mangas are written in what we consider the back to the front, right to left and bottom to top. It challenges our sensibilities and our definition of normal in a way that feels like a journey in and of itself. This temporary readjustment to our conventional norm is a perfect parallel to rethinking Drops of God in terms of wine education.
The plot hinges upon a blind tasting competition between two men vying for their father’s esteemed wine collection. Whoever correctly identifies twelve wines – the “twelve apostles” and a thirteenth, the “Drops of God” in a manner most like their father described in his will wins the storied collection as an inheritance. Eleven of the twelve apostles have been revealed throughout the series. They are below.
1 - 2001 Georges Roumier Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru “Les Amoureuses,” Burgundy, France
2 - 1999 Château Palmer, Margaux, Bordeaux, France
3 - 2000 Pegau “Cuvée da Capo,” Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France
4 - 1994 Château Lafleur, Pomerol, Bordeaux, France
5 - 2000 Michel Colin-Deléger Grand Cru “Chevalier-Montrachet,” Burgundy, France
6 - 2001 Luciano Sandrone Barolo “Cannubi Boschis,” Piedmont, Italy
8 - Jacques Selosse “Cuvée Exquise” NV, Champagne, France
9 - 2005 Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
10 - 2002 Robert Sirugue Grand Cru “Grands Échezeaux,” Burgundy, France
11 - 2008 Ferrer Bobet “Seleccio Especial,” Priorat, Spain