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Who will win 87,000 bottles of wine? 'Drops of God' is the ultimate taste test

Issei (Tomohisa Yamashita) and Camille (Fleur Geffrier) compete to inherit a 87,000-bottle wine cellar worth nearly $150 million in <em>Drops of God.</em>
Apple TV+
Issei (Tomohisa Yamashita) and Camille (Fleur Geffrier) compete to inherit a 87,000-bottle wine cellar worth nearly $150 million in Drops of God.

If you're looking for the plot that's the surest to suck people in, you could do worse than centering on a contest. Be it Rocky, Pitch Perfect or Squid Game, such stories possess a built-in suspense and drama. They make us ask, "Who's going to win?"

This question comes luxuriously bottled in Drops of God, a pleasurable new Apple TV+ mini-series about a contest set in the world of upmarket wine with its connoisseur vintages, voluminous snobberies and undercurrents of business chicanery. Although the basic idea is taken from a hit Japanese manga, the show is a French-made production that changes the story in huge ways. Where this comic ran a seemingly endless 44 volumes, the series clocks in at eight episodes and — amazingly — it actually ends there. More importantly, the series changes the lead character from a Japanese man to a French woman.

The plot begins with the death of Alexandre Léger, a powerful French wine critic based in Tokyo. He leaves behind him a 87,000-bottle cellar worth nearly $150 million and an exceedingly manipulative will. To decide who shall inherit his estate, Léger has devised three nearly impossible tests that range from identifying arcane vintages to teasing out clues hidden in a painting.

The contestants are the two people he seemingly cared about most. First is his estranged daughter, Camille, played by Fleur Geffrier, whose palate Alexandre trained so fanatically as a little girl that she turned against wine. The other is his protege, Issei Tomine — that's Tomohisa Yamashita — a cool, self-possessed young man who comes from a haughty, high-born family that hates his interest in wine.

Where Issei is analytical and erudite, the more emotional Camille knows almost nothing about wine but was born with a palate so sensitive that, during the contest, she gets called "the Mozart of wine." Give her a taste and she plunges into a surreal headspace rather like Anya Taylor-Joy's chess whiz in The Queen's Gambit.

Awash in paparazzi, this high-stakes contest carries the competitors from sleek Tokyo mansions to picturesque French vineyards to ancient Italian cities. It also takes them into the past, as both Camille and Issei must unpack painful family histories that change how they see themselves and their futures. Even as each encounters fresh romantic possibilities, the show uses Camille's ignorance of wine to help show us its charms and rituals.

Now, Drops of God is a high-gloss drama — expensive, lushly-shot and skillfully acted, even if Camille and Issei are characters tinged with cultural cliché. It's almost the opposite of the original manga, written by the brother-sister team of Shin and Yuko Kibayashi, which is delightfully goofy and freewheeling. Although serious about wine, they use humor to counteract their fetishism of famous wineries and vintages.

Not surprisingly, this French version takes a more serious approach. Wine is essential to France's national identity, which may explain why the show's vision of wine sometimes becomes almost sacramental. Clearly hoping to avoid the charge of wine-porn voyeurism, Drops of God makes a point of telling us that the true meaning of wine isn't found in its posh labels, but in the way drinking it binds people together. Of course, a couple minutes after somebody says this, the show cracks open a bottle that will cost you 600 bucks.

It's always delicate to transpose a story from one culture to another. Part of what makes Drops of God fascinating is seeing how the series finesses the fact that the contest must produce a winner. After all, if Camille wins, the show will have appropriated a manga about two Japanese contestants, then transformed it into a story about France's unbeatable superiority in wine. Not cool. If Issei wins, the show risks alienating France by suggesting that a Japanese wine expert is greater than a French one with the intuitive genius of a Mozart. Impossible.

Deep into the series, the lawyer who's executing the will says he's overseen many such battles and that they never end well for either the loser or the winner. "Legacy," he says, "is a tragedy." By the end of the show's slightly hokey final episode, we not only find out whether the lawyer is right, but learn what we really want to know all along: Who's walking away with the wine?

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.