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If it's daring, he'll cork it

Manfred Krankl made his reputation building a bold wine list. That was just the beginning.

March 12, 2003|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

Campanile was just over a year old when Manfred Krankl, the general manager, decided to make a house wine for the restaurant.

"Usually a house wine is the worst wine you have in the house," he says. "That just didn't seem right. "I was interested in wine, and I was in charge of wine at Campanile, so I thought, 'Why not see what I can do?' "

Krankl bought grape juice from Bryan Babcock of Babcock Vineyards in Lompoc and watched carefully as Babcock's team turned the juice into about 100 cases of Chardonnay--"a one-time thing," Krankl figured.

But he was fascinated by the winemaking process and soon found himself reading about it, experimenting and enjoying the voyage of discovery.

Krankl, a 45-year-old native of Austria and resident of Ojai, now produces his own Roussanne, Marsanne and Rose, Syrah, Grenache and Pinot Noir, Eiswein, Vin de Paille and a Trockenbeerenauslese-style dessert wine. He makes the wines in tiny quantities -- 100 to 600 cases of each, about 3,000 cases total -- and none would be served as a house wine, not even at the fanciest house in town. All are expensive, all have strong, distinct flavors, and most get rave reviews from the critics. In fact, it was a 95 rating from Robert Parker -- given to a bottle of '94 Syrah that Krankl sent on impulse to Parker's Maryland office -- that made Krankl an overnight cult sensation.

About half his wines are sold through a small, private mailing list, the rest to a small group of distributors divided about evenly between the U.S. and Europe. The winery itself is in Ventura, but the vineyards that supply him stretch from Santa Ynez to San Luis Obispo -- and up to Oregon, where he grows the grapes for his Pinot Noir.

In a departure from standard wine nomenclature, Krankl gives every wine in every vintage a different label and a different name -- unique names and labels that embody Krankl's aesthetic and sense of whimsy.

His winery is Sine Qua Non (rough Latin translation: "something absolutely necessary"); the names of his wines range from Incognito to In Flagrante, from the Bride to the Boot, from A Cappella to Tarantella.

Krankl designs and produces the labels. He draws or paints the images, turns them into wood cuts or linoleum cuts, then affixes the labels to bottles that are heavier and larger than normal and are, often, oddly but beautifully shaped.

"I gravitate toward the antique look, with a good element of playfulness," he says. "After all, wine should be about fun -- about hedonism, if you will."

Krankl changes wine names and labels every year for another reason as well: "It's a way of underlining the fact that no matter what I do, each wine is inherently a unique product, reflecting the individuality of that particular vintage.... Each wine should be different. That's why it's wine, not Coca-Cola."

But every wine name and label must be approved by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Given Krankl's mischievous personality and ribald sense of humor -- and the BATF's bureaucratic instincts and strait-laced ways -- that means the approval process has at times been difficult.

He wanted to call the 2000 vintage of his Chardonnay/Roussanne/Viognier blend the Good Girl. But the BATF said it was in bad taste and vetoed it -- gave it the boot, in effect. So Krankl renamed it the Boot.

When he named his 2000 Roussanne the Hussy, he figured that name, too, would be rejected. But he wanted to tweak the BATF anyway.

"For some reason, they approved it," he says, giggling like a little boy who got away with telling a dirty joke in class.

The Good Girl label featured an irreverent line drawing of a nun. The Hussy label is a silhouette of a stocking-clad woman.

"I thought The Hussy was way more suggestive and risque," Krankl says, "but the BATF doesn't have to explain their decisions. I don't know what they thought. I just know they approved it."

The Hussy and Krankl's other spring 2003 releases will be shipped in the next few weeks to the 650 people on his mailing list. The first 40 who had signed up for his first vintage were offered the "largest" allocation -- three bottles and one magnum of the Hussy and varying, small quantities of the In Flagrante Syrah and the Incognito Grenache. They were also allowed to buy three half-bottles of each of the three dessert wines he recently began producing in partnership with Alois Kracher, the brilliant Austrian winemaker.

More recent additions to the mailing list get even tinier quantities of the Hussy, Incognito and In Flagrante -- and no dessert wine. (Krankl produced only 200 half-bottles.)

There's a waiting list of 1,500 to get on the Sine Qua Non mailing list, despite the rapidly accelerating price of Krankl's wines. His first Syrah, the '94 Queen of Spades, sold for $31; by 1997, his Imposter McCoy Syrah was $59. The 2000 In Flagrante is $87 -- and his wines often sell at auction for more than $200.

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