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California's New Stars

A Handful of Small Producers Are Creating Some of the Golden State's Greatest, and Most Elusive, Wines
Bruce Schoenfeld
Posted: August 1, 1999

Not far from Southern California's Ventura Freeway, hard by the rusting remnants of uncountable cars and trucks (and miles from the nearest vineyard), restaurateur Manfred Krankl creates some of the best wine in America. Working with his wife, Elaine, in a rented warehouse beside a junkyard, he produces cuvées of Rhone varietals from purchased grapes, labels them with names of German Expressionist painters or obscure African nations, and masterfully blends them into finished wines for his Sine Qua Non winery. He releases them in double-weight bottles with Gothic lettering, portentous names and hand-etched labels.

If you've been a fan of Krankl's wines since he debuted with his Queen of Spades Syrah in 1994, you're most likely related to him, and you're surely on his mailing list. That will enable you to buy this year's releases--the blend of Rousanne and Chardonnay that he has anointed Omadhaun and Poltroon, and the Syrah-based Against The Wall--for the bargain price of $36. If you stumble upon the right retail outlet, you can purchase some for about $50. Otherwise, you'll have to scour restaurant wine lists or page through auction catalogues to pay market value, which is $75 and up. Then you'll drink the wine, and you'll understand that whatever you paid was worth it.

Sine Qua Non is actually one of the most accessible of California's current generation of superstar wineries. If you search hard enough, you might find its releases, though you'll never track down the featureless warehouse and its tiny, hand-lettered sign without written directions.

Locating some of the state's other preeminent wines can be just as elusive. A wine pilgrim can tour California from north to south and back again and see no sign of Screaming Eagle, Araujo Estate or Harlan Estate, nor a single bottle of the wines they make. Undoubtedly, there are members of, say, the Screaming Eagle cult who have read about the wine in Wine Spectator, argued about the price in Internet chat rooms, left plaintive messages on the answering machine at proprietor Jean Phillips's real estate office (she's a broker by day), yet have no idea what a bottle looks like, let alone how it tastes. This upper echelon of California wineries is hidden and virtually anonymous.

A few hundred miles up the Pacific Coast from Krankl, Phillips lives alone in a Napa Valley house, surrounded by orange Formica in the kitchen that she hasn't had the money or time to renovate, and gazes at the grapevines that produce Screaming Eagle. Up Silverado Trail, Bart Araujo, a former home builder and a wine neophyte when the decade began, presides over production at Napa's storied

Eisele Vineyard. Across the valley, on a hillside above Oakville, businessman Bill Harlan's shimmering vision of the finest Bordeaux-style wine in America is coming into focus behind an electric gate, inside a half-constructed winery that resembles a Tuscan ruin.

These are not, be assured, California properties on the order of Caymus or Beringer, though those, too, are occasionally capable of producing transcendent wines. There are no tasting rooms at this rarified level of California wine making, no T-shirts, no stops on the Napa Wine Train. The wines themselves are available only at auctions, in select restaurants in California and beyond, off mailing lists that have long since been closed out, and occasionally--very occasionally--at retail outlets, often for $100 or more. And it doesn't cost that for long. By the time a bottle reaches auction houses or restaurant wine lists, it can be priced at four, five or 10 times retail price.

What these new elite wineries have in common is that their wines have become commodities, to be hoarded and traded like pork bellies. The other similarity is that their wines are invariably very, very good.

The idea of even a $50 bottle from California once seemed unthinkable to Americans, who have always been reverse chauvinists when it comes to wine. Today, perhaps a dozen properties release wines priced at or about $100, with Diamond Creek's Lake Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($240 on release) leading the way. It's getting so that a wine with a price tag that would have been considered high only a few years ago now has trouble getting taken seriously.

"One winery raises its price from $40 to $80, and all of a sudden a Spottswoode, for example, is forced to raise its price or it looks like they're selling crud," says Krankl, who has tried to hold the line for those fortunate enough to buy directly from Elaine at Sine Qua Non. Since $40 wines are now $80, $20 wines have increased to $40, and so on down the line. Many of the discriminating consumers' favorite bargain bottles are no longer bargains.

That's the unfortunate byproduct of the increased esteem the world's wine drinkers now hold for California wines, and evidence of what a 98-point rating from a wine critic can do. On the other hand, these wines are quite possibly the best ever produced on this continent. At least, many of those reviewers think so--as do auction bidders, who have made investing in top California Cabernets the oenophilic equivalent of holding Internet stocks.

"I think everybody has gotten too wrapped up in what these wines are worth," says Ann Colgin, a wine consultant at Sotheby's West Coast. A case of her Colgin Cellars Cabernet fetched an inconceivable $16,100 at Christie's All California auction in Los Angeles in 1997, and her worry is that these wines have become too valuable to drink. "If you're not going to eventually open these bottles," she says, "you should be chasing something else."

Colgin Cellars Cabernet, which by virtue of price alone heads the roll call of cult California wines, is made by Helen Turley, a Napa-based enologist and wine-growing consultant with a reputation for both Draconian wine making and the thrillingly drinkable product that results. Turley also is responsible for the cult Cabernet made by Bryant Family Vineyards, for Pahlmeyer Merlot, and for two famously unctuous vintages of Zinfandel at Turley Cellars, which is owned by her brother, Larry Turley. She has lately been growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes for her own label, Marcassin, and the wines that emerge are fiercely coveted among retail buyers and at auction.

In Napa's upper valley, the Dalla Valle winery produces a proprietary red wine called Maya that wine writers have judged just about perfect. And the Grace Family Vineyards of Dick Grace produce small batches of legendary and quite expensive wine annually. (David Abreu, the vineyard manager for many of Napa's properties, and the man who deserves much of the credit for the quality of fruit now available in Napa, himself produces a few hundred cases of theoretically extraordinary Cabernet called Abreu. It is difficult to say how extraordinary because the wine is utterly unavailable, and Abreu, a skittish sort, chose not to be interviewed for this story.)

Many of these are established properties, meaning they extend back into the early 1980s, and some are newer. Most of the proprietors have roots in the business that push at least as far into the California soil as their vines. (Helen Turley, for example, has hands-on experience in Napa County vineyards since the late 1970s.)

That's not the case with Araujo, Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non or Harlan Estates, although Bill Harlan had owned Merryvale Winery from 1983 to 1996. This quartet of superstar properties represents, if you can bear the contradiction, the democratization of elitism. Krankl is a restaurateur with a background in hotel management. Harlan, creator of Napa's Meadowood Resort, is a developer and businessman who lived on houseboats for more than two decades. Neither Phillips nor Araujo had ever made a bottle of wine or owned a vine as of just a few years ago. Each set out with little more than the vision of making the best wine possible--and enough money to make it happen.

Almost always, making extraordinary wine means severe vine pruning, low grape yields and limited bottlings. Inherent in the purchase of any of these wines is the cachet of scarcity. While Bordeaux's first-growths can produce as many as 30,000 cases, or 360,000 bottles, of their best wine out of a given harvest, these California wines are made in minuscule quantities: 200 cases here, 400 cases there. The tiny volume of wine, combined with the intense interest, has rendered marketing rather unimportant. Neither Araujo, Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate nor Sine Qua Non has ever failed to sell a bottle of wine it has produced for sale.

When you combine that scarcity with the quality of these wines, you get something akin to hysteria. Consumers show up at front doors unannounced, terrorize answering machines, offer to swap goods and services ranging from motorcycles to cosmetic surgery--all for the right to purchase the wine. Retail stores fortunate enough to score a few bottles mark up the prices, then sell the wines only to consumers who purchase at least a case of something else. Even then, the wines usually stay on display for only a matter of hours. Various newsletters now exist that tip off their readers to little-known sources for these magical bottles.

"One man called me up because he had seen my wine for sale at a store for $900 a bottle, and he asked me how I could permit that," says Phillips. She explained to him that, like a painter, she gets paid for her artistry only once; any future sales benefit only the speculator. "The wine is the wine, and the rest of it has a life of its own," she says. "It blows my mind that all of this has happened."

Phillips stands outside her house--which sits, nestled among the grape vines, down an unmarked driveway off Silverado Trail--and gestures toward the horizon. Around her, like points on a clock, are vineyards owned by Groth, Dalla Valle, Oakville Ranch, Turnbull, Vine Cliff and other familiar Napa properties. In each case, Phillips introduced the property to the eventual buyer, matching the land to a prospective winery owner's desire.

By the time Phillips purchased her own acreage in 1986, she had created a niche as Napa's premier listing agent for vineyards. The daughter of a Florida real estate broker who vowed she wouldn't end up in real estate, she had traveled a circuitous route there and back again. She worked as a dressmaker, owned an antiques shop and learned to fly airplanes, then found her calling selling land. She developed such a feeling for those parcels of vineyards, she ultimately yearned to work one herself. "I'd sold so many, I had wine in my blood," she says.

The temptation is to perceive Phillips, 54, as a mere real estate broker who has, in effect, purchased the fame and respect her wines have received. In fact, although the esteemed Heidi Barrett, the wife of Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena and the daughter of former Beaulieu Vineyard winemaker Dick Peterson, is her winemaker, not a single task in the tiny winery takes place without Phillips supervising--and, in most cases, actually doing--the work. "I was down there this morning putting CO2 in the tanks and it was cold and my hands were like chipped ice," she says, hugging herself against the chill of the memory. "I was thinking, 'This is fun?' But it was beautiful in the valley, and I looked around at where I live and what I do and I said, 'Yes, this is fun. This is what I want.' "

At her winery's size--it produces an average of some 200 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine a year--she can do almost everything herself. After the harvest, when the grapes proceed by conveyer belt to the crusher, Phillips sorts them by hand. "I've touched every grape that goes into my wine," she says. "I've done it from day one. The wine doesn't move without me moving it. Ever."

The tangible reward for more manual labor than she'd ever possibly considered is a remarkably rich yet balanced wine that is sold in a wooden box for $100 a bottle. She could double the price and it wouldn't matter--"It wouldn't be a blip; it would be gone in a minute," she says--but like Colgin, she knows that the higher the value, the less chance that anyone is drinking the stuff. So when Phillips allots her wine to a few Napa-area restaurants, she stipulates that it must not only be sold there but appear on the wine list.

When the wine can fetch a lot of money, it feels even better to give it away. Phillips donates bottles of Screaming Eagle for charity auctions as small as Napa Valley school fund-raisers, where one bottle can provide seed money for a new library. She's now packaging a single bottle of her '92, '93 and '94 vintages, each worth at least $579 according to the latest auction results, and asking for bidders from her mailing list, including prospective buyers who've been on the waiting list for as long as four years without getting to taste a single bottle. The money will pay for schooling for the children of a family of farm workers who live on her property and help with the field work.

Uncorking a bottle of the 1992, Phillips's face beams with expectation. One sip, and it is evident why. This is not a standard-issue California Cabernet, almost too mathematically perfect to be interesting, but every true winemaker's ideal: a wine from somewhere. Rich and intense, with cascades of red fruit, it is undoubtedly a California wine, but a special one, a specific one. Will it age as long as a great Bordeaux? There may not be enough left to ever know. Though its nose remains muted and almost half an hour in the glass is needed for it to fully open, the wine is irresistible right now.

"Every time I drink this wine," she says of the '92, "I pray I'll never run out. It will be gone someday, but the memories I will always have." She lifts a glass to eye level and gazes into the deep garnet color of the wine. "Not many dreams come true like this," she says, then takes a drink.

Ten years ago, Phillips met Bart Araujo, a Harvard Business School graduate who had arrived in Napa looking to buy property. He had sold his home-building company in 1988, when he was 44, and after staying on to run it for four more years, found himself at a turning point. "I was 48, and too young to retire," he recalls. "I was a wine fan, though not a wine geek. But Napa seemed like a good idea."

In 1990, Araujo and his wife, Daphne, purchased a vineyard and property through Phillips with the idea of growing grapes and selling them in bulk. At the same time, he mentioned to her that he was distressed by the number of northern California's best-known vineyard properties that were being bought by corporations. He would love to bid against them, he said, if the opportunity ever arose. Two months later, when the Eisele Vineyard--which since 1971 had been producing fruit for Joseph Phelps, Conn Creek or Ridge at one time or another--came up for sale, Araujo bought it and revised his plans.

Ultimately, he decided to create an estate-grown brand rather than sell the grapes, as was done there before. He built a compound of wood buildings with pea-green corrugated roofs to serve as a winery.

Phillips, Harlan, Krankl, Colgin and a number of other superpremium wine producers had worked at least tangentially with wine, anything from selling the land to serving the bottles, but they had no reason to expect success at the highest level when they started their wineries. Araujo, an utter newcomer, did expect success. The Eisele Vineyard's unparalleled track record and his winemakers' 20-plus years of experience gave Araujo the confidence that Araujo Estate would be making some of California's most impressive Bordeaux blends almost from the start. As a home builder, he knew the value of location: in this case the mix of soil, climate and sun exposure that the French call terroir. "In my mind, that's at least 80 percent of making great wine," he says.

The Eisele Vineyard is a 36-acre plot of stony soil some 800 feet above sea level. It sits under a ridge called the Palisades, in the northeast corner of Napa's wine-producing region. It was first planted with Zinfandel and Riesling in 1886, and the first Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in 1964. Those Cabernet vines still exist and are bearing fruit. So are additional vines planted in 1978 and 1991.

Milton and Barbara Eisele purchased the property in 1969, and two years later began selling their Cabernet to Ridge Vineyards. In 1974, Conn Creek produced an Eisele Cabernet, and from 1975 to 1990 Joseph Phelps held title to the grapes and made the wine. Irrespective of the winemakers, the Eisele Cabernets--which are blended with small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot--invariably show a distinctive earthiness with notes of spice and chocolate. Along with Heitz's Martha's Vineyard, Ridge's Geyserville, and a handful of other renowned tracts of land, the Eisele Vineyard is one of the strongest expressions of California terroir.

This fact is not lost on wine drinkers. From Araujo Estate's initial release, which coincided with Phelps's final Eisele Cabernet in 1989, the wine has caused a sensation. Priced then at $40 (it went for $169 recently at auction; the recently released 1995 retails for $75), it immediately sold out. Today, Araujo sells half his wine--2,500 cases of the 1995, his largest release ever--to his mailing list, about 35 percent to restaurants in more than 20 states and internationally, and the remainder in selected retail outlets. In 1996, he introduced a Sauvignon Blanc and last year added a Syrah. He makes wine, as all winemakers do, to be enjoyed, but admits that the prices his wines get have altered them from mere premium releases to wines so rarified as to be almost too valuable to drink. "It has changed the nature of how people view it," he says.

In a sense, Araujo is showing more respect for the vicissitudes of his land than any of his predecessors. Although the Araujo wines originate in a single vineyard, he treats each sector of land as if it were a different plot. He jumps into his four-wheel-drive vehicle and shows off the property, pointing out imaginary borders between sectors that are as real in his mind as the old Berlin Wall.


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