In the cobblestone square of Bages, a tiny village in the Medoc wine country, a dozen influential Bordeaux vintners dressed in flowing red robes gathered for an unlikely event.
The vintners from southwest France were about to induct two Japanese comic book authors into their exclusive wine brotherhood, the Commanderie du Bontemps.
Yuko and Shin Kibayashi, a fashionable sister-brother duo publishing under the pseudonym Tadashi Agi, created Kami no Shizuki (The Drops of God), a phenomenally successful manga series that has brought wine to subway commuters across Asia, sparking a wine boom.
The authors, with millions of manga sales already under their belt, fell in love with wine the easy way: Over a bottle of 1985 Echezeaux, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, a Burgundy legend that retails for 600 euros (880 dollars).
The "magnificent floral aromas" astonished them. Inspiration struck. They would go where no other manga artist had gone before -- wine.
Japanese brother-sister duo Yuko and Shin Kibayashi known under the pen name Tadashi Agi sign autographs, on September 2009 in Paris during a press conference to launch the 9th volume of their manga "Les Gouttes de Dieu" (Drops of God)Burgeoning fans
In the four years since it first appeared, the 21-volume saga, where wines can be compared for excellence to a rock star concert, has sold six million copies in Japan and three million in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea, according to French publisher Editions Glenat.
In France, nine volumes have appeared, selling 350,000 copies. Fans eagerly await the 10th volume in October. "This book is a real bridge between the two cultures: Manga fans discover wine, wine amateurs discover manga," said editor Stephane Ferrand.
"It’s really well done," said Bordeaux’s legendary winemaker Jean-Michel Cazes, whose 1983 Chateau Lynch Bages and his luxury hotel Chateau Cordeillan-Bages, to his surprise, appeared in book five.
He expressed admiration for illustrator Shu Okimoto, and the accuracy of the information woven into the storylines. "It’s not my culture but when I look at it, it explains wine very well,” said Cazes. “People learn about wine through the cartoons."
In fact, the hero of the saga knows little about wine, so readers learn along with him, opening the door to millions of future consumers.
"The Japanese love the ritual side of wine,” said Shin Kibayashi. “In Korea, they have even discovered that wine can be a diplomatic tool. Wine is universal, it can very well bridge differences between races and countries."
His father’s footsteps
The story itself is universal: A hero’s journey about a rebellious son forced to trace his father’s footsteps.
The hero is the estranged son of a famous wine critic who has complicated his life by adopting a talented sommelier as a second son. The father dies and leaves a will that includes descriptions of 12 wines he considers to be the equivalent to Jesus Christ’s Disciples.
The first son to find the "disciples" and the 13th wine, which the father calls the "Drops of God," will inherit the father’s extraordinary wine collection.
Distribution of the tale is pure marketing genius both for publishing and wine sales.
Readers enthralled by the unfolding drama buy chapters printed in instalments in a weekly magazine. Every 10 chapters are bound and released as a book two to three months later.
The impact of the weekly instalments has sent wine sales skyrocketing.
According to Edition Glenat, wine sales in Japan jumped 130 percent the first year The Drops of God appeared, and in Korea, the main wine store increased its sales 150 percent.
"The people come with their book to the wine store, they show the page and say, ‘I want that one,'" said Ferrand. "Passionate readers even organise tastings."
While well-established wines like Lynch Bages experience less of a dramatic impact -- "we have been distributed in Japan for many years," said Cazes -- the effect on creating a wine culture and brand recognition for lesser known labels is "very powerful," Cazes added.
Once mentioned in the weekly supplement, little known wines have sold out within days, and Internet auction prices tripled.
For the authors, research trips are clearly in order. "The wines with complicated tastes give us ideas," said Shin Kibayashi. "Certain wines are not as good but give more images." Volume nine explored no less than 12 wines.
While the Kibayashis shun product placement attempts -- "this is no James Bond movie" -- the Bordelais did their best to provide inspiration, including tastings at Chateau Lafite Rothschild, the Holy Grail of wines in Asia.
So far, six "disciples" have been found. According to Yuko Kibayashi, fans can expect the saga to run at least three more years, culminating in 40 volumes.
One uniquely Bordeaux experience promises to appear in a future volume -- the zany Medoc Marathon, in which participants wear costumes and run a 42-kilometre (26-mile) circuit around 54 world-famous wine estates.
The Drops of God: Manga comics based on wineShin Kibayashi, sporting a funny yellow cap in the spirit of the event, ran the marathon and his sister hinted that readers could look for the madcap race in future plot lines.
But the wine world and readers will have to wait to see which elixir of the vine appears next – and rush to stock the shelves.
Suzanne Mustacich and Dominique Chabrol/AFP/Expatica