California's New Stars
A Handful of Small Producers Are Creating Some of the Golden State's Greatest, and Most Elusive, Wines
Posted: August 1, 1999
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Over the nine years he has been working the land, he and his wine-making team have come to know the growing characteristics and weather exposure of practically each vine. (The team includes winemaker Francoise Peschon, viticulturist David Abreu and consulting enologist Mia Klein; another long-time enologist, Tony Soter, retired in April.) His stainless steel tanks vary in size so he can harvest some fruit and begin the fermentation process while other, slower-ripening grapes are still maturing on the vine. (Ultra-ripeness, resulting in wines of high alcohol and rich, extracted fruit, is a danger here because, while it creates wonderfully pleasurable wines and, not so incidentally, high scores from many influential critics, it tends to mute influences like terroir.) The final product is a blend of cuvées; that's common practice in many wineries, but almost always from fruit of different vineyards.
Araujo has acquired additional land abutting the old contours of the vineyard, and planted vines that will ultimately contribute to the wine if the fruit is worthy. So far, he has resisted planting Merlot grapes, which are a large component of most Bordeaux-style blends in France and beyond, but now says he is considering such a move.
"Tony Soter believes Merlot is primarily used to correct flaws in Cabernet Sauvignon," Araujo says, though many of the premier wines of Bordeaux's right bank, including Château Pétrus and Cheval Blanc, are made almost entirely from Merlot. Araujo reports that Soter believes Merlot isn't needed at Eisele.
Alone among Napa Valley winery owners, Bill Harlan considers the Eisele Vineyard and shrugs his shoulders. It's another fine patch of grape-growing land in what has become the most respected vinous region in the New World, he believes. But it isn't the finest. In his mind, it can't be.
Eisele, perched on a shelf in the Napa foothills, sits on gently rolling terrain. The Medoc area of Bordeaux, where Cabernet-based wines thrive, is even flatter. But that isn't the case in most of the other renowned wine-producing regions of the world. From Tuscany in northwest Italy to the Rioja in northern Spain to Douro Valley in northern Portugal, the finest vineyards are planted on hillsides; only cheaper bulk wines are made on the valley floors.
Harlan is a real estate man who understands the supply and demand of land values. "In Burgundy, the land prices on the slopes are not twice or even three times that of in the valley or on the crest of the hills, but 10 times, 20 times," he says. "The farmers know. Especially in Europe, where they've been making wine hundreds of years, they figure it out."
Fixated on creating a wine that would compete successfully with the best of Bordeaux, Harlan spent most of his 25-year career studying land values around the world and concluded that he had to plant his vineyards on a hillside. He knew that the finest grapes, with the most concentrated flavor, came from vines that had to work the hardest to get nourishment from the soil. In Napa, the vast majority of quality cultivation comes from the gently sloping land near the valley bottom. What with the exorbitant price of planting high on the brush-covered hillsides, and the amount of time and effort needed to assuage environmentalists who feared erosion and the loss of an unspoiled view, he was informed that such a plan was untenable. Harlan listened and smiled. Then he went ahead with his plans.
Clearly, Harlan is no ordinary man. Talking with Harlan, most references to modern American culture are met with blank stares. He has never owned a television. A former all-America water polo player and swimmer, he has started some two dozen businesses, but hasn't owned a home on land, only houseboats. Even now, with a winery with heating pipes set in the hardwood floors and a guest room overlooking the Napa hills, Harlan lives in a rented home. He married late and, at 58, now has two children, aged 9 and 12. When he realized he wanted something enduring, he started a winery for the ages.
In 1985, Harlan initiated the clearing of 23 acres out of a 230-acre hillside property that he had acquired in three separate deals. Over the next two years, he planted vines: about 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot, 15 percent Cabernet Franc and a tiny amount of Petit Verdot, just as in the Medoc. He hired Michel Rolland, who makes wine from Tuscany to China and runs Pomerol's Le Bon Pasteur, in Bordeaux, among other estates. "I wanted to carve a vineyard out of the raw land and create something that hadn't been done before," Harlan says. "I wanted every little teeny facet of the process, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them, to give us the best chance for success."
From 1987 to 1996, Harlan Estate's proprietary red wine--since it contains less than 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, it cannot be legally labeled as such--was made at Merryvale, which had been turning out very good but not spectacular wines since the early '80s. Until January 1996, when the 1990 and 1991 vintages hit the market, none of the Harlan Estate was released commercially. Detailed marketing plans were in place, for Harlan is nothing if not prepared, but those initial wines received such extraordinary reviews that no marketing has yet been necessary. "Since then, my job has mostly been telling people 'no,' " says Don Weaver, Harlan's director.
While 1,600 cases of the 1994 Harlan Estate were released in early 1998, the usual quantity is closer to 1,100. There will be 900 cases each of the '95 and the '96, close to 2,000 of the '97, and perhaps 400 cases of the '98 after a late growing season produced high quality but limited quantity. The mathematics are daunting to Weaver, who is asked to magically produce far more rabbits than he has hats: "I have 6,000 people on my mailing list and I can sell to no more than 800 of them."
Part of the reason is Harlan's determination to build an internationally known brand. "We need to be in every key market, where the people who know the difference between good and great wine can find it," he says. While the rest of his businesses have been ephemeral, Harlan wants his wines to span generations, the way the great wines of Bordeaux--Margaux and Mouton, Lafite and Latour--have done. Harlan's winery is his legacy to his children which is why, after much thought, he decided to put his name on the bottle.
The winery he is building above Oakville is the same way. For the past two harvests, the wine has been made amidst the construction of the new estate, up a private road with a view of the valley and the hills beyond. Still unfinished, the estate has the grandeur of a Roman ruin. "Bill wanted something that, the day it was finished, would look like it had been here 100 years," says Weaver. Yet Harlan Estate's wine doesn't have that self-conscious weight to it. Some winemakers make wine as if it were their Ulysses or Mona Lisa, loading it up like packing a camel for a thousand-mile journey. "This wine will be here when the rest of us are gone," they say, laying it down in a cellar. Harlan wants to drink his wines.
At dinner at Meadowood Resort, Harlan sips from glasses of his 1990, 1991 and 1994 releases. He drinks wine slowly, contemplatively, being far more interested in the meditations it engenders than in typical wine discussions about tannins, balance, acidity. He sips, considers, talks, and an hourlong meal turns into four and a half hours of energetic discussion, with topics ranging from nineteenth-century American engravings to the fine points of real estate development. At midnight, gracefully, he takes his leave.
Manfred Krankl hears about Harlan, and the history of Eisele, and Phillips's charity work, and he wonders how such rarefied topics pertain to him. Whereas the other three have set themselves up in Napa Valley, Krankl is an hour from Los Angeles, where he's managing partner of Campanile restaurant and its companion, La Brea Bakery. Whereas most of California's rarefied producers make wines of at least 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, Krankl prefers to make his orchestral red wines from Syrah. And whereas Harlan, Araujo and Screaming Eagle are each produced from a single estate, Krankl owns no vineyard land, not a single plot. "What good is a single vineyard if it isn't absolutely incredible?" he asks. "And even then, you only get one style of grapes. Personally, I want to paint with more than the color red."
The shadow winery that is Sine Qua Non has no employees, no consulting enologist, just this Austrian trained at a hotel school, and his wife, who didn't necessarily bargain for this when she got a waitress job at Campanile and fell in love. "Our entire goal is making great wine," Elaine says. "The bakery is important to Manfred, of course, but this is really our life." Manfred nods in agreement, and then it occurs to him why he belongs with the others. "We started from nowhere out of nothing," he says, "but we are committed."
Perhaps because of such commitment, Sine Qua Non's wines are as good as any produced in California--and just about as coveted. The waiting list can be years and years. Fortunately, Elaine, who handles the business side, is something of a soft touch. Call her up and pour your heart out, and she just might let you buy a bottle, if she has any left.
Krankl names his wines something different every year because, like an author's novel or a director's movie, each is a separate and discrete work of art. So far, eight formidable red or white wines have been created: Queen of Spades (from the 1994 harvest); Red-Handed, The Other Hand, The Bride, and Queen of Hearts (from 1995); Omadhaun and Poultroon, Left Field, and Against The Wall (from 1996, Sine Qua Non's current releases). He has also issued two Rosés, E-lips and Crossed.
Each wine is made in minute quantities--60 cases, in one instance--from what his grapes give him, in decidedly non-interventionist fashion. The idea of aiming for a certain effect with his wine making astounds him. "A lot of times, wine making is talked about as if it were building a car," he says. "'It's got to be this much wider and this much longer, so let's just do that.' But that isn't the way it works at all."
Slightly less than half of his production is sold to mailing list customers, and 30 percent goes to Europe. (In several European countries, Sine Qua Non futures--buying not-yet-released wine at a specific price, a practice usually reserved for Bordeaux, Burgundy and other coveted wines--do brisk business.) The rest, about 25 percent, is sent through distributors around the United States. "Just so that there is the possibility, no matter how remote, that you could walk into a good wine shop and buy our wines," he says.
Krankl is from Enns, west of Vienna. His father was a civil servant. "There was wine in my house, but not good wine," he says. He left for hotel school in Gmunden and discovered eating and drinking. After an abortive trip to Toronto, where he couldn't find work, he hopped a freighter to Greece. He then surfaced in Los Angeles and started Campanile with chef Mark Peel and baker Nancy Silverton. Today, Krankl divides his time between La Brea Bakery, his wife and five children, making wine, and roaming California and beyond in search of new sources for terrific fruit.
For Left Field, Krankl found Pinot Noir in Yamhill County, Oregon: great Burgundian-style grapes, enough to make about 60 cases of wine. He and his then-12-year-old son drove up in a refrigerated La Brea Bakery truck, retrieved the grapes, then headed back. About the time he was being pulled over by an inspector at a weigh station, it occurred to him that he didn't have a permit to carry agricultural products across state lines.
"I don't know what I was thinking," he says, "but when she asked me what I had in the truck I couldn't think of anything, so I said, 'Nothing.' She said, 'You mean, it's empty?' and I said, 'Yes.' Somehow, she didn't look, or this wine wouldn't exist today." It isn't the sort of problem that happens at Romanee-Conti.
Wine is not about the journey, but the destination. The truth, all that marketing and money aside, is ultimately in the bottle, and there are as many ways to get there as there are transcendent wines. "Anything that anyone has ever done that is pretty damn good, they haven't followed some sort of recipe," Krankl says. "If someone told me I could make incredible wine by adding Tabasco to the grapes, I'd do it."
For Krankl, like the others, making money is pleasant, but it is not the point. That may sound disingenuous considering the prices their wines fetch, but if it were the point, they'd have stayed in real estate or home building or restaurants. As Krankl opens a bottle of Against The Wall to taste and the fruit aromas jump out of the glass, it's clear that his rented warehouse might as well be the finest wine-making facility in the Rhone Valley. All that matters to him at that moment is the wine.
He'll have his own showcase winery one day, if he wants one. But success won't ever smell sweeter than the glass he has just poured.
Colorado-based writer Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
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