Pillars of French culture: “L’incroyable histoire du vin” by Daniel Casanave and Benoist Simmat. Image: Les Arénes

Wine by the panel: how France is mixing booze with comic-books

The French are passionate about their grapes and their bandes dessinées. At last, there’s a publishing trend that satisfies both of those passions at once
December 26, 2022

Anyone who visits Pages & Cépages in Paris is not only likely to leave with a bottle of wine; they might also pick up a comic book about wine to enjoy it with. Indeed, this independent wine and bookshop carries around 2,000 books dedicated exclusively to food and wine, a full tenth of which tell their stories through illustrated strips. The size of this selection can be attributed to co-founder Laurence de Cabarrus’s fondness for bandes dessinées (the French term for comic books), a love she shares with many French readers of all ages.  

This francophone passion for bande dessinée, or BD as the genre is commonly referred to, is perhaps best known internationally through characters such as the moustachioed Gallic warrior Asterix or the intrepid Belgian adventurer Tintin. However, these heroes are just the tip of an iceberg that has been growing beneath the waterline: market intelligence provider GfK recently published a report revealing that France’s BD sector experienced a record year in 2021, having reached a turnover of €889m with 85.1m books sold. Manga, a style from Japan, accounts for a significant portion of this success, but not only; GfK also found that genres such as nonfiction had witnessed a steep rise in popularity. Such is the importance of BD in French literary culture that it is regularly referred to as the “ninth art”. Around 200,000 visitors flock to Angoulême’s international BD festival each year.

While the topics covered in BD are incredibly varied, wine, another pillar of French culture, has only recently become one of its focus points.Les Gouttes de Dieu, an acclaimed Japanese manga with a wine-driven plot, was one of the first to hit French bookshops: volume one was published in France in 2008, after being translated by French comic book publisher Editions Glénat, and the series now contains over 40 volumes. De Cabarrus also credits Les ignorants—a nonfiction title that documents the year-long exchanges between a French winemaker and the book’s author-illustrator—as being something of a trailblazer for graphic novels on wine. Since it was published in 2011, a wide range of wine-focused titles have appeared on the market. Recent and upcoming releases include a black and white detective story that dives deep into the world of natural wine and a portrait of a woman winemaker featuring vibrant pastel illustrations.

Laurent Muller, the editor who created the BD section at publishing house Les Arènes, explains that the retail price of these kinds of books plays a key role in determining the readership. Many cost €20 or more, putting them in the same league as hardbacks. He says: “People who read BDs are usually from a fairly good socioeconomic status because BDs can be quite expensive… and people who like wine tend to be quite well off, too.” Take, for example, the three Mimi, Fifi et Glouglou books written and illustrated by Michel Tolmer, which are priced between €22 and €24. They are printed in small runs by Les Editions de l’Epure, a choice driven by a desire for quality. Sabine Bucquet-Grene, founder and director of l’Epure, says: “We really wanted it to be a beautiful item, a bit larger than a classic BD made with fine artisanal paper. We created something slightly out of the ordinary.” It’s a book designed with aesthetes in mind.

Cost aside, Muller distinguishes between two kinds of readers: fans of the genre and those that buy books for the subject matter. De Cabarrus corroborates this. “Some readers are already familiar with BD and manga and want to discover new titles,” she says, while “others are interested in the subject, but don’t want to read a book that is overly scholarly.” In the case of L’Incroyable histoire du vin—a book published by Les Arènes which charts the history of wine from its origins until now—readers tend to fall in the second category; they buy the book to learn about wine. Consequently, this new literary subsection has served to open up the world of wine to BD readers, and vice versa. 

For all readers, regardless of which category they fall into, the illustrations really influence the reading experience. Much like food, wine is highly sensorial; much like food, it suits being treated using a visual format. Alessandra Fottorino, author of In Vino Femina, which was published this autumn, says: “Drawings are great for talking about wine. They allow you to explore its colours and aromas and to depict a vineyard. It whets the appetite.” In Vino Femina relies on a simple colour palette of black, white, red (for wine and violence), green (for the vineyard) and some yellow. At the other end of the scale, titles such as L’Incroyable histoire du vin have a more detailed illustrative style.

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Highly sensorial: a page from “In Vino Femina” by Alessandra Fottorino and Céline Pernot-Burlet. Image: La Maison Hachette Pratique

The appeal also lies in the genre’s storytelling power, as Muller says: “It tells a story, it’s embodied by characters.” In L’Incroyable histoire du vin, Bacchus, the Roman god of wine—who takes on the appearance of a modern day hipster—is the narrator. He accompanies the reader through several millennia in what could be described as a light, didactic reading experience. That’s quite the feat considering the breadth and density of the subject matter. This achievement stems, in part, from the fact that the author and illustrator have had to work together to fit the story into panels, resulting in a message that has been simplified as much as possible.

The illustrator of In Vino Femina, Céline Pernot-Burlet, works as a graphic facilitator while Fottorino is a wine educator. Both are very much aware of the genre’s incredible educational potential. Pernot-Burlet, who knew little about wine before starting the project, says: “We didn’t want to just deliver a message, we wanted it to be understood.” When you read books like In Vino Femina and L’Incroyable histoire du vin, it doesn’t matter how much you know about wine. They are designed to speak to amateurs and professionals alike, but on different levels.

Not all titles are educational, however. Humour is a key mechanism in the one-page strips of Mimi, Fifi et Glouglou, which relate the adventures of three wine enthusiasts. As the introductory note of Mimi, Fifi et Glouglou: Petit traité de dégustation highlights, wine tasting can seem terrifying. But it doesn’t need to be. Sabine Bucquet-Grene explains that “Mimi, Fifi et Glouglou demystifies the world of wine. The three characters are always getting things wrong or making fun of one another.” Humour can make a world that often seems daunting to the non-initiated far more accessible.

In fact, the overall accessibility of BD means that the genre lends itself well to tackling some of the more serious issues that can be found in the industry. By drawing on the experiences of Fottorino, who has worked in wine for 15 years, In Vino Femina highlights the sexism that exists in the industry, all while celebrating some of its most remarkable women. Pernot-Burlet says the genre is a great way to raise awareness: “There are some things that Aless didn’t explain using words, but that we could communicate using images, like attitudes or postures. Sexism plays out in the details.”

Fottorino explains it was important to find the right balance: “Deep down, I’m more radical than my book is, but I wanted my book to be heard.” The aim was to reach as many people as possible without alienating anyone. In that respect, she has received positive feedback from readers. She gives the example of a man she encountered at a book signing who was convinced that it wasn’t a problem to describe a full-bodied wine as masculine and a delicate one as feminine. She later received an email from him—after he had read the book—in which he admitted having been an idiot and thanked her for having taught him an invaluable lesson. Pernot-Burlet says that people like him become ambassadors of the cause and will help bring about change. “That’s incredibly powerful,” she concludes.

Sales also speak volumes about the success of this new subsection. Talking about L’Incroyable histoire du vin, which is now in its fourth edition, Muller says: “If we’d done the same book in a written format, we’d have sold 5,000 to 10,000 copies at most. We’ve sold over 100,000 copies.” Similarly, the first Mimi, Fifi et Glouglou book is one of Les Editions de l’Epure’s bestselling titles. Bucquet-Grene estimates that they have sold over 20,000 copies, which she highlights is a considerable figure for an independent publishing house like hers. The book continues to be a success: at a recent book signing, Tolmer was staggered by the number of people who had turned out to buy it, almost a decade after it was first published.

For the time being, France’s enthusiasm for BDs about wine shows no signs of waning. Bucquet-Grenet says that’s because the big publishing houses have begun to notice it’s a niche with potential, and that a lot of new titles are now being released. For de Cabarrus, this kind of book has filled a gap. “We might get to a stage where the market becomes saturated, but we are not there yet,” she says. France, it appears, can look forward to enjoying more books which seamlessly combine two of its important cultural markers… paired with a glass of Beaujolais, perhaps.