California winemaker and artist Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non continues to challenge the status quo with his maverick creations, writes James Suckling.
In the existentialist motorcycle film Easy Rider, two freewheeling hippies road-trip across California. The character of George Hanson (played by Jack Nicholson) famously remarks to biker Billy (Dennis Hopper), "They're scared of what you represent to them... What you represent to them is freedom."
This non-conformist spirit depicted in the 1969 celluloid classic ended up providing a lifetime of inspiration for Austrian-born winemaker Manfred Krankl, the owner of Sine Qua Non in northern California's Central Coast region. Sine Qua Non is one of the top cult wineries of California, and produces mind-blowing grenache and syrah. Krankl, too, represents freedom to the big wine establishment. With a do-it-yourself ethos, he designs his own labels and releases each iconic wine in an unconventional bottle. The inspiration behind his winemaking? None other than Dennis Hopper, the late, great actor who directed and starred in Easy Rider.
"I always felt he had something to do with me being in America, because when I was in Austria, I watched the film, and it literally changed my life," admits Krankl, whose English still retains the quaint accent of his homeland. "That's why I now have a garage full of motorcycles, and I live in America and all this kind of stuff."
The "kind of stuff " he's describing is mostly producing rich and powerful wines with wild names such as In the Crosshairs or 17th Nail in My Cranium. I rated both of his top reds released last year - the 2007 Dangerous Birds syrah and the grenache - perfect scores of 100 points. The tiny production reds of about 300 cases each sell for about US$1,000 a bottle after release. There's something unique about Krankl's wines that keeps an elite band of collectors around the world begging to get their hands on them. The wines are rich and opulent, like many of its California contemporaries. Yet, Sine Qua Non's wines have a tension or liveliness that keeps them bright and intriguing.
"We are looking to make wines that have a certain amount of finesse and, to use a very abused term, complexity - nuance, silkiness," Krankl says. "I think to just make hugely, gigantic, powerful wines in California isn't particularly difficult. But to make them elegant, and with thoughtfulness within the wines, that is our ultimate goal." In fact, he admits that his ambition as a winemaker is to make wine that's thought provoking - something that keeps you coming back to taste and ponder. "I don't want only intellectualism in it," he says at his ultra-modern winery, which looks like an extension of the Guggenheim Museum in Los Angeles. "I want there to be a fun part to the wine. Whatever that conjures up. Just loveliness, seductiveness, hedonism, to use another overused term. Because wine is just purely for pleasure." The 55-year-old winemaker first came to the US in 1980, and left behind the simple life in a small Austrian village. One of Krankl's first "serious jobs" was in Beverly Hills, working in a cheese-and-wine shop. Later, he worked with Nancy Silverton, who would go on to become one of the most talked about chefs on the West Coast. Together, they opened La Brea Bakery and Campanile Restaurant in 1989 in Los Angeles.
During his years at Campanile, Krankl created an award-winning wine list, and his love for fine wine grew into an obsession. Inevitably, he moved on to make his own wines in the early 1990s, focusing primarily on France's Rhône Valley varietals such as syrah and grenache. With a barrel here and a barrel there, he was happy to be doing his own thing. And people appreciated his wines' rich yet drinkable style. One of the most esoteric features of Sine Qua Non is that each wine has its own specially designed label as well as a selected bottle - some end up in medicine bottles or other unconventional containers. Krankl's art studio at the winery is a true artist's space.
"I've always been sort of a hobby artist, and felt that putting together my own labels was a great way of forcing my artwork onto people, whether they wanted to see it or not," Krankl says with a wry smile. "I do paintings, photography, drawings and so forth. But most of the time, I do what are called linoleum cuts or woodcuts for my labels." It's all part of the Sine Qua Non experience. "I feel like a chef. If you prepare a dish, it's not just the dish itself, but how you present it. What plate do you put it on? " he says, showing me various label designs interspersed with photos of Dennis Hopper. "And so that's how I view the artwork. What frame do you put them in?" Few winemakers in the world have such a bold personality and artistic flair as Krankl. He injects his heart and soul into his wines, and this alone makes you want to drink them. In fact, Krankl's entire spirit makes me want to hop on a motorcycle and cruise down the windy roads near his winery, enjoying the freedom promised in the ultimate California dream - an Easy Rider for the 21st century.