If it's daring, he'll cork it

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.

Last year, when Krankl released his first Mr. K (for Krankl and Kracher) dessert wines, he decided to hold an auction himself; he sold 20 sets of nine half-bottles -- three of each -- to the highest bidders, with all proceeds going to the disaster relief fund established for the families of New York firefighters killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He raised $85,000 -- almost $500 per half-bottle. Jonathan Demme, the film director ("Philadelphia," "Silence of the Lambs"), made the top bid, Krankl says -- $12,000, more than $1,300 per half-bottle. (Mailing list customers pay $85 per half-bottle of dessert wine.)

Clearly, Krankl has come a long way from the day in 1989 when he had to sell his car to help pay his expenses while he, Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton lived together as they put together the plans for Campanile and La Brea Bakery.

Krankl, who went to hotel school in Austria, focusing on food and beverage training, moved to Toronto in 1978. He then spent seven months in Greece, where he first met Silverton when they wound up staying at the same small inn on the Greek island of Mykonos.

Krankl came to the U.S. in 1980, at age 23 and worked in a hotel before the Campanile start-up. The restaurant has been successful, both critically and commercially, and the bakery, which Krankl says began as "something of an after-thought," has been a bonanza of staggering proportions.

Silverton revolutionized bread-making in Los Angeles, and last year, it was acquired by the Irish food conglomerate IAWS Group for $55 million.

Silverton, Peel, Krankl and their other partners retained 20% of the bakery -- IAWS can still acquire those shares -- and for now, Krankl retains the title of chairman of the board. But he has little to do with day-to-day operations and has long since withdrawn from Campanile after putting together an ambitious wine program, bringing in little-known wines from all over the world, including some of the first Austrian wines available in restaurants in the U.S.

Krankl is essentially a full-time winemaker now--a very happy one, judging by the playful tone of his allocation letters. My favorite announced his 2001 Rose, Pagan Poetry.

"The snobs, the snooties, the geeks and the ignoramuses think that Rose is not worthy. Yes, it does not age well, but neither does fine olive oil, sushi, caviar or our spouses for that matter, yet we still love them."

I'm not sure how his wife and business partner, Elaine, liked that, but it did give me a small chuckle.

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David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.

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