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Wine via manga and movies
By Ruby Gao

You don’t have to read wine books and attend serious tasting classes and lectures to learn a bit about wine. You can also read mysteries, manga and watch movies.

Was there a conspiracy behind the most expensive bottle of wine in history (Chateau Lafite 1787)? Which wine is known as drops of the gods? What’s difference between Old World and New World wines? Why is the Master Sommelier Exam one of the toughest in the world?

Reading and watching movies is a way to find out.

This week, we suggest four books and five films about wine for your New Year’s holiday. They range from the story of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine to China’s obsession with Bordeaux and from detective story to documentary. There’s a mystery novel, a romance-comedy film and even an acclaimed road movie.

These books are both good reads and informative. The films are both entertaining and illuminating.

They make wine approachable through fascinating stories about the world’s most expensive wines, wine regions, grape varieties and famous chateaux.

Most wine stories involve beautiful vineyards and historical chateaux, whether on steep hillsides or near the sea. There’s exquisite food as well.

The books and films are diverse, but they have one thing in common, presenting the complicated wine world in an approachable and understandable way. They also illuminate little-known aspects of the wine world and China’s growing appetite for Bordeaux.

All the books in paperback are available on Amazon. All the films can be watched online without charge, except “SOMM.”


• ‘Sideways’

This 2004 comedy drama won an Oscar and Golden Globe award for best screenplay, a Golden Globe for best picture.

The film starring Paul Giamatti is about Miles Raymond and his soon-to-be married friend Jack, both in their 40s, who take a seven-day road trip to Santa Barbara County Wine Country in South California. Raymond is a failed writer, wine aficionado and borderline alcoholic.

Both become romantically entangled along the way.

The film contributed to changing the American wine market, elevating Pinot Noir to No. 1 among consumers, far exceeding Merlot, which had been the favorite. Raymond compares Merlot to the back of an LA school bus.

“It (Pinot Noir) is a hard grape to grow,” Raymond says, “needing constant care and attention. It can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world ... They’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”

• ‘SOMM’

The 2012 American documentary follows four sommeliers struggling to pass the Master Sommelier exam, which has one of the lowest passing rates of any wine exam.

The four men, establish a study group to inspire and help each other. The preparation for the notoriously difficult exam is grueling.

Each candidate must memorize virtually everything about wine, including hundreds of varieties and growing regions, down to a tiny obscure village on the left bank of a small European river. One of them makes thousands of flash cards.

The film features blind wine tastings in which two of the sommeliers give contrasting descriptions and conclusions. One says “New World and unoaked,” the other concludes “Old World and heavily oaked.” When they cannot identify the wine, their suffering is evident.

It also documents the daily working life of a sommelier in a fine restaurant, acting as a respected walking wine dictionary and dealing with unreasonable requests from arrogant diners.

• ‘Bottle Shock’

This 2008 film is a dramatic reenactment of the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” about the blind tasting in which Napa Valley white wine triumphs over French wine. New World wines are rising and the presumption of Old World superiority is over.

Wine shop owner Steven Spurrier travels to the Napa Valley, not yet on the global wine map, to select wines for the competition. He selects a Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena. But the chateau owner declines to participate. However, his son secretly provides several bottles, which eventually defeat all the French whites.

The competition, which made headlines around the world, has been criticized as unfair by those who say Spurrier used inferior French vintages to compete with the best US wines.

• ‘Red Obsession’

The documentary feature is about both China and its market-changing love affair with French red wines from Bordeaux.

The film focuses on the wine industry and describes how China’s huge purchasing power has transformed the Bordeaux wine market, pushing up prices to unseen levels.

It takes the audience on a journey from elegant, picturesque Bordeaux to China, including hectic Hong Kong, vibrant Shanghai and Chateau Lafite’s project in Shandong Province.

It features interviews with wine experts, including MW Jancis Robinson, Simon Tam, Christie’s head of wine in China; Li Demei, a leading winemaker. They discuss Chinese consumption patterns of taste and investment as well as the quality of Chinese wine.

Some Western commentators see new Chinese wine buyers as unsophisticated and shallow, buying Bordeaux because it’s famous and expensive. Some top Chinese wine collectors don’t drink wine but collect it for investment purposes and as a status symbol.

Asia’s huge wine demand and the desire for higher profits is seen as a potential threat to wine quality and inventory.

• ‘A Good Year’

The 2006 romantic comedy takes place in Provence with its sunny vineyards and fields of lavender.

London banker Max Skinner is told that his uncle has died, leaving him a chateau and vineyard in Provence where Skinner grew up, learning to appreciate food, wine and the good life. He flies to France and plans to quickly sell the vineyard. Several people try to prevent the sale.

A woman arrives from the Napa Valley and claims to be his uncle’s illegitimate daughter.

Meanwhile, Skinner falls in love with a cafe owner.


(All books in paperback and available on Amazon)

• ‘The Billionaire’s Vinegar’

The nonfiction tale of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine reads like a detective story.

The mystery revolves around the provenance of a bottle sold as the bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux signed by American founding father and president Thomas Jefferson. It was sold at a 1985 Christie’s auction in London for US$156,00 to the Forbes family. After a hundred years, most wines become vinegar, hence the title.

Many wine experts doubted the authenticity of the bottle since prominent collector Hardy Rodenstock could not provide credible provenance before the auction. Rumors swirled — it was owned by a Nazi connoisseur; it was a stupendous fake. A Florida tycoon discovered a dark secret behind the bottle. To this day, controversy still persists.

Author Benjamin Wallace evokes the lavish wine dinners in Europe and the aura of rare old vintages.

Leading wine critics and experts weigh in, including Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, Michael Broadbent, Christie’s wine director and one of the foremost wine auctioneers, and Henry Tang, Asia’s biggest wine collector.

“Part detective story, part wine history ... even for those with no interest in the fruit of the vine ... as delicious as a true vintage Lafite,” said Business Week.

The film adaptation of the book starring Brad Pitt will be released this year.

(“The Billionaire’s Vinegar,” 2009, Broadway Paperback, 323 pages)

• ‘Drops of God’

This Japanese manga series is a New York Times bestseller, created and written by Tadashi Agi. It describes wine regions and grapes in an exaggerated and humorous way that is approachable and informative.

The main character, Kanzaki Shizuku, works in a beverage company and knows nothing about wine. When his famous wine critic father dies, his will bequeaths his US$20 million wine collection to the person who can precisely identify 13 wines through 13 blind tastings, including one known as “Drops of God.” Kanzaki must compete with his father’s adopted son, an experienced wine critic.

The 13 wines are well known, from Bordeaux to Burgundy. The popularity of the book boosted wine sales in Asia. One of the 13, Chateau le Puy 2003, was out of stock in Asia for many years.

(“Drops of God,” 2004, Vertical, 432 pages)

• ‘The Vintage Caper’

The novel begins with a world-class wine heist in the Los Angeles wine cellar of lawyer Danny Roth, days after he invited Los Angeles Times to write an article about his lavish wine cellar.

Enter Sam Levitt, a wine connoisseur and former lawyer, who is sent by Roth’s insurance company to France to investigate. A person of interest is a wine collector in Provence who has a keen interest in the stolen wines.

Levitt’s unraveling of the dark conspiracy behind the heist is mingled with his travels in the French countryside, taking a glass of Chateau Lynch Bages to Chateau Leoville-Barton, dining from French bistros to fine restaurants.

(“The Vintage Caper,” 2010, Alfred A. Knopf, 240 pages)

• ‘The Vines of San Lorenzo’

This is a nonfiction story of Italian wine, especially world-famous Barbaresco and Barola.

Readers without a wine background can easily understand Edward Steinberg’s explanation of complicated winemaking. He challenges the romantic stereotype of viticulture, instead emphasizing its scientific rigor.

The book tells of how Angelo Gaja, owner of the family Gaja winery, elevated Italian wines, often considered cheap and rough, into the ranks of the worlds best, selling at Grand Cru prices.

Steinberg presents the contradiction between New World modern wine thinking and the comparatively conservative Italian wine tradition, exemplified by the conflict between Gaja and his father. He interviews various grape growers and winemakers.

(“The Vines of San Lorenzo,” 2006, Slow Food Editore, 274 pages)

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