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Sex, lies and vintages: Wine gets the manga treatment

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Decanter, the British-based wine magazine, called The Drops of God "arguably the most influential wine publication." It has made overnight stars of previously unheralded bottlings (one of them, a 2003 Bordeaux, jumped in price to more than $1,000 from about $25), spun off two television miniseries and is credited with spiking wine sales in Japan by 130 per cent the year it was first published. As if all that wasn't enough, it is also packed with sex (or intimations of it, at least), dream sequences, battles between good and evil and cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, which is only natural, of course. After all, The Drops of God, released in English for the first time this month, is a comic-book series.

Written by Tokyo-based brother and sister team Shin and Yuko Kibayashi under the pen name Tadashi Agi, the manga series follows Shizuku Kanzaki, a young beer salesman who is the son of Japan's most important wine collector and critic. Mr. Kanzaki has foresworn wine to spite his father – the old man was a bit of a tiger dad, it seems. But when Mr. Kanzaki's father dies, his will lays out a test for the son: Identify 13 wines, including the one he calls "the Drops of God," solely from his poetic descriptions, or forfeit his inheritance.

The young man's wine education is quick and eventful: Nearly every tasting becomes a transformative, out-of-body experience. One wine takes Mr. Kanzaki to "a strawberry field, giving off a sweet scent, the spring harvest time," he announces, saucer-eyed. "There's a beautiful maiden with her back to me." Another takes his mind to a Queen concert. "It's powerful but I also felt a melting sweetness and a sharp rush of sourness, just as the soft, husky vocals of Queen are wrapped in deep guitar sounds and heavy drums," he says.

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Yup, The Drops of God even has the whole wine-writing shtick down.

Although the series has sold about eight million copies in Japan since it first appeared in 2004 (there are now dozens of volumes in print), its impact on the wine trade has arguably been more pronounced in South Korea and China, where the wine culture is less developed, said Ed Chavez, a Japanese manga expert, who works for the series' American publisher. "In Japan, Western culture and food were old hat when it came out," he said.

But in South Korea, where, according to Mr. Chavez, The Drops of God was made into a TV miniseries and has sold 5.5 million copies so far (that's roughly one book for every 10 residents), the series has been many readers' first exposure to the world of wine, and they have snapped up the featured bottles as soon as each new issue arrives.

The storylines, which dip into short treatises about viticulture, terroir, Burgundy's classification system and the differences between aging in oak and stainless steel, are just didactic enough that a newcomer to wine could do far worse – even if the wine picks in Vol. 1 focus mostly on high-end Burgundies and Bordeaux. (Although the Kibayashis have said they are open to receiving samples from wine distributors, the series has not yet featured any Canadian bottlings.)

Mike Veseth, a professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., who focuses on the wine trade, compares The Drops of God's impact in Asia to the boost that Sideways, the 2004 hit film about a pinot-tasting trip gone awry, gave to California pinot noirs – "but several orders of magnitude larger."

The series' appeal is simple, he said: It's entertaining. "It's a soap opera, fundamentally," Prof. Veseth said. Or as he wrote recently, "Wine is presented as a sort of mysterious but not impenetrable secret society (think The Da Vinci Code), with its own history, geography, rituals, language and traditions. It is a mystery waiting to be solved."

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Chris More

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