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Sine Qua Non

West Ventura is full of secrets. But Manfred Krankl’s boutique winery on The Avenue (yes, that Avenue) is among the sweetest.

By Matt Kettmann

Manfred Krankl at work in his Ventura Avenue winery, where he produces 3,500 cases of Sine Qua Non per year. Industrial surroundings belie the delicate process taking place down just another nondescript alley. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez.

 

egends often enter the world by curious means—for the Buddha, it was a lotus leaf; for Moses, a papyrus raft; for Manfred Krankl, an out-of-the-way warehouse on Ventura’s Westside.

But more bizarre than the latter legend’s modest origins is that you’ve probably never heard of him. In short, Manfred Krankl is one of the world’s best winemakers, renowned from Stockholm and Paris to New York City and Beverly Hills, with bottles of his highly coveted and nearly impossible-to-get wine selling for upwards of $500. And he does his dirty work of wine grape sorting, crushing, fermenting, and ageing in a nondescript warehouse on “The Avenue” in Ventura, between burrito shacks, motorcycle repair shops, and the semi-industrial neighborhood’s other unrefined elements. If you can’t get your hands on the wine, then the only way to pay homage to Manfred Krankl is to give a nod to the sky-high road sign on Ventura Avenue that’s topped off with the Latin words “Sine Qua Non.”

That’s the name of Krankl’s winery, which is not open to the public, and it translates literally to “without which not.” But to the upper echelon of the wine-drinking world—Krankl’s cultish fans include movie stars, iconic directors, famous composers, and professional palettes of the highest regard—“Sine Qua Non” translates better to its colloquial meaning: “something that cannot be done without.” When you learn that Sine Qua Non’s output is a mere 3,500 cases per year, it’s possible to see why the cost of one bottle could otherwise buy a year’s worth of decent table wine.

I first met Manfred about three years ago while writing a story on Ventura County winemakers. I’d found his name via an Internet search, and he obliged to an interview. He led me around his warehouse winery one morning, pulling from barrels to show off his latest creation, all of which bear fanciful titles such as “Queen of Spades,” “Imposter McCoy,” and “Against the Wall.” The wines were excellent, and I left in awe of his quirky yet cocksure expertise. Driving away, I remember distinctly thinking, “There’s something special about this dude.”

Only in the coming years of reporting and writing about the Central Coast’s wine industry did I realize I’d been a blessed man, one of the few people who’ve tasted with Manfred and seen the inner workings of his business and mind. He approaches near mythic status when other winemakers speak of him, and regularly gets unprecedentedly high scores—even perfect 100s—from the renowned critic Robert Parker. Just last month while I was on a wine tour, a winemaker in the Santa Ynez Valley hammered this realization home. He was wearing a Sine Qua Non t-shirt—sporting 2004’s “Poker Face” label—so I name-dropped and said I’d tasted with Manfred. The long-haired, youthful winemaker shot back a surprised look, and then smiled. “You’re one of the lucky ones,” he confirmed.

Manfred Krankl’s path to the Westside and winemaking begins in his homeland of Austria, which accounts for his affable accent. When he was 22 years old, he and a friend bought a ticket to Toronto, got smashed on the plane, and told their first cab driver to take them to the center of town. It soon became apparent that without knowing English they’d be hard-pressed to find work. Manfred found his way back to Europe on a freighter, winding up in Greece before going flat-broke and heading home to Austria, defeated.

But he’d met an American girl in Mikonos, Greece, and after less than a year back in Austria he headed to California and never looked back. He landed a job with another legend and Austrian expat, Norbert Wabnig, the owner of The Cheese Store in Beverly Hills. “I never laughed so hard at any work in my life,” Krankl remembers. Still learning English, his job was mainly wrapping up cheese and sweeping the floor, but he had to occasionally help customers, even though he only knew the metric system of weights and recognized about eight of the 400 cheeses.

Krankl eventually landed a job at the Westwood Plaza, quickly became general manager, and made the hotel the most profitable one in its chain. “It was a nice cushy job,” he recalls, “almost too easy.”

He wanted more excitement and more pay-off, which also meant more risk. So in 1989, Krankl and two friends opened a restaurant called Campanile and the adjoining La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. The success was immediate, and both enterprises are now household names in Southern California.

In the meantime, Krankl and his wife, Elaine, had moved to an unincorporated part of West Ventura—a rural plot at the edge of Lake Casitas—to get away from it all. But he was still driving to L.A. everyday, and that’s how Ventura became home to what would become his celebrated Sine Qua Non Winery. He wanted a place between his new property and L.A. where he could focus on making wine as a hobby. But his friends liked it so much they encouraged him to make wine to sell.

So in 1994, he made about 100 cases—it sold out immediately, and somehow Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate got a hold of one. A critic whose approval is priceless in the industry, Parker rated it an amazing 95 points, a number unheard of for first-timers and most lifelong vintners alike. By 1996, Sine Qua Non was putting out 2,000 cases, which has been raised ever so gently to the current output of 3,500 cases.

Simultaneously, Krankl got out of the restaurant business, since his job had moved beyond his passion for food and wine into daily meetings with accountants and other executives. Once he sold his shares in Campanile and La Brea Bakery, he was free to focus on winemaking. Sine Qua Non has been a phenomenal success ever since, and Parker is still a huge fan, recently bestowing three 100-point scores to Krankl’s concoctions. Most of the wines are sold via the winery’s mailing list (don’t even think about trying; the waiting list is exceedingly long), and the rest go to restaurants and wine shops around the world. Or, if you’re really rich, look for them at an auction—at a recent fundraiser in Florida, three double magnums of Sine Qua Non sold for $100,000.

“It was all coincidental,” Krankl explains. “Nothing ever happened by design, other than I wanted to leave Austria.”

On my second visit to Sine Qua Non, this fall, the winery was alive with excitement. 2007 is the first ever harvest for Krankl’s local vineyard, where he grows a six-acre blend of syrah, grenache, and roussanne. It’s a young vineyard, which makes for a small harvest, so the syrah pickings merely fill one bin. Yet there are three employees diligently working that bin, all intent on keeping the Sine Qua Non legacy in good health.

Never one to heed naysayers’ warnings, Krankl’s vineyard embodies his independent worldview. Although the conditions for growing wine grapes are optimal in parts of Ventura County—namely the rugged hillsides of the Ojai Valley, where heat and coastal cool regularly interchange—a bout with Pierce’s disease many years ago dashed most hopes for a vibrant vineyard community. Delivered by the citrus-loving glassy winged sharpshooter, Pierce’s disease suffocates vines, making anything other than raisins rather difficult to grow.

But Krankl isn’t afraid, nor are some other growers in Ventura County, like Roll Ranch, which sells grapes to Adam Tolmach’s award-winning Ojai Winery. When I first met Krankl in 2004, right after he’d planted the vineyard, he explained, “People tell you everything that’s a problem. If you listened to that, you’d stay in bed all day. You’ve got to try and find out for yourself.” So that’s what he’s been doing the past three years, and he’s yet to be visited by the sharpshooter. In fact, next year he’s doubling his acreage in West Ventura.

That vineyard—combined with the property he owns in the Santa Rita Hills between Buellton and Lompoc—is the next frontier for Krankl, whose wine will soon be entirely made from grapes he’s grown rather than from fruit he’s purchased. In so doing, he is moving almost entirely into Rhone varietals such as syrah and grenache, and away from the pinots and white wines that helped make him a legend.

Is he worried about losing any of his fans with this new direction? “Since the beginning, there has never been an issue with selling the wine out. So I think the people will follow,” Krankl says assuredly. “If I had to do it the other way [and listen to what the people want], I’d give it up.”

That autonomous spirit is very much fuel on Krankl’s legendary fire, if not the kindling. Despite his star status, Krankl remains a bit of a recluse, refusing to take part in the endless social calendar of dinners and tastings that typify the California wine business. “I’m not into the incestuousness of it all,” he explains. “I don’t want to go to 60,000 tastings. That’s not my cup of tea…I’ve never felt that my work defines who I am; it’s not one of the things I want to talk about 24/7.” Instead, he has other interests, such as music, motorcycles, and art, including the eclectic, Ralph Steadman-esque etchings he creates as wine labels for his bottles.

Along the way, Manfred and Elaine have popped out five kids, three of whom are already out of the nest, living in places like Boston and Los Angeles, with one going to college in Claremont. The two youngest are 15-year-old twin boys, and while they’ve toiled in the vineyard and winery, they’re not interested in carrying on the legacy. “My oldest kid thinks this job is very primitive,” says Krankl.

In the coming years, Manfred Krankl will be flying the Ventura Avenue coop, leaving the origins of his legendary status to be closer to his country home, only a few miles away. He’s building a winery up on the 200 acres near Lake Casitas, one that he promises “will be a little nicer than this,” as he looks around the Westside warehouse wearing his trademark smirk.

Other than that, Sine Qua Non will remain mostly the same, pumping out about 3,500 cases a year of carefully handcrafted wine to be sold to loyal subscribers, restaurants, and retailers. “I’m not an executive winemaker,” says Krankl. “I don’t fax it in. Yesterday, I was standing here at the sorting tables like everybody else.” And that’s the way he likes it, lamenting how what starts as a personal passion can fast turn into something more corporate and dull once success comes. “I could make 25,000 cases,” he says. “But suddenly, what will I be doing? Calculations, meeting with accountants, going to winemaker dinners…I like going into the vineyard and hanging out with the barrels. I’d rather fill one bottle of wine that costs three million dollars than fill three million bottles that cost one dollar.”

Who knows? At this rate, we might just see the world’s first three million dollar bottle of wine come from Sine Qua Non, born in the grimy heart of Ventura’s Westside.  

12-01-2007

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