Wine Rating: 96
No other collectible piece of art is appreciated by destroying it, except wine. You must open the bottle, drink and therefore, consume the actual art. Then and only then, can you experience its true beauty.
Here’s some news. Many years ago, I joined a cult and survived to tell the tale. Actually, I’m still in it. If you’re interested or if you’d like to join this particular cult, I can help. You don’t have to wear a fancy robe or shave your head. You won’t be required to don a goofy hat or partake in a blindfolded ritual. There are no songs and no secret handshakes to learn. As with most cults, however, you will be asked (or at the very least, tempted to) drain your bank account. Also, like with most cults, it’s filled with controversy, naysayers, non-believers and those who look incredulously down their noses and judge the disciples. But those of us around the world who remain devoted, admittedly cannot see the forest for the trees. You cannot talk us out of it so please, don’t even try. We are brainwashed, and we know it, and it’s not Kool-Aid we’re drinking… it’s wine.
The sect I belong to also happens to be the largest and like me, it resides in California. There are other smaller chapters around the world; Burgundy, Bordeaux (left and right bank), Rhône, and Italy. The cults outside of California don’t carry the same gravitas, and they’re certainly not as rare, and although I live in California, that only partially contributes to why I’m a bit more evangelistic about the region, the leaders, and their communion. The real reason, is quite simply that here, it’s a ritual.
One way this cult differs from others is that we have many leaders. Some, you may have actually heard of, while others we prefer to keep quiet about as we don’t want (or need) any more members. The leaders I follow are in no particular order; Araujo Estates, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin Cellars, Dalla Valle Vineyards, Grace Family Vineyards, Harlan Estate, Schrader Cellars, Screaming Eagle and Sine Qua Non.
You may be wondering what qualities or characteristics a wine must possess for it to become a cult. Here are a few qualifiers. High demand, generated by high quality, increased by scarcity, and very high wine scores from respected sources. A real cult wine will only produce a few hundred cases annually, and it’s for this reason I personally feel that French wines are not on that level. Haut-Brion, for example, produces ten to twelve thousand cases annually and even though it’s a high reviewed wine and comes in at a crazy high price, you can still find them easily. So in this case, definitely NOT a cult wine I worship.
A real cult, in my opinion, is one that is not commercially available. One that you can only obtain from the wineries themselves, by being on their allocation list. With many (if not most) of the cult wines, it can take years and years before making it on their list and for the longest time, the cult wine market was almost exclusively Napa Cabernets, but as fate (and damn good winemaking) would have it, Syrahs and Pinot Noirs have joined the ranks. Some of the leaders in that realm are; Kosta Browne, Marcassin, Saxum, Cayuse, and Cirq.
If you want to get picky about the ‘true’ nature of a wine cult (and I do), it goes way beyond a high score and scarcity. If you are all in on the ‘blood + sweat + tears’ it takes to genuinely produce exceptionally delicious wine, then I’m going to follow you, and I’m all in too!
As an artist and a collector, I love the exhilaration, the joy, the pride that follows scoring a rare beauty. Whether it’s a signed first edition, Hemingway, a 6” x 6” etched Dali, an original painting of an upcoming artist, that might mean something to my wife and I. I love walking through the house, seeing them there, knowing they belong to us. I love having art in our home, and the wines that reside here are no different, except in one way. That exception is that their time is limited and their days are numbered. My wines, like my art, are not purchased to flip them at auction for double or triple the price. I don’t by low so I can sell high. I go all in. Why? Because I have to. I’m nothing if not committed, but in truth, I’m obsessed, and I’m going to drink those bottles and enjoy every bit of them. I am in a cult, after all.
I’ve been to homes of friends who have had beautiful wine cellars that held some of the most stunning collections I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Some had rows and rows of wines in their collection, ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 bottles, and there they sleep. Aging. Waiting. Begging to be awakened and enjoyed. I would inevitably ask something like, “What are you waiting for? Just pop some corks already and let’s go! I mean, if we start drinking now, we may get through all of them before we’re 85.”
One person told me that he’ll drink a nice bottle on a special occasion, but that he really sees his wines as an investment. Who knows? Maybe someday he’ll sell off the collection and put his kids through college. Regardless, I took that opportunity to plant a seed. I told him that the majority of the wines in my collection have come from people just like him. I said, “You know, if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, your wife will sell your entire lot at an auction (or to me), and off to France she’ll go.” He just smiled and said, “Yeah. Probably.”
Like I said, I’m a collector, so… I get it. I love seeing my wine collection grow, all those bottles just waiting to be consumed, but that’s the thing. I will drink them. The rare books I collect, sit on shelves, get dusty, some go up in value, and some may have peaked and might begin to see their worth go down, but that doesn’t matter to me. I love them! They’re like my children and to sell one would break my heart. Yet, I can tell you that if “I” got hit by a bus tomorrow, my wife will sell the lot of them and take that damn trip to Italy I’ve promised her for twenty years. Except for the Screaming Eagles. She’ll drink those. She might even take the money, buy a villa, write and finally publish her own book, just like Frances Mayes in ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. The point is, I understand not wanting to let your babies go, but again… wine is different. It has an expiration date. It’s perishable, and its impermanence is part of the magic. Wine is meant to be consumed and to truly enjoy it, it must be destroyed. You must let it devastate you with its beauty. Just the way a brilliant book does.
Part of being in a cult is getting lost there, and there’s one cult wine leader that I’ve followed for many years and love to this day. They have such profound creativity, and their charm is so eclectic that I consider them (both him and his wife) the Banksy of winemaking. I don’t have many bottles of their in my collection because (as I’ve already explained) I drink them! I love the way they blend their fruit and the wine they make it unequal to any other winemaker around. I’m talking about Manfred Krankl and his wife Elaine who own and produce, Sine Qua Non.
Fun Fact: Their love story began not unlike mine with my wife. Theirs kicked off talking about books and Bukowski and a copy of Post Office. Ours began over a 4-hour conversation about Anais Nin, Henry Miller and a copy of Bukowski’s Women.
The story of how their winery came about is a series of small success stories along with partnering with the right people who had some things in common, including stubbornness, arguing over things that mattered, perseverance and passion. Instead of writing a twenty-page article on each person and who did what and who they became (which I could very easily do), I will instead give you a synopsis of their backstory, and then I will get to the heart of SQN.
In January 1989, Manfred Krankl partnered with two people to start a restaurant and bakery in Los Angeles. Can you already feel the tension? La Brea Bakery opened its doors on January 3, 1989.
His two partners were Nancy Silverton and her then-husband, Mark Peel. Nancy became a James Beard Award winner, and Mark was/is a pioneer in the ‘farm to table’ movement, that at the time was just coming alive in Los Angles cuisine. No competition in that family.
Silverton headed up the kitchen where she dominated what sourdough bread should taste like, much to the disdain of San Francisco. But hey, they’ll always have Rice-A-Roni. No one can take that away from them.
Seven months after launching the bakery on August 16, 1989, they opened Campanile, where they served rustic American food with a trattoria-style menu. Peel was the head chef while Krankl managed the front of the house and was also the wine buyer. Hmm… wine buyer you say? That is what we call, foreshadowing.
Side note of interest: Silverton and Peel were mentored by Wolfgang Puck at his Ma Maison and then Spago restaurant. Not bad training, if you can get it.
Around 1990, when Krankl was running the day to day and handling management and operations of the bakery and restaurant, he was also making what he then called ‘project wine’. He was experimenting with different varietals and was really starting to get a feel for what would ultimately become his real passion.
By 1994 Manfred had honed his wine skills so acutely, that he was ready to start selling his wines and Campanile was where he started and thus, Sine Qu Non was born. The first vintage was a Syrah, called ‘Queen of Spades’. If you can find a bottle of it today that’s in proper cellared condition, it sells for around $7,000. Even the bottle, is a piece of art, with its hand-drawn label of a playing card. There were only 100 cases bottled. Six bottles were hand painted by Krankl and put randomly in six-pack bottle offerings. Whoever was lucky enough to get those, I hope they knew how special it was.
In 1997, after having managed Campanile and La Brea Bakery for more than 8-years, Krankl gave up running the ‘day to day’ operations and stepped into his new role as President and CEO for La Brea Bakery. This allowed him the needed (and desired) time to put more focus on Sine Qua Non, which at the time was gaining in reputation and demand, in the California wine world. Their wine list was also growing beyond the number of bottles they were producing. That’s what you call a ‘quality problem’.
It was more than just the quality grapes and his devotion that Krankl was becoming respected and notorious for. It was also for his creativity and his evident passion for art, which would come to include the labels he’d put on the bottle and even, what he ’d name the wines. It was (and still is) brilliant.
Every year they rename the wines. Last years ‘Shot in the Dark’ Grenache will be this years ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ Grenache. Every year the wines are blended slightly different than last year. All wine produced is their own snowflake; never repeated. A few unique names of wines or various years and varietals:
- Boots, Pasties, Scanty Panties, and A Ten Gallon Hat
- The Hoodoo Man
- Heels Over Head
- In Flagrante
- Omadhaun & Poltroon
- The Hussy
When you let an artist do what they do best, you have the greatest chance of capturing lightning in a bottle and in the case of SQN, it was both what was within and also, without. A treat that is not lost on me. Krankl approached the label design of each vintage by how it was forming in the barrel. Having always been an artist and having tried his hand in many art forms, including pencil and charcoal, photography, linoleum and woodcut prints and lucky for us, he would bring his entire arsenal to the creative process.
Over the last twenty-plus years, SQN has had some of the most unique labels around. Some were actually rejected by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), due to their strict labeling laws regarding what they deem “offensive content”. In 2015 he put out a book called ‘The Art of SQN’, featuring the history of his SQN label artwork. They were sold exclusively to the oldest members of SQN’s elusive wine list. The book was accompanied by a magnum bottle of Petite Syrah. The set sold for $1500 and in the book were the labels that the TTB rejected. I own a copy of that book. It sits on a shelf next to the signed first edition of Bukowski’s Pulp. A gift from my wife on our first date.
By 2001, it was apparent that Sine Qua Non was a force to be reckoned with among California winemakers. With the planting of new vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills, along with the small quantities they produced, this drove the secondary market prices of their wines through the roof. Krankl, along with his partners, knew it was time for a new chapter, and so they decided to let go of La Break Bakery and sold it for a whopping $55 million. The restaurant was sold to IAWS Group, an Irish based food company. At the time, La Brea Bakery employed over 500 people, and even then, their bread was being sold all over the country.
So there they were. Complete dedication to Sine Qua Non was finally a reality. Over the next few years that followed, even more, vineyards were planted. SQN moved into Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. The white wines are made from Roussanne, Viognier, and Marsanne. All their wines have a very Rhone style; earthy, complex and balanced. SQN even dabbled in Pinot Noir for a short time but in 2005, abandoned the varietal. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I loved their Pinot.
I’ve never seen a Sine Qua Non wine score below 92. I believe they hold the record for having the most ‘100 Point Wines’ scored by Robert Parker, and Wine Spectator. They produce a beautiful wine that is hand-crafted, and it shows in the detail of the fruit, the unique names given to each wine, the label art, and the love that Manfred and Elaine put into each and every bottle. They are a small winery producing only 3,200 cases a year. That number is the maximum they can produce and still remain true to their early hands-on dedication and management. It’s a choice that many brilliant wineries were seduced away from, with the hope of huge profit margins by producing for the masses. SQN could have done that, but I (and many others) are so glad they didn’t.
SQN also began extended barrel aging in the early 2000s. The wines are held in barrel for at least two to six years before bottling. That’s a lot of inventory that while you’re sitting on, is not making any money. Again… Commitment. Passion. Tradition.
It’s a rare thing when multiple forms of collectors are after the same object. Wine lovers want the juice. Art lovers want the bottles, the packaging the wine was shipped in and any other ephemera they could acquire. There have been bidding wars with collectors at auction for SQN. In 2014 a bottle of the 1995 ‘Queen of Hearts Rosé’ sold for $37,200. The most expensive bottle of rosé wine ever sold.
When it comes to cult wines, for me, there’s none better than SQN. They have not sold out. They have always given 100% love to the craft of winemaking and to their buyers, their list, their fans. This is why I don’t collect their wines, I drink them and naturally… I save the bottles. I am a collector after all.
By the way, their wines pair very nicely with the 1974 recording of the Grateful Dead, ‘Live at Winterland’.
2013 Sine Qua Non
Winemaker: Manfred Krankl
Location: Central Coast
Appearance (Color): White
Aroma (Complexity): Flowery, honey fruit, slight forest
Body (Texture and Weight): Medium
Food Pairing: Chicken, salad, Grateful Dead
Serving Temperature: 54°