On Monday, Oct. 21, in Beverly Hills, California, fans of a Japanese manga (a comic or graphic novel) were playing a blind-tasting wine game app to win bottles of ultra-rare Bordeaux and Burgundies while sampling a Waygu Philly cheesesteak from noted chef José Andrés. The previous day, a separate pack of fans had done the same thing while enjoying Thomas Keller’s lobster mac ‘n’ cheese in California’s Napa Valley.
Cheering them on were the Japanese creators of Kami no Shizuku, or Drops of God, created by brother and sister Shin and Yuko Kibayashi, under the pseudonym Tadashi Agi, and drawn by artist Shu Okimoto. The authors were celebrating the debut of all 44 volumes of their smash hit manga in English translation. Amazon’s digital comics division, ComiXology Originals, and partner-publisher Kodansha have just released the first 11; the rest will appear over the coming year-along with a new, online wine club whose offerings reflect the authors’ tastes and wine philosophy.
First published in 2004, Drops of God revolves around two half-brothers who compete to inherit their father’s vast wine collection worth 2 billion yen ($18.4 million) by identifying 13 rare wines from his notes. One son is a trained sommelier. The hero is the other one, a beer-swilling, non-wine drinker with a super sense of smell and taste. He uses the emotional connections he feels about a wine to identify it. His first description: “This is a wine like a song by Queen.”
The manga became a wildly successful phenomenon, to put it mildly. By 2014, it had a readership of 300 million in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and had spawned a popular TV adaptation and French edition. The wines featured in it, all tasted by the Kibayashis, immediately sold out. Asian fans bring the books with them to California wine country to visit vintners named in specific volumes, such as Stags’ Leap and Marcassin.
Now that graphic novels are growing popular in the U.S., Amazon.com is banking that English-speaking fans will embrace this highly entertaining tale that teaches a lot about wine in the most painless way possible. (Trust me: It’s an addictive page-turner, no matter how much you think you know.)
For the Kibayashis, it’s a way to spread their philosophy of wine as “a soulful beverage that inspires emotions and stories” by creating a community of like-minded aficionados. The duo first fell hard for the stuff at a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti event, where a taste of the great Burgundy domaine’s 1985 Echezeaux, they say, “changed our view of alcoholic drinks and later changed our lives.” They began drinking wine daily, talking about the stories behind the bottles, and characterizing what they tasted in unusual ways. One of their favorite Burgundies, Roumier Chambolle-Musigny, reminds them of “chasing butterflies in the forest.”
The English translation will get a boost from their new Wine Salon; the interactive wine club is a global joint venture with investors headed by Peter Chiang, whose family owns a brand-new Napa Valley estate, Kanpai Wines. A Taiwan native with strong ties to Japan, Chiang heard of the manga through a course in the wine business.
Though the tale features mostly Old World classics, the first club selections are new wave Napa and Sonoma bottles from hot producers such as Matthiasson and Massican. They turn out to be well worth the subscription price of $300 per six wines shipped every quarter.
“For our exploration of American wines we will be choosing according to the same principles we shared in the manga: Heaven, Earth, Man and Marriage,” the siblings wrote in an email. (Heaven represents the weather and climate, earth refers to terroir, man refers to winemaking, and marriage is about wine pairing.)
Your answers to an interactive quiz will determine which ones they send you. (See below for what I consider some of the best bottles.)
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Most wine clubs repackage plonky bulk wines with a jazzy private label and are rarely worth joining. More diverse and interesting are the relatively new sommelier clubs with fascinating, hard-to-find bottles. The Drops of God wine club is more like the latter, but with such additional perks as personal wine recommendations, a concierge to help source wines outside the club’s offerings, pop-up events, a bulletin board on which members can share their wine experiences, the Kibayashis tasting notes and food pairing suggestions, and a Drops of God version of WineGame, a blind-tasting app.
There’s more, including an actual salon space opening in Calistoga, Calif. And the Kibayashis are continuing the tale in Marriage-The Drops of God Final Arc, which is about food and wine pairing.
“The California producers chosen for the initial debut of the Drops of God Wine Salon are some of our favorite American wines,” the two emailed. All 10 of them—Kampai, Scribe, Sinskey, Ashes & Diamonds, Massican, Matthiasson, Failla, Marietta Cellars, Calera, and Noria, a small, new Japanese producer in Sonoma—have hip reputations, but their wines are sometimes tough to find.
For now, there’s a hefty discount on the first shipment of bottles. Here are my top five picks:
2014 Matthiasson Napa Valley Red Wine ($100 retail)This balanced blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot has a silky red fruit and mineral character, with notes of tobacco.
2018 Massican Annia ($35 retail)Winemaker Dan Petroski’s flagship white blend of tocai, ribolla, and chardonnay is always zesty, floral, juicy, spicy, and lively-a perfect aperitif.
2017 Scribe Skin Fermented Chardonnay ($40 retail, 500 ml) This complex, orange wine is fermented in the skin in the fashion of a red wine, resulting in a golden hue and floral, fruity notes combined with a savory character that goes especially well with food.
2018 Kanpai Hi No Tori Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon ($25 retail)This polished, layered rosé is lush and elegant.
2016 Ashes & Diamonds Cabernet Franc No. 2 ($80 retail)Spicy and smooth, with a lingering mineral character, this Napa cabernet franc has lots of soft tannin and depth.