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Comic influence: Yuko and Shin Kibayashi

It’s the perennial conundrum: how does one convey the complex appeal of wine to a younger generation? Yuko and Shin Kibayashi, authors of The Drops of God, may have the answer, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.

Yuko and Shin Kibayashi
Yuko and Shin Kibayashi

AT A time when alcohol consumption is stagnating and the appeal of micro-brews and craft spirits is rising, if one were asked to select the greatest challenge for wine, it would concern consumer recruitment – after all, without new drinkers, the industry has no future.

Given that wine has changed little over the centuries, attracting new buyers tends to depend on methods of communication, rather than new product innovations. In essence, how should one convey the complex appeal of wine, particularly to a younger generation – especially in places where there’s no history of wine appreciation? Well, one solution has been found; and it should be stressed it hasn’t come from the West.

It comes in the form of manga, a Japanese style of cartoon developed in the 19th century, and it’s being used to tell a complex tale conceived this century, which, crucially, centres on an obsessive love of great wine.

Called The Drops of God, the story follows Shizuku Kanzaki, the son of a recently deceased wine critic, who competes against his father’s adopted son to take ownership of an incredible collection of wines.

These labels, mostly the great wines of Europe, have been amassed by the critic over the past 30 years, and Shizuku – who has no interest in wine (he works for a brewer) – must race to correctly identify 12 wines, known as the 12 Apostles, and one final wine, The Drops of God wine, ahead of his adopted brother, who is armed with far superior knowledge – he is a sommelier.

A BIG INFLUENCE

Drops-of-God
The Drops of God has been translated into English and French

Such is the dramatic nature of the contest and the originality of the language, as well as the arresting use of imagery, this cartoon series, which ran over 44 volumes from November 2004 to July 2014, has been hugely influential.

Indeed, it is credited with creating a love of wine among large swathes of East Asia, particularly South Korea, where The Drops of God is used like a textbook for learning about wine.

While it’s clearly far removed from anything emanating from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, The Drops of God manages to educate readers in everything from the finer points of tasting and serving wine to the organisation of Burgundy’s crus.

For cultures whose drinking habits were predicated upon saké, spirits and beer, it “presents wines rapturously and in creative ways”, to quote The New York Times, capturing their great allure “far better than a thousand dry scribblings on history and weather conditions”, according to Time Out.

Needless to say, its authors, a brother and sister duo, are wine lovers, and their powerful role in wine appreciation in Japan and Korea, as well as China, Taiwan and Indonesia, earned them the award of 2016’s Asian Personality from ourselves and Vinexpo, which was given to them at this May’s Hong Kong exhibition.

Although they write under the pseudonym of Tadashi Agi, their real names are Shin and Yuko Kibayashi, and all the comics are co-authored, while the wines that feature in them are chosen by the Kibayashis together.

Meeting them for the first time among the suits of senior wine trade figures at Vinexpo Hong Kong, they certainly stand out. They are far removed from the stereotypical wine aficionado: Shin is rarely seen without a trilby; Yuko always wears large dark glasses. As for their personalities, they form a yin-yang. Yuko appears outgoing, gregarious, Shin is a touch more reserved.

And speaking through a translator, during our discussions, it’s notable how Yuko almost always talks first, then, seamlessly, Shin augments his sister’s views, giving a courteous glance before taking over the conversation. One thing that’s clear is the strength of their partnership.

Indeed, the Drops of God came about due to their shared enjoyment of wine. Yuko explains: “We would often discuss mangas during the evening and into the night while drinking wine and we would talk about how to describe each wine, not just how it tastes, but how does it feel, comparing it, for example, to types of people, because we love to visualise things.”

OUT OF THE ORDINARY

Chateau Mont Perat in The Drops of God
Chateau Mont Perat is compared to a “shirt-tearing jam by rock band Queen”

Don’t expect standard descriptions in the Drops of God. For example, when the cartoon series features a wine from Château Mont Perat – a cru bourgeois claret that the pair first bought from their local merchant – it is compared to a “shirt-tearing jam by rock band Queen”, while a Chambolle-Musigny from Roumier is deemed similar “to chasing butterflies through a forest”.

So what do they think of traditional wine descriptions and the practice of scoring bottles? “A wine critic like Robert Parker has done a very good job, but for us, rather than talking about whether a wine is good or bad, and giving it a score, we want to talk about the total image of a wine,” says Yuko. Drawing an analogy with humans, she continues: “If you are asked to describe a person, you might say they are a bit aggressive, but you wouldn’t give them a score – and our approach to wine is the same.

“And some people like elegant wines, others powerful wines, so it is up to them to decide whether they like the wines, but our approach is to give the description of the wine as a whole.” Interestingly, the siblings say that “they never fight” when working together, and Shin says “we love to brainstorm late into the night, drinking and talking, even if sometimes there are no results”. Such agreement applies to their taste in wine too.

For both of them, the bottle that kick-started their shared passion for wine was a 1985 Echézeaux from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which they drank together at the end of the 90s.

Shin explains: “When I was writing I used to drink different types of saké and beer, and sometimes Japanese wine, but it was only when I tried this wine [the DRC Echézeaux] that I felt a big impact. It was like opening the door to a new journey, and then I started to learn more about the culture and history of wine.”

However, the Echezeaux that features in the Drops of God isn’t from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, but Robert Sirugue, and comes from the neighbouring Grands Echezeaux, hailing from the exceptional 2002 vintage.

So how do they choose the wines for the manga? Yuko explains: “We normally choose and buy wine from the internet and then spend our spare time trying different wines, although sometimes we also receive wines as presents, and find that they are good, but 90% of the wine we taste we have bought ourselves.” Shin then adds: “If we think that the drink is good and we find that it conjures up a particular image then we write about it.”

Shin also notes that since their success the siblings have been invited to join professional tastings and take part, for example, in the wine selection panel for Japan Airways.

THE 12 APOSTLES

sirugue Grands Echezeaux Grand Cru 2002
The Tenth Apostle: Domaine Robert Sirugue Grands Echezeaux 2002

As for the 12 Apostles, which can be viewed here, these are undoubtedly great wines from famous sites and renowned producers, and Shin says they are chosen to fit in with the storyline. “We try not to choose wines that are considered perfect, although a couple of them did receive 100 points from Robert Parker,” he says.

Although their great passion is red Burgundy, their tastes are broad, and the Kibayashis confess a love for Champagne – showing great appreciation for the Pol Roger we share during the discussion. They also mention the wines of Asia among their likes, including the Koshus of Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture and wines from two Chinese producers in particular: Silver Heights and Grace Vineyards.

Notably though, despite their fashionable appearance, the Kibayashi’s tastes are traditional: the 12 Apostles comprise three Burgundies, two Bordeaux, one Barolo, one Brunello, one Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, one Champagne, one Sauternes, one Priorat and just one New World wine: California’s Sine Qua Non.

The Kibayashis were already successful manga authors, but admit to being surprised by the success of The Drops of God. “We did not expect such popularity, particularly because when we started writing [the comics] there wasn’t a strong wine culture in Japan,” says Yuko.

“In fact, there was a shochu boom at the time, and many of our friends said to us that we should switch to writing manga as a hobby, not a career, if we were to do something on wine – no-one expected us to make any money.” But such has been the success of this wine-themed comic series, the Kibayashis have started work on another.

This time, however, it concerns wine and food pairing. Yuko records: “I’m often asked when dining what kind of wine will go with what food – so I thought that wine and food pairing should be put into manga.” According to the Kibayashis, the new series is called ‘Marriage: The Last Chapter’ and features international and Japanese food, and, similar to The Drops of God, mostly the great wines of Europe.

Also, as with their original series, the new manga features a contest: the characters must embark on a journey in which they “battle” to find the perfect wine to go with different types of food. “For example, if sushi was the theme, they would compete to find the best wine match, and they would need to use a lot of tricks to make sure the food and wine go well together,” says Yuko.

“So we’ve been talking about it as a marriage battle.” Shin continues: “While it’s a marriage battle, it is also like a new couple getting married. It is like a new start to bringing two things together.”

In terms of how they get their inspiration, he adds that the siblings have been experimenting with food and wine matches at home, but they are also planning to go to France this year to do further research.

A WORTHY BATTLE

Such a series could of course have powerful implications for food and wine pairing in East Asia – a challenging and extremely important topic: the majority of alcohol in this part of the world is consumed socially with food in restaurants.

These authors know how to engage an audience. They were already successful manga authors, but the popularity of The Drops of God is due to a unique combination in the world of wine: a private passion for the product and a skill for comic-style fictional story-telling.

Of course, without the formal training of the wine trade, the Kibayashi’s approach was never going to be formulaic. What is surprising, however, is not so much their original wine descriptions, but their conventional taste.

On the other hand, their choices prove the continued relevance of the great, historic wine regions of the world. As was noted at the start, the challenge for wine concerns the method of communication, not the product itself.

28-Asian-personality
Yuko and Shin Kibayashi with Vinexpo CEO, Guillaume Deglise and Patrick Schmitt MW. The manga authors were given the Asian Wine Personality award for 2016 at Vinexpo Hong Kong in May this year.

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