TADASHI AGI and SHU OKIMOTO
The Drops of God, vol. 1-5, New York: Vertical Inc., 2011, 432 pp.
(vol. 1) (paperback), $14.95. 2011, 416 pp.; ISBN 978-1935654292
(vol. 2) (paperback), $14.95. 2012, 416 pp.; ISBN 978-1935654360
(vol. 3) (paperback), $14.95. 2012, 392 pp.; ISBN 978- 1935654391
(vol. 4) (paperback)
Reviewer: Mark Heil
I approached The Drops of God (DG) as a serious skeptic. After all, how could a career economist steeped in neoclassical theory find kinship in a 400 page comic book? Surprisingly, DG made short work of my inner skeptic, as my curiosity gave way to genuine interest before yielding entirely to the charms of my first full length graphic novel. Perhaps the contrast itself is the appeal – the animated storylines offer a welcome respite from the left brain-dominant world we economists inhabit. I recommend readers of this journal seeking an entertaining diversion to consider picking up volume 1. If you take the initial step, here’s betting you’ll soon be buying the next volume too.
DG is a multivolume wine-themed Japanese graphic novel (“manga”), currently making its English translation debut one volume at a time. This review is based on the first four volumes available in English. The manga was originally published as a comic strip in a weekly newspaper in Japan beginning in the early 2000s, before becoming a 34 volume series of graphic novels there (with a total of 48 volumes planned). The Fall 2008 issue of this journal provides an insightful review of the original Japanese version of the series (Musolf, 2008). DG’s popularity spawned translation into French, Korean, Taiwanese, and now English, as well as a television adaptation in Japan. Two siblings, successful manga authors writing under the pen name Tadashi Agi, created the series and Shu Okimoto provides attractive illustration. The English language publisher currently plans to print five volumes, which covers ten Japanese volumes.
Plot and Presentation
DG’s storylines offer compelling drama that alternate between moments of swift action and periods of reflection. The main plot builds around Shizuku Kanzaki, the son of Japan’s premier wine critic who, in an act of youthful rebellion, had vowed never to drink wine. When his father dies suddenly, he learns he must vie to inherit his mansion and world-class wine collection. The competition stipulated by his father’s will requires Shizuku attempt to identify a list of twelve wines (Apostles) favored by his father, plus the divine “Drops of God”, based on his poetic written descriptions. His opponent is his father’s rising star protégé wine critic and adopted second son.
Against this backdrop, a lively tale of intrigue and hijinks ensues. This pursuit takes our protagonists to far corners–exclusive Tokyo restaurants, Burgundian vineyards, the Taklimakan Desert in China, even a homeless wine guru’s makeshift shelter. The authors convey a deep reverence for exceptional wines, at times accompanied by emotional content that keeps the reader engaged. I unexpectedly found it hard to put down.
Part of the appeal stems from the vivid descriptions of wines sprinkled throughout each volume–evoking fields of wildflowers, crystalline lakes, rock concerts, and priceless works of art. Volume 3 describes the 2002 Chateau Lafite- Rothschild:
Plump, mature, almost pitch black cherry aromas. A bright forest full of foliage and frolicking animals. Germany’s swan castle. A beauty pregnant with madness, timeless architecture, surviving the ages, reflecting antiquity, modernity, and even futurity. Lafite is the stately calm of an old castle.
Similarly, the series lionizes legendary winemakers like Henri Jayer, who buck convention to chart their own courses, resulting in exceptional quality.
Through their characters, the authors demonstrate their affinity for premier French and Italian wines, which dominate the discourse. Yet, they provide balance by touting the quality and accessibility of lesser-known value wines. This duality offers newcomers a pathway to gain a toehold in the market by introducing them to affordable wines now, while stoking their aspirations to taste the superstar Grand Crus later. The first four volumes of DG make scant mention of other wine regions including those in the U.S., although I understand some later volumes of the original Japanese versions are devoted to them.1
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the series is the outsized influence ascribed to it by some in the wine industry. Decanter magazine called it, “Arguably the most influential wine publication for the last 20 years”. Such exaltations seem overblown at first blush, considering the hundreds of detailed tomes published over the period. Undoubtedly, the statement is meant to be provocative.
The evidence on its influence appears to be long on anecdotes and short on hard data. For example, numerous reported cases of changes in beverage ordering practices to include more wine within the Asian hospitality industry exist. Tales of demand spikes for specific wines mentioned by the series abound. More generally, the primary support for the DG’s influence remains the rapid growth of wine sales in Asia, marked by the emergence of Hong Kong as the world’s leading wine auction site by sales value, and the run-up in prices of high-end wines. This virtual explosion has roughly coincided with the publication dates of DG, beginning in 2004. Of course, no single publication or activity accounts for these remarkable market developments. The combination of globalization, rapid economic growth, wine investing, and the rising popularity of more traditional wine education surely share some of the credit.
Nonetheless, to the extent it educates readers, publication of this manga series could be credited with making basic wine knowledge far more popularly accessible than before. By lowering barriers to entry, DG may well facilitate market expansion, perhaps both for the specific wines it features and for wine generally.
It is impossible to definitively verify the claims of the series’ influence on demand (particularly Asian) given the numerous contemporaneous dynamics in the global wine market. Still, if the data were available, an economist could attempt to test its influence statistically. For example, a general approach might test for structural breaks in the time-series relationships between French wine prices and their determinants before and after the publication of the series in different countries.
However, this could create an attribution problem if a break were found. Another option might take pooled data on price and its determinants and incorporate a dummy variable (and interaction terms) to designate specific wines (and their vintages) mentioned by DG to assess potential influence on price. A variation could use an event study method to assess potential “excess returns” to prices of these specific wines by comparing them to a broader wine price index such as the Liv-ex 100. In principle, this approach would mitigate the attribution concern, however, it may be complicated by the potential information spillover effects of different overlapping publication timelines in neighboring countries (DG began publication in Japan in 2004, South Korea in 2005, Taiwan in 2006, and China in 2010).
Education Value and Human Character
How credible is the claim that DG is an important knowledge dissemination vehicle? The series appears designed in part as a heuristic tool. Its central character is a wine novice who serves as a ready point of departure for readers to learn about wines alongside him. In Shizuku Kanzaki’s initial encounters, he stumbles to grasp some basic precepts of wine knowledge and appreciation. But armed with a cocksure attitude and youthful exuberance, he forges ahead and becomes an educational conduit for the wine neophyte reader.
In this vein, the series offers numerous potentially useful, yet entertaining, basic oenological lessons. They touch upon, for example, the influence of soil on resulting wine characteristics, the restrained winemaker’s ability to reveal the essence of a grape, and proper pairing of wines with food. While the graphic format avoids technical language and greatly simplifies these insights, it undoubtedly helps educate at least some who would otherwise avoid making the investment in a more conventional wine education.
DG’s true pedagogical value may lie in its function as an initial hook to engage a previously disinterested (and likely considerably younger than typical wine aficionado) audience. If a subset later becomes more fully immersed in knowledge acquisition, accompanied by wine consumption and collection, one could conclude the market had been influenced, perhaps profoundly so.
DG’s depiction of wine as revelatory of personal character and wisdom was particularly intriguing to me. For instance, the series describes a range of personalities who experience wines in distinct ways–as purely a money-making business interest, as an instrument for psychological recovery, as a pathway to true knowledge, etc. Wine helps to reveal and sometimes improve character, and these profiles emerge via compelling episodic storylines.
In one case, an elderly father who bequeaths his small wine shop to his quarrelsome sons buys a large amount of a Marsannay village wine and counsels them to learn from the experiences of its sibling winemakers.
I want you two to be like the brothers Philippe and Vincent Lecheneaut who made their domaine succeed – that’s the message this wine bears. Domaine Lecheneaut was founded by their father Fernand. It was a puny domaine. Their father died in ’86. . .the brothers were at their wits end. . .the two of them had completely different personalities. Their views were opposite as well. Just like you two. . .As long as their agendas clashed in each bottle, there was no way their wine could move the drinker. They saw this and began to confer about all stages, so they could draw out each other’s strengths. While the older brother tended to the grapes, the younger turned them into wine. All for the single purpose of “creating a moving wine”. And eventually their talents blossomed. . .In 1991, they achieved their dream. . .wines labeled “Domaine Philippe et Vincent Lecheneaut” bearing both brothers names saw the light of day…their wine became the talk of critics and enthusiasts. In the end, Robert Parker, Jr., strict in his ratings of Burgundies, came to award a perfect score of 100 to their Grand Cru, Clos de la Roche. . .I want you working together to build up the dull, dinky shop I’m leaving you. Make it into the biggest wine shop in Japan. Be like the Lecheneaut brothers.
Readers know intuitively that wine alone cannot fundamentally alter human character. Yet, I found an enjoyable part of the experience to be my own willingness to suspend disbelief as the story unfolded. Imagining a world that benefits from having wine play a more primary role in social and professional relationships becomes easier to do thanks to DG. That alone is an achievement.
As a first time manga reader, my expectations for this series were low. Yet, as a wine lover and Asia-watcher, I found the series surprisingly appealing. While it is no substitute for the deeper knowledge gained through serious study and experience, it artfully helps to demystify wine for those who may have considered it too formidable or simply lacked interest, while providing high entertainment value. Readers of this journal seeking a head-clearing break from data-intensive analytic work will benefit from test driving the first volume. You might find yourself transported into a parallel realm devoid of data but rich in drama, artistry, and imagination, all closely intertwined with our favorite liquid companion.
1 Volume 5 of the English translation series, released after this review was written, focuses on New World wines, particularly on California and Australia.
Musolf, P. (2008). Review of Tadashi Agi (writer) and Shu Okimoto (illustrator): Kami no Shizuku: Les Gouttes de Dieu. Vol. 1. Journal of Wine Economics, 3(2), 217–222.