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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
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

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.


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