Comic books pique readers’ appreciation of good wine

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Comic books pique readers’ appreciation of good wine

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KICHIJOJI, Tokyo ― Following two Japanese authors down to the wine cellar beneath their house in the city of Musashino in Tokyo, this writer was surprised to find the Tadashi Agi siblings to be as enthusiastic about wine in real life as in their books. (Tadashi Agi is one of many pennames the siblings work under when creating their comic books.)
The brother and sister, who insisted on anonymity, are authors of the bestselling foreign comic book in Korea ― “Les Gouttes de Dieu” or “Drops from God” ― which enthuse about wine drinking. As the books became popular in Korea, so did many of the 70 different wines mentioned in the comic series, such as the 1988 Chateau Margaux and the 2000 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. But surely the authors can’t own them all, can they?
That supposition proved wrong.
Wine filled racks on all four walls of the 33-square-meter (356-square-foot) basement. The cellar is air-conditioned 24 hours a day to maintain a temperature of 16 to 18 degrees Centigrade (60 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit). That alone costs about 120,000 yen, or $1,014 per month, the siblings explained.
Wine was everywhere in the house. Bottles were scattered around the living room and even on the bathroom floor. The two estimated there were about 3,000 bottles of wine around the house.
The comic series, which has been translated into Korean since late last year, is made up of nine books so far, and tells the story of a son who goes out in search of the 13 best wines in the world to determine which one his father, a wine critic, considered to be “Les Gouttes de Dieu.” He has to discover the one special wine or he will lose his inheritance. Before his father died, he left his son a series of riddles that hinted at his choice’s taste and scent.
The brother and sister shared their story with the JoongAng Ilbo in a two-hour interview.

Q. How did you start writing cartoons about wine?

Her: There had been several cartoons on wine. But they were about people while the wine appeared on the side. I don’t think there was ever a cartoon that dealt with wine as a leading character as we do in “Les Gouttes de Dieu.” Here, people are just tools to explain our story.
I was captivated [by wine] after tasting an Echezeaux from Romanee-Conti. I felt there was art in the wine. If I could pull a story from that taste, I felt it was enough to make it into a cartoon.
Him: I enjoyed drinking wine but it was only 10 years ago that I started collecting it and studying it professionally. I wanted to express the different drama and message each wine possessed and deliver that to the readers.

The wines that appear most in “Les Gouttes de Dieu” are relatively inexpensive and cost from 1,000 yen to 3,000 yen ($8 to $25). Is there a reason?

Her: It is difficult for beginners to encounter a wine that costs more than 10,000 yen at the start. They usually start with a bottle that is a moderate price. But when that does not taste good, they could give up on wine. My desire is to broaden the world of wine and I wanted to scout for the very best among the inexpensive ones. There were many failures during the process, of course. I think my brother and I failed about 1,000 of them. We would line wine glasses in a row, sip each one and throw away the ones we did not like. Then we would start on a new row. It was a work of repetition.
Him: No wine can cost more than a million yen from the start. That only happens when the taste becomes popular and more people search for it. Some wine may be cheap now, but have the potential to grow into one that costs a million yen in the future. The importance is the quality, not the price.

In that sense, what do you think is a good wine?

Him: It has to taste good, most of all. Also it can’t be simple on the palate. It is actually more than the taste. There should be a complexity that draws a person into a deep world.
Of course, vintage is also important. This means you need a delicate combination of the “heaven,” the “earth” and the “human.” You need good weather, rich soil and a human’s great effort to make the best wine from the harshest conditions.
In this sense, the vintage of American wines is not so important because some vineyards are covered with vinyl when it rains during harvest time. In France, they take in the natural order of things.

How do you work with Okimoto Shu (the cartoonist for the series)?

Him: We give Shu our script and ask for his images. We then look over what he brings and go through them together. I personally like the style Korean director Yoon Seok-ho produces in his dramas [such as “Winter Sonata”]. So I asked Shu to draw Isse Tomine, the wine critic in the story, to look like Bae Yong-joon.
I am waiting for director Yoon’s “Spring Waltz” to come out in Japan soon. I am a big fan of actress Choi Ji-woo and Lee Young-ae as well.
Her: Two of the characters in the book are based on real people. We modeled Honma, the character who works at the same place as the main character Shizuku Kanzaki, after a wine shop manager we know. Saitodo, the instructor at a wine school in the 7th series, is a real character as well.
We also learned how a world sommelier champion decants wine and gave that skill to Shizuku.

In your book, you highly praise 2001 as the best vintage. Why is that?

Him: The world’s influential critic Robert Parker reviewed the 2002 Chambolle Musigny as the best but we decided the 2001 vintage was better. I think 2001 is the year that best represents the combination of heaven, earth and humanity I mentioned before. I believe there will be a time when the 2001 vintage is considered better than the 2002.
I think Parker was generous on wines that are good for drinking and frugal with elegant wines.

What was the most impressive wine you ever tasted?

Him: I hate to say this, and I don’t want to admit this either, because it was actually one that cost a million yen. It was the Romanee-Conti from 1985. I had tasted three other vintages before, but as soon as I tasted the 1985 vintage, I forgot them. I only had one glass. But in that one small glass was the most elegant, poised wine that was so intense it shocked my nose. It was an ethereal experience. That was all. I gave it 100 out of 100.

Any last words you want to say to your Korean fans or to wine lovers?

Her: What I see in Korean television dramas is that Koreans are much more sensitive and have a lot more heart compared to the Japanese.
Please tell us what Korean cuisines would suit wine. I personally think galbi (marinated and grilled beef short ribs) or pajeon (pan-fried green onion appetizer) would suit well.
Him: I haven’t made this clear to anyone before, but we are planning to create a Korean episode for the next “Les Gouttes de Dieu.” The main character will for some reason fly to Korea and learn another way to express the taste of a wine. This is partly because we want to thank Korean readers and also because Korean producers suggested that we make this into a television drama. We are reviewing that suggestion.
Actually, neither of us has ever visited Korea.


Why Koreans love the series
Most wine critics would put it this way: The “Les Gouttes de Dieu” series made it easy and fun for anyone to appreciate wine whereas most conventional guides to wine were too complex and unapproachable for beginners.
Some critics say the comic created a strange syndrome in Korea, with readers going to wine bars with the comic under their arms and asking to taste only the wines that appeared in the series.
Choi Seong-sun, the head of Wine 21-dot-com, an Internet site about wine, said, “This is more than a simple comic book that you read once and throw away.”
“Because it has a wide knowledge on various wines, it’s a handy guide,” he added, “but it troubles me that the wines mentioned in the book are becoming more expensive in Korea while the point of the book was to find the better wines among the inexpensive ones.”
“I highly praise the fact that the cartoon made it possible to make wine appreciation more fun,” said Cho Jeong-yong, a wine auctioneer. “But it’s strange that people consider the best wines only exist in that comic book.”
Sohn Jin-jo, a professor at Chungang University’s industrial graduate school wine course, said the book focused on wines that best suit the Japanese palate.
“The wines introduced are French pinot noirs or those from Italy,” Mr. Sohn said. “It is a pity that the Californian, Chilean and Australian wines are almost all left out.”
“I advise beginners to try various styles of wines and find the ones that suit your own palate instead of trying only the popular ones from Burgundy,” he said. “That would help them discover the true ‘Les Gouttes de Dieu.’”


by Kim Hyun-ki, Yoo Ji-sang
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