I’ve spent the last two weeks watching a nine-part Japanese television miniseries that is based upon a 20+ volume Japanese manga (graphic novel) called Kami no Shizuku (Drops of God).
Have you heard of it? No? Then read on because Kami no Shizuku seems to be changing how millions of people are thinking about wine. Maybe it will change how you think about wine, too.
The Sideways Effect
Wine enthusiasts like to think of wine as a very serious subject, all vintages and terroir and malolactic fermentation and so on. It is hard for us to accept that something as sacred as wine could be influenced by popular culture.
But we know that it happens. The 2004 film Sideways, for example, is said to have set off the Pinot Noir boom in the United States and brought to an end a previous Merlot bubble. It also romanticized wine in a way that cannot have hurt wine sales overall.
No wonder wine tourists come to the Santa Barbara area to drink the same wines, eat the same foods and visit the same wineries as the film characters Miles and Jack (played by actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church).
Sideways had a big effect on the wine world. The Kami no Shizuku effect seems to be several orders of magnitude larger. The reason you may not have heard about it is that this wine-quake is centered in Tokyo, not New York, Los Angeles or London.
The on-going comic book series, written by Shin and Yuko Kibayashi, first appeared in 2004 and has sold more than half a million copies in Japan alone. The Nippon television series that I’ve been watching on DVD premiered in January 2009 and reached millions more.
The Kiyabashis were ranked number 50 in Decanter magazine’s July 2009 “Power List” of the wine industry’s individuals of influence. Kami no Shizuku is “arguably the most influential wine publication for the past 20 years,” according to Decanter.
Most influential in 20 years! Wow. You can get a feel for the phenomenon by reading this English translation of some of the graphic novel volumes. (Note: click on the images to move to the next page. Don’t worry if it appears to be in Japanese — the English shows up once the story begins. Read the story panels from right to left on each page the way the Japanese do.)
Kami no Shizuku has set off a wine boom in Asia, where, much as with Sideways, enthusiasts rush to taste the fine wines (mainly from France, mostly Burgundies and Bordeaux) that are featured in each storyline. The rising sales of these iconic wines has been good for these particular producers, but I think the bigger effect has been to draw millions of Asian consumers into the market and help them to develop a personal sense of wine.
The Da Vino Code
I’ve been trying to decide how to explain Kami no Shizuku and why I think it has had such a profound effect on wine is Asia and soon, perhaps, around the world. One reason is that it is a good story and that it always important. The Nippon TV series is pretty much a soap opera and you know how addictive those are!
But I think the real factor is that Kami no Shizuku presents a different idea of wine. Wine is presented as a sort of mysterious but not impenetrable secret society (think Da Vinci Code), with its own history, geography, rituals language and traditions. It is a mystery waiting to be solved.
The reward for mastering its intricacies is a sort of divine communication (hence “Drops of God”). Wine can communicate a time and place, an emotion or experience. Tasting wine even allows the living to talk with the dead, in a way that the story makes clear but I won’t reveal here.
A Hundred Flowers
You can get a small sense of this communication by watching the music video with scenes from the television series I have embedded into this post. Our young protagonist is upset with his wine-obsessed father for never leaving flowers on his mother’s grave. He always leaves wine — Domaine de la Romanée Conti Richebourg 1990, if you are interested — not flowers as a proper grieving husband/father should.
Later, as he begins to learn the language of wine and unlock its secrets, he discovers that this Burgundy is the truest expression of the love the flowers are meant to represent — not a dozen flowers, but a field of them. Watch the video — you’ll get this point and more. And so the journey and the complex exchange of ideas, feelings and emotions begins.
“Awaken, Bacchus,” he says, when he wants to move beyond the physical senses to taste the memories and emotions that lie hidden in the wine glass. Who wouldn’t want to have such a transformative experience? Who wouldn’t want to see what mysteries wine can be revealed?
Kami no Shizuku seems to have unleashed two forces in Japan and perhaps eventually around the world. One is the competition for status and self-esteem through the conspicuous consumption of the trophy wines featured in the comics and television series. This materialistic competition is even part of the plot! It is nothing new, although I’ll bet the French producers are thankful for it during this economic crisis.
The other is a different sort of quest — this one for meaning and fulfillment — with unruly Bacchus an unlikely guide. The competition here is more subtle and inward-looking, but the rewards are much greater (another lesson of the story).
Both quests are important from an economic standpoint, but it is only the second one that has the potential to awaken a new kind of audience for the pleasures of wine by waking up the Bacchus inside us all.