here’s really no way to prepare yourself for the news that, for seemingly esoteric reasons, you’ve blown up in Japan.
Bridget Leary, the general manager at Berkeley’s Broc Cellars, remembers the day she received the unexpected email from the winery’s Japanese distributor. Apparently, one of Broc’s wines, a Zinfandel called the Vine Starr, had been featured in a popular manga; there was even a drawing of the bottle on the back cover. The gist of the email, Leary recalls, was, “You’re famous now!”
This was back in 2018, and at that point Leary had never heard of the wine manga The Drops of God. She didn’t know how big of a sensation it was in Japan or how the series had become a kingmaker of sorts, able to single-handedly change a winery’s fortunes. And this was, of course, years before the recent television adaptation of the manga — an eight-episode, trilingual series that Apple TV released this past April in collaboration with a French production company.
According to Leary, Broc had already built up a surprisingly solid Japanese customer base for such a small, boutique natural winery even before its comic book cameo. The Vine Starr, in particular, sold much better in Japan than it did in the U.S. “But even with that email, I had no idea how much it affected us until we went to Japan to do a sales trip,” says Leary, whose partner Chris Brockway is Broc’s founder and winemaker. “I think our audience doubled.”
Suddenly, she says, there was this buzz around Broc that extended beyond the Vine Starr to all of the wines in their portfolio. People were saying, “This producer is someone to look out for; this wine will blow your mind away.” They were buying it, too, in almost as large a quantity as the winery was able to supply. Today, the majority of the Vine Starr that Broc produces goes to Japan. And before long, Japanese wine lovers were routinely making the pilgrimage out to their West Berkeley tasting room — “all the time,” Leary says. “You can pinpoint them because they’re just looking around, really excited.”
In fact, Leary later told me that right after we got off the phone, a Japanese tourist and her daughter came into the tasting room. Of course, they bought several bottles of Vine Starr to bring home. They told Leary that because of The Drops of God, the wine is still incredibly popular in Japan — evidence, again, of how a few choice comic book panels continue to make waves some 5,000 miles away.
I picked up The Drops of God a few years ago, on a lark, and quickly sped through the five volumes that had been translated into English at the time. Written by a Japanese sister and brother under the pen name Tadashi Agi, the manga uses the framework of an old-fashioned inheritance thriller to bring the reader into the world of high-stakes wine tasting. The story starts with the death of Japan’s most powerful wine critic, Yutaka Kanzaki, who stipulates in his will that his fortune — including a wine collection worth tens of millions — will go either to his estranged son Shizuku (who has avoided the wine world entirely) or to his young protege, Issei Tomine, a genius wine taster. Of course, the only way to settle the matter is through an elaborate scavenger hunt: 12 mystery wines — the “Twelve Apostles” — that the protagonists wind up crisscrossing the globe to identify.
What I love about the series is how over-the-top and unapologetically manga it is. In one famous early scene, Shizuku takes one sip of a 2001 Château Mont-Pérat and is flooded with images of a psychedelic rock concert: soaring guitars, crashing cymbals and Freddie Mercury in his signature pose, one fist raised up high. “It’s powerful, but I also felt a melting sweetness and a sharp rush of sourness,” Shizuku soliloquizes. “Just as the soft, husky vocals of Queen are wrapped in deep guitar sounds and heavy drums.”
The characters in The Drops of God always seem to be one sniff of Burgundy away from launching into a long sequence of outlandish food metaphors. They don’t just love wine; they have wine superpowers, allowing them to instantly identify the exact region, varietal, maker and vintage of even the most obscure wines — sometimes by smell alone. (Leary assures me that this aspect of the manga is barely exaggerated: She’s met plenty of people in the industry who, like Issei and Shizuku, have an impossibly well-honed, “photographic” sense of taste and smell.)
The series is, perhaps, the very definition of a niche publication, at least in the U.S., where it’s mostly only known to the subset of readers who are extremely into manga and have at least a moderate interest in wine. But despite being a wine novice, I was immediately drawn into the manga’s vivid portrayal of cutthroat double-blind tastings and dueling sommeliers.
The original manga series, which ended its run in 2014, didn’t feature very many Californian wines, though it did include one story arc in which Issei visits Napa Valley in search of Syrah, even taking a leisurely ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train in the process.
For Leary and her partner, the manga’s outsized international influence made it even more surprising that a tiny, comparatively unknown winery like theirs had been featured. The Vine Starr that the manga spotlighted is a somewhat esoteric wine. The reason it isn’t popular in the U.S., Leary explains, is because it’s so different from what most people think of California Zinfandels, which are known for being bold, big-bodied and very high in alcohol — not necessarily the most food-friendly of wines.
Broc’s Vine Starr, on the other hand, is made to be lighter and more versatile — more “alive” and “energetic,” as Leary puts it. It’s a good food wine that you can pair with everything from fish to charred broccoli. (The new 2022 vintage came out earlier this month.)
The Vine Starr appears in Drops of God: Mariage, a sequel to the original series in which Shizuku, the protagonist, has taken a job as the sommelier at a small izakaya. At one point in the story, he’s tasked with selecting a wine to pair with a spicy Sichuan pork dish, and he pulls out a bottle of Vine Starr. With a single sip, the diners are transported into a damp, wooded meadow — because of course they are.
It’s a scene that rang true to Leary when she saw it: The Vine Starr does, in fact, pair surprisingly well with spicy dishes because it has notes of tea and cardamom that play off the spices in the food. “It was just really cool how they got it,” she says. ”They understood what that wine was.”
Famously, the manga authors are serious oenophiles who handpick all of the wines they write about. And based on the way the winery’s front door and back bar are drawn in the manga, Leary says she’s almost 100 percent certain that the authors — or perhaps a subordinate of their illustrator, Shu Okimoto — had to have come all the way to Berkeley to visit in person.
“You could only do it if you came,” Leary says. “Which just cracks me up even further. I’m like, what?”
Changing Wine’s Image
This past spring, Apple TV released an excellent live-action adaptation of Drops of God, bringing the series to a whole new audience — with a number of intriguing changes. Most notably, the adaptation was created by a French production company, based off a screenplay written by a French screenwriter. Both the deceased wine critic and his prodigal child are now also French — the actress Fleur Geffrier plays Camille Léger in the lead role. The character of Issei Tomine (Tomohisa Yamashita) remains Japanese, and, similar to in the manga, he evolves into more of a co-protagonist than an antagonist.
The changes make sense: The French love The Drops of God, and, in many ways, the French wine industry has been the tastemaking manga’s biggest beneficiary. (The authors are avowed Francophiles.) And the main character swap adds some interesting race and gender dynamics to Camille’s journey into the wine world’s elite inner circles. The TV version is a little less goofy and over-the-top, and, if anything, the competitive wine-tasting scenes are even more thrilling and intense. The show has this sophisticated, cosmopolitan vibe, as it shifts fairly seamlessly between English, French and Japanese. It’s great. I binged the whole thing in the span of a couple of days.
The adaptation also introduces audiences to an entirely new set of exciting, often obscure wines, this time selected by a French sommelier, Sébastien Pradal, who served as the show’s wine consultant. Like the authors of the manga, Pradal chose to feature some wineries with long histories and big reputations. But he also wasn’t afraid to include deep cuts.
In one pivotal scene in the show’s penultimate episode, Camille and Issei are competing to see who can come up with the best wine pairing for a lobster dish. Camille, counterintuitively, chooses a red wine — a 2015 Sandlands Mataro, a small-production wine from San Benito County that the winemaker Tegan Passalacqua only made three barrels of, using grapes from old vines planted in 1923. (Passalacqua’s own tasting notes on the wine: “Vitamin C, crushed rocks, fresh plum, leather.”)
Just as the Drops of God manga generated tremendous buzz for the wines it featured, Passalacqua says he did get a number of inquiries for the Sandlands Mataro after that episode aired. The only problem? He makes so little of that particular wine that he’d already sold out quite some time ago. The newest vintage, the 2022, will come out next year.
Passalacqua and Leary both say the show and the manga have done an excellent job of introducing new audiences to the wine world, which still has to combat its staid and stuffy white-tablecloth image.
“There’s such a stigma that wine is stuffy and elitist,” Passalacqua says. “The show was a really great way to make it interesting and not stuffy.”
For him, so much of the appeal of wine has to do with the experience of sharing it with other people. And it’s those emotional aspects that The Drops of God captures so beautifully — “the way that smell and taste can hearken up memories,” as Passalacqua puts it. In the TV adaptation, so much of Camille’s experience of wine is tied up in specific memories of her father — a trip she took with him to the countryside, or the way a vineyard he brought her to smelled during a rainstorm.
“That is part of the magic of wine,” Passalacqua says. “I’ve had friends who don’t really drink wine or know it seriously. Then they have what we in the industry call an ‘aha’ moment, where you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that reminds me of this. I haven’t smelled that for 15 years.’”
Broc Cellars’ 2022 vintage of its Vine Starr Zinfandel came out earlier this month, in a very limited release. It’s available for purchase online and at the winery’s tasting room at 1300 5th St. in West Berkeley.