The Uncanny Wine Men

November 11, 2012

Pete Hamill wrote a short story for his collection Tokyo Sketches about a wealthy Japanese businessman who develops a crush on a young art student. He tries to buy her love by buying her a Picasso, but gets swindled. Asked which of Picasso’s periods he’s interested in, he can answer only, “The best period,” which the con artist, thrilled to have spotted such an easy mark, happily offers to supply.

Hamill definitely put his finger on one of the Orient’s less attractive cultural tendencies, that pathological compulsion to show face with “the best” of everything and nothing less. We saw it, too, in the recent mania in China for Château Lafite-Rothschild predicated on its status as the so-called first of the firsts, a mania now abating in favor of anything from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti as the consensus “best” of Burgundy. It’s a pitiable way of looking at wine or art or anything else because it is so contrary to true connoisseurship. A true connoisseur would not drink Lafite or Romanée-Conti every day even if he could afford to, because the reward of such a wine comes not merely from the physical experience but from the intellectual understanding of what makes it what it is, and that reward isn’t exclusive to the top tiers of the hierarchy.

The Japanese, at least, may have a certain status anxiety ingrained in their national DNA but it is also a culture with an eye for things of exquisite beauty, like cherry blossoms and bonsai trees and Shinto temples and sushi and haiku and all that. You can see both the ugly and beautiful aspects of this culture as they pertain to wine on display in The Drops of God, the popular manga now becoming available in English translation. It tells the story of the prodigal son of a renowned wine critic who’s trying to learn about wine while defending his inheritance from a villainous usurper, who really does utter comic-book-villain dialogue like, “Learn well in exchange for your patience. . . . Today there is no question of victory or defeat. It’s already been decided. I can tell just by looking at you.”

Manga aren’t exactly comic books, of course. In America, comic books tend to be read by kids and they’re mostly about superheroes with super-powers fighting crime in silly costumes. In Japan, everyone reads comics and they’re not about superheroes; there’s something in pretty much every genre. There are even some about wine. The Drops of God is the most important of those. Wines featured in it apparently experience a feeding frenzy in the Japanese market similar to the kind that occurs in the U.S. when Parker anoints a new 99- or 100-point darling.

The protagonist is Shizuku Kanzaki. His father, Yataka Kanzaki, was a revered wine critic in Japan. Shizuku rebelled, swore off wine, and became a beer salesman. When Yataka dies, Shizuku learns that he has a competitor for his father’s estate. Issei Tomine is a young prodigy of a wine critic, and a total dick. He’s managed to get himself adopted by Yataka a week before his death, hoping to inherit his wine collection. But Yataka has left behind an unusual will. Shizuku and Tomine will compete for the prize. Yataka has named “twelve apostles,” twelve great wines described only with riddles, and whichever of his sons can identify the most will win the inheritance.

I said that The Drops of God is not a superhero comic, but that’s not exactly true. We’re introduced to Shizuku as he is exhibiting one of the two (sort-of) superpowers to figure prominently in the story. Now, when Marvel’s X-Men were running out of ideas for new characters, they came up with some really silly ones, like the one whose power was being really good at inventing things or the one who could translate any language—but they never came up with any talent quite as specialized as Shizuku’s. His superpower, developed not by mutation but from a childhood indentured as his father’s wine-pourer, is the power of decanting. He is, one might say, the Spectacular Mr. Fantastic Super-Decanter. He can decant a bottle from high in the air and direct a laser-like filament of wine to its target on the inner lip of the decanter several feet below, spontaneously transforming backwards, undrinkable bottles into elegant beauties. “Amazing!” remarks his Lois Lane, aspiring sommelieress Miyabi Shinohara. “He can decant from that height. . . . The wine droplets formed a line as straight as a thread of scarlet silk. It danced into the spout. In my experience with wine, I’d never before seen such divine decanting. . . . His decanting was delicate, yet bold, and so elegant, it dazzled.” (Thus far, no character in the epic has exhibited the companion superpower commonly seen among old-timers in the trade, the ability to expectorate an equally flawless frozen rope into a spit bucket.)

It’s not apparent whether Issei Tomine boasts the same ability to alight the female erogenous zones with his decanting, but his villainy and douchebaggery are cemented by scenes in which he partakes of the pleasures of the flesh offered by various wine groupies (apparently, they exist!) and, in one case, an older, wealthy woman who has taken him as her kept man and on whose nude body he pours a stream of pitch-black Miani Merlot—to do what with, we are not shown, but it probably beats drinking it.

Spoiler alert! Tomine’s ego leads him to flunk the first apostle challenge, in which Yataka Kanzaka had riddled the boys this: “I wandered deep within a forest thick with pristine primeval growths. As the humid scent of life wafts from the moss-covered trees, I walk toward the heart of the forest in search of solace. The bounteous blessing of nature suits a virgin forest unsullied by human hands. Ah, behold a pair of violet butterflies, tangling in flight. Perhaps this little spring is your Holy Land.” After much consideration and soul-searching, both Shizuku and Tomine decide the apostle must be Georges Roumier’s Les Amoureuses. Tomine submits the 1999. Shizuku selects the 2001. Shizuku is right. We learn that “the 12 Apostles aren’t about being perfect,” that on occasion it is the imperfect that “exude[s] a charm that more than compensate[s] for faults.”

But wait a minute! How is it that Shizuku and Tomine each somehow realize that the “virgin forest” must be a Roumier Amoureuses? And within two vintages of each other, no less? And how is it that they each somehow realize that the second apostle, described with an even more puzzling riddle paying homage to The Da Vinci Code, must be Château Palmer—Shizuku submitting the 2000, Tomine the 1999? That’s the second superpower (of sorts) that figures prominently in the story. It is the power not only to drink a wine and describe it in flowery, metaphoric prose, but to hear flowery, metaphoric prose and somehow discern with exact specificity the wine being described. This superpower drives the plot in several installments of the series.

If you can forgive the schmaltz, these flights of fancy actually yield some scenes of legitimate poignancy. In one memorable episode, Tomine at first describes a Mouton-Rothschild 1982 with the fruit-salad verbiage of common tasting notes (“there wafts the mature scent of faint traces of nutmeg, ripe figs, and pepper”), but then declares, “I compare this wine to a painting that uses thick strokes like a plow singing the earth’s praise, layering the canvas with paint”—and he is transported first to the vineyard and then to a two-page spread of the painting he had imagined, intricately rendered here in pen-and-ink, “The Angelus” by Jean-François Millet. Now of course this kind of association is an irreproducible result, but it still says something vastly more interesting about the ’82 Mouton than has been said by anyone taking note of nutmeg, ripe figs, and pepper. And in the super-taster-powered world of The Drops of God it is not an irreproducible result at all. It is adjudged that Tomine’s description of the wine is in accord with Yataka Kanzaki’s own—who, we learn, had visited Paris to see “The Angelus,” and declared that it reminded him of the ’82 Mouton! What are the odds of that? Don’t ask; just enjoy the poetry.

But in Japan, as elsewhere, wine also draws in those who do not see its poetry, the sort of people who would try to buy a Picasso from “the best period.” In the first volume one wonders whether the series’ creators themselves fall in this category, so fulsome is the worship of Henri Jayer as “the God of Burgundy” and of the “Big Five” Bordeaux first growths, which are consistently called “brands” even in the course of the reverent praise—as if any mere “brand” could inspire such a transcendental experience as Tomine’s ’82 Mouton. Confirmatory references to Parker scores make gratuitous appearances.

But as Shizuku (perhaps along with his creators?) develops a deeper appreciation of wine, some of that label worship subsides. In one episode it becomes Shizuku’s project to disabuse a nouveau riche businessman of his conviction that “I have no need for anything less than top-flight wines. For Bordeaux, the top 5 châteaux and their rivals. Just DRC for Burgundy.” Shizuku makes the point by pouring a selection of off-vintage first growths and lesser wines from better years. I would have made the point differently myself, though. Buying by vintage chart is just as shallow as buying by brand. It’s the same pathological fixation on acquiring what one imagines to be “the best,” only manifesting itself in different criteria for the measurement. But there are many more installments of the series we have yet to see in translation, and maybe its sensibility will continue to mature. I’ll keep reading regardless. What fun are comics if you don’t get to see the good guys win?

For further reading:

6 Responses to “The Uncanny Wine Men”

  1. I read the first book of The Drops of God a year or two ago. The story was so-so, the “learning about wine” parts seemed unnatural (textbook-like) at times, and the wines just seemed like name dropping. It did not rate 80+ with me.

  2. Chris Robinson said

    I am amused by your self righteous take on how one has to be a connoisseur of some kind to be treated as a serious wine drinker. Does wine demand such intellectual underpinnings? Why is it that any novice can pick a top quality wine in any line up without the educated lifelong commitment to learning about wine. You know,maybe the Chinese have it right. Wine is, cutting through all the bull, just another temporal pleasure that we mere mortals can show off with, along with the latest car or designer clothes and bags Would you look down on someone who buys the latest ever similar Louis Vuitton bag as someone lacking in the intellectual capabilities of a serious hand bag collector? Wine demands nothing of drinkers other than enjoyment at any level and those who insist on some intellectual dimension are in my view snobs of the worst kind.

    • Adam said

      I would like to live in this world where any novice can pick a “top quality wine” out of any flight of wines. Because usually they’ll pick the most “enjoyable” wine, which is probably not the same thing. That’s a different discussion. But the whole anti-snob snob thing is tiresome.

  3. […] the schmaltz, these flights of fancy actually yield some scenes of legitimate poignancy.” Keith Levenberg pens the most honest review of the “Drops of God” books […]

  4. […] the schmaltz, these flights of fancy actually yield some scenes of legitimate poignancy.” Keith Levenberg pens the most honest review of the “Drops of God” books […]

  5. Paul H said

    I’ll take the Walking Dead any day over Manga about wine. Hmmm. Speaking of which, i picked up a bunch of oldies at CSW a few weeks back, rioja and piedmont nebbiolos. Hopefully, they breath of life and aren’t walkers.

    Interesting post Keith. My most recent Japanese read was the novel Musashi, which gives insight to the artistry in the craft of tea, carving, and painting. I can see the japanese interest in the pillars of european wines….I’d think there would be some clear distinctions between minimal intervention and wines made with a stronger winemaker signature (bordeaux?).

    Hope all is well!

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