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Turning Mangas into Wine Sales

by Heather Kenyon

The cover of the manga, Sommelier.

When Josh Jenson, founder of California's Calera Winery, held five wine tastings in Japan -- three in Tokyo and two in Osaka -- he couldn't believe how popular he was! Crowds of Japanese citizens lined up for hours, waiting to have the labels of their empty wine bottles signed by him. Even though the wines are highly regarded in top wine circles, Jensen and the winery's staff were completely unprepared for such adulation. In fact, Calera has accidentally become the ultimate "cult" wine in Japan and much of it has to do with an adult manga, where the hero is a swashbuckling wine steward, or sommelier, named Joe Satake.

The manga series created by Joh Araki is called Sommelier, and stars Satake, who not only knows about premier crus and obscure appellations, but on the side solves crimes and always gets the girl -- all in a Zen kind of way. For instance, on the manga's back cover the writer notes: "At France's sommelier's contest, Joe Satake, while winning the championship, declines the honor. A genius walks the road of proud loneliness. He says, 'There isn't bad wine. When encountering wine, there is only a suitable time.' Wine's many jewels are made as partners -- occasionally a sweet and sometimes bitter story is woven. Wines don't lie -- sommeliers see the truth inside wines. When Joe Satake holds it, it's a new encounter!!"

In one such issue, drawn by Kaitani Shinobu and edited by the series editor Hori Kenichi, the hero announces that he was at a tasting where he was given two wines to taste blind. One was the legendary Domaine Romanée-Conti, the other was the Calera Pinot Noir, "Jensen." A rival sommelier tried to trick him by describing the wines and then concluding that the better one was the DRC. However, at the last minute Joe realized that there was only one wine similar to the DRC and that was the Calera, which he deemed the winner and saved "face." Faster than one could swirl wine in a glass, there were long lines of up to 100 people, standing outside well-known Japanese wine shops, hoping to buy at least one bottle of Calera Pinot Noir.

Ray Kaufman, Calera's distributor for Japan, credits this unprompted manga mention for Calera-mania, but noted that many recent developments among wine drinkers in Japan helped set the stage for this particular Pinot phenomenon. "Japan has developed into a very sophisticated wine market, notably among young people in their twenties, thirties and forties. Some years ago, fine wine, whether from France or California, was terribly expensive and usually given as special V.I.P. gifts, such as prized melons costing hundreds of dollars. A few years ago, discounters came into the Japanese market, lowering the price of wines and making good California wines much more accessible. So wine began to enter the popular culture and several factors were in favor of Calera: the ideas of high quality, scarcity, 'hand made,' and the concept of the California western dream."

Even though Calera wines were already popular in Japan, the wine manga flipped the switch. Calera-mania has not subsided in over one year and Calera sells 5,000 cases of wine in Japan per year. The winery could sell a lot more too, according to Kaufman, but simply cannot meet the demand. Up to 13% of their entire production is sent to Japan as is. "One of our Japanese importers sold out his Calera allocation in two weeks! He called me up to say he would take as much as we could give him."

Edwin J. Schwartz publicist for the winery marvels that, "Nothing could have prepared us for this. We had no idea this was coming. It is just a phenomenon. I mean, this isn't even a prank some quick thinking publicist could have come up with!"

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Calera Winery is located near Mt. Harlan outside Hollister, California, in San Benito County. In case you too wish to jump on the Calera bandwagon, the winery's four single vineyard Pinot Noirs are: Jensen, Selleck, Reed and Mills. The two Mt. Harlan white wines are Chardonnay and Viognier.

Heather Kenyon is Editor in Chief of Animation World Magazine.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.