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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
| By Bruce Schoenfeld | From 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.

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.

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.