Brother-sister writing team Shin and Yuko Kibayashi didn't actually think a graphic novel about wine would have much of an audience. "At first, neither of us thought that this idea was going to work," said Yuko, who sometimes uses the pen name Tadashi Agi together with Shin. "But wine was the ultimate favorite hobby that we both shared. So if a manga series that sprang out of our own hobby continued even for a year, it would’ve been fantastic."
That was in 2004. The Drops of God would run for 44 volumes over the following 10 years as more and more readers became enthralled by the story of Shizuku Kanzaki, a young beer salesman whose father, a world-famous wine critic, has died and left his priceless wine collection to either Shizuku or a rival, adopted son—whichever can identify 12 mystery bottles of wine the elder Kanzaki has left poetic but elusive descriptions of. The bottles, called "Apostles," are all real wines, including benchmark bottles from esteemed producers like (spoiler alert) Georges Roumier, Sine Qua Non and Château d'Yquem.
Starting last October, the series began appearing in English, the first complete translation of the story, published by Kodansha Comics and ComiXology. Last week, the third installment of new issues was released (the fourth and final will arrive in early 2021), and the authors appeared at the Comic-Con virtual symposium Storytelling Across Media for a conversation with Wine Spectator's Ben O'Donnell about how they collaborate both in writing and tasting, their most unexpected wine-pairing successes—from kimchi to chocolate—and the bottle that started it all. Watch an exclusive, extended cut of the discussion, and check out an excerpt of the conversation below, plus a preview of the new issues.
Wine Spectator: Before you began writing The Drops of God, you were known for manga in different genres—mysteries and thrillers and many other universes. What were your wine explorations leading up to your work on this series?
Shin Kibayashi: We create stories for countless manga series [together]. When we’re working together, at the end of the day, as it gets later at night, we’d say to each other, “Let’s have a drink.”
Yuko Kibayashi: We tend to be nocturnal.
SK: We want some “fuel” for our work. Both of us have always loved wine.
YK: It became a hobby for us. Our life was about half-work and half-wine. It still is.
SK: When we were drinking wine together, we were playing a game like the one you see in the manga. We asked each other, “What is the image of this wine?” … We realized that we share similar imagery without much diversion of vision from each other. So we thought maybe we can share the vision with other people as well.
YK: It was as if the imagery already existed in the bottle. And as we drink it, we’re doing a reading.
SK: One day, I said, "Let’s make this into a manga.”
YK: I was like, “What?!” Everyone around us was surprised by this idea too.
SK: But as we decided to make it into a manga, it was as if being visited by Bacchus, the god of wine, telling us the title and the rough concept within a mere half an hour or so. That’s the origin of this series.
WS: In 2004, when this series started appearing, wine was not very well-represented in popular entertainment. It was rare to see wine, especially in the depth in which it is explored in the series, appear with this kind of crossover appeal. So why did you choose wine as the universe for a manga series? Were there any challenges to make this story both serious about wine but also accessible to readers who might not know about that world?
YK: At first, neither of us thought that this idea was going to work. ... So we started with a very humble attitude. But then we [were] changed by wine. Wine wasn’t just a beverage. We’ve realized that it is connected to a huge network of people. It’s something that’s truly amazing.
SK: The main characters of this series are not the two brothers, but actually the wines. That’s how we wanted to make the series. As we continued to explore, the fans started to catch on. And it started a phenomenon that we never expected. It was a nice surprise.
YK: Especially how much reaction that we’ve received globally. We never expected that.
SK: That wasn’t our expectation. First it became very popular in Korea.
YK: It was a huge hit.
SK: The CEOs of big companies like Samsung read the manga, and started to share it with their employees.
YK: For the education of the employees. When we went to the airport in Korea, there were paparazzi waiting for us. ... It’s all because we made a manga with wine as the main character. And its own charm speaks for itself through its history, human relationships and culture. In our series, we use this word “tenchijin" [the elements that create wine: heaven/vintage, earth/terroir and man]. We were gambling on if the readers would grasp the depth of wine through the imagery of this word, or not. In fact they did, not just fans in Japan, but by fans all over the world.
© Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto, "The Drops of God" (2020), ComiXology and Kodansha Comics
WS: This theme comes up very frequently in the story. It’s translated as “heaven,” “earth” and “man.” It’s sort of a guiding principle for the characters and what seems like an inspiration for the wines that you feature. Can you tell me a little bit about how you formulated that idea and why that is significant to you, both personally in your tastes, and to the story?
SK: We had seen a Japanese winemaker who uses this word in the label of his wine, named Koji Nakata [of Burgundy domaine Lou Dumont]. That was one of my inspirations.
YK: We met him when he was briefly staying in Japan. On the label of his wine, it shows the kanji for “tenchijin." When we saw that label, it made sense to us. Every amazing wine has these essences. It needs good terroir, vintage, and more than anything, a good winemaker. Just from looking at that label, we knew the depth of his understanding about wine. Since then, we’ve become friends. We went to his place for research, and he let us stay there too. ... None of these essences can be absent to create a good wine. Even if one of them overpowers the other, it’ll offset the balance. It’s not simply an industrial product. When a person receives the gift from heaven and the earth, he can create wine. In the back of our mind, we always wanted to convey how amazing that is.
WS: Throughout the series, there are these wonderful evocations of visuals and senses and memories that are associated with the wine. Wine is linked to certain times and places and emotions. How did you go about associating these certain wines with more emotional, personal character connections?
SK: [Wine is] complex. When you take a sip of a wine with a story behind it, I always feel it.
YK: There’s this one wine that we both had, and for the first time in our lives, it got us hooked into the universe of wine. It was 1985 DRC Echézeaux. When we had it, it made us think about the culture, the people, and we started to see these complex pictures and patterns like a rug. It made us see these illusions.
SK: It felt like we were in a field of flowers.
YK: Like we were not really here, and we were seeing these illusions. But it’s all really about our own life experiences that have been triggered by the wine, and appear as visions or emotions. And see it as this complex illusion. When we had this wine, a light shined upon the memories that had accumulated over all these years, and played these visions and made us feel these emotions. That was the most memorable bottle of wine.
SK: That’s been happening to us since then.
YK: It happens all the time. But it’s really a reflection of ourselves. Or the book that I’ve read in the past, the scenery that you’ve seen and a friend that you miss. The wine makes you reflect upon all these experiences in your life.
There are a lot of dramatic encounters like that. There’s another story, about the wine that pairs well with kimchi. Since our manga was getting popular in Korea, we did a series on Korea. We were looking for wine to pair with kimchi. There were a few sparkling wines that might work, but barely. And it’s not all that interesting. But then there’s this person named Chosuke Honma, who appears in the manga, and he’s a real-life person too, who is very knowledgeable about Italian wine. He goes to Italy 10 times a year. He called us when it’s daytime there, and nighttime for us. He was drinking in the middle of the day, and called us to say, “I’ve found it! There’s this wine that’ll pair well with kimchi!”
YK: When he returned, we had that wine, and it tastes like pepper.
SK: It was called Librandi Gravello from the Calabria region, made from a blend [of primarily] Gaglioppo.
YK: There’s a pepper field right next to the vineyard. It was really meant to be. Whether people intentionally bred the wine crop to pair well with pepper, or the flavor of the pepper was naturally absorbed by the grape, we don’t know. But it smelled like pepper. Things like that happen all the time. It’s just like meeting a person. It’s meant to be.
SK: It happens with wine too. In terms of creative process, when we’re working on The Drops of God, it’s hard to say who does what.
YK: Sometimes I feel like we’ve been moved by wine to create manga.
WS: How did you first become interested in food and wine matching? Do you cook?
YK: It all started when we first started the manga; a lot of people asked us questions like, “I’m eating Chinese food tonight. What’s a good wine to pair it with?” It was one of the most frequently asked questions. Or “what should I bring as a gift?” Or “I’m having Korean barbecue. What’s a good wine for it?”
SK: That was how we started the Marriage [spinoff] series. But we became interested in food pairing, or marriage, after we introduced the pairing of oysters and Chablis wine in The Drops of God.
YK: We had an experiment with different kinds of Chablis wine.
SK: As Chablis wine evolved over the years, they started to use oak barrels, which causes the malic acid to [be reduced]. When that happens, it makes the taste of the oysters seem too fishy. So it’s not always the expensive wine that pairs the best. We actually like those old-fashioned, dry, acidic Chablis that are made in a stainless tank. Chablis are [grown] in Kimmeridgian soils, which contain lots of oyster shells. So when you pair those wines with oysters, it really works. … And [the wine pairings in the series were] all based on our real-life experience. If it was an interesting pairing, we’d feature it in The Drops of God.
YK: I actually cook a lot at home, especially on the weekends. But I actually don’t drink much wine while I am dining at home. I want to save it until after the meal. ... There’s this interesting pairing that I want everyone to try. There are these 100 percent or 99 percent cacao chocolates. It’s super bitter. But it pairs so well with Bordeaux wine. I want you to trust me and try it.
SK: Sweets and wines usually don’t pair well. But if it’s chocolate, it somehow works. … I’ve heard that Japanese food is pretty popular in the U.S. The obvious pairing choice is white wine. But when we’re having sushi or Japanese food, we’d like to pair with Ygrec from Château d'Yquem. This is the ultimate wine to pair with Japanese food.
WS: The Drops of God has had a large cultural impact, and has resonated with many people who may not have thought of themselves as wine lovers when they began the series. Now that wine has become such a big personal part of your own lives, what do you hope that the series can do to make wine more accessible to young people or to people who might be intimidated by wine?
YK: People often ask, "Is there any good wine under $10?” That might be the most frequently asked question since we’ve started The Drops of God. There are. But I don’t want them to stop looking beyond $10 wine. Maybe that’s OK as a daily wine. But you can also make some friends through wines, have a party and share a bottle with six people, let’s say and pick one bottle that’s $50, something that you’ve never had before. I [hope] everyone continues to cultivate their wine experiences, especially if you’re just getting into the world of wine.
SK: Definitely make wine friends. Wine is not meant to be enjoyed by yourself.
YK: It’s a drink to talk about, and it’s a drink that makes you talk.