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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

(continued from page 5)

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.

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