This interview was first conducted in the autumn of 2015.
“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
― Charles Bukowski
The hillsides of Ojai are still shimmering from a hard rain the night before. The unmistakable smell of chaparral that permeates much of this valley is especially sharp and fresh the morning I make my way up the road to Sine Qua Non.
Manfred Krankl is waiting outside for me when I arrive, ready for us to get in the truck and take a drive through Cumulus Vineyard. This is where Manfred and Elaine Krankl live and where their winery is located. It is also the fruit source for Sine Qua Non’s sister brand, Next of Kyn.
This past year has been a tremendously difficult and trying one for the Krankls. Last September, Manfred was in a devastating motorcycle accident above the Ojai Valley. “In all reality,” Elaine says, “this recovery that Manfred is experiencing was not the prognosis offered at first. The fact that he can now sit here, he goes to work, he drives a car, he can walk, I mean…it was very severe. Sometimes you’re faced with these more than difficult situations and you sort of decide, I’m not willing to accept the prognosis or the reality of the situation, and I’m going to force him to get better. I will go to any length to offer Manfred the opportunity to recover fully including extensive therapy, finding the best medical care, aides to assist with his needs, anything within our reach to do.”
Elaine and Manfred Krankl first met in 1989, while both were working at Campanile in Los Angeles, “Very early on,” Elaine says, “I was working for Manfred at Campanile in Los Angeles. Manfred was a newly single man and he was very interested in women and he had a lot of women who would come around to visit him at the restaurant. He was very charming and very flirty, so I kind of stayed away from him. One day Manfred asked me to go on a motorcycle ride with him and I said, ‘No, no, I’m already going on a ride. He probably wasn’t expecting that response.”
“Shortly after that I traveled to New York and since it was raining there, I spent a good deal of time reading…this is when I was quite young and I was reading Bukowski. On my return to work he asked me, ‘What did you do?’ and I told him ‘I read a lot.’ He asked me what I was reading…and it kind of started that way, where we were talking about books, and then a bit later, he brought me a wrapped package, and it was a book, Bukowski’s Post Office, and it was really rather sweet. Our relationship kind of started with this common interest in reading. I remember a time in the beginning when we were in a public place in front of a lot of people, I had an untied shoe, and he was flirting with me, so I said, ‘Tie my shoe,’ and in front of everybody he tied my shoe. That was it.”
While he is driving, Manfred occasionally stops to point out members of their animal menagerie. Two hundred chickens, a herd of cattle, horses, two dogs, a barn cat, a wild turkey and a donkey. At one point, I turn to Manfred and suggest he might want to call one of their next wines E-I-E-I-O. “Our donkey, Rosie, is always with the cows,” he says. Typically, when winemakers show me around their vineyards, they are quick to point out their favorite blocks; they’ll identify one block or another as their best block for this or that variety. They might identify a certain block, the fruit from which always ends up in their reserve wines. Sometimes they’ll make a quick pass by a block that’s been mostly relegated to “blending” grapes.
Manfred avoids placing value judgments on his estate vineyards, preferring instead to allow each site to surprise him, vintage in, vintage out. Usually wineries simply number their barrels and somehow identify them by which vineyard block the fruit came from. Manfred does not want to be influenced by what certain clones or particular vineyard sections might promise to bring and so he randomly numbers the barrels, such as, for example, Syrah #2, #8, #12, etc. so that he always tastes the vessels without any preconceived ideas. Later in the day, Elaine adds, “Different parts of your vineyard can surprise you each year. You may have a different favorite.”
Each block within the Cumulus Vineyard, or really any of the four Estate Vineyards they own, is named thoughtfully, as is the case with the Jeff Zingg Block at The Third Twin Vineyard near Los Alamos, California, which is comprised of sandy soils. “It’s called the Jeff Zingg Block, Manfred explains, “because he was on our mailing list and a very big fan, and sadly he passed away. Jeff’s parents sent us this really lovely letter and it just said he was speaking about our wine, and it just touched me very much. So we named it after him.”
As we wind our way through Cumulus, it’s undeniable that Manfred’s a great raconteur, a rare commodity these days, and he demonstrates this over and again throughout the day with funny, engaging stories, “Along with all sorts of broken bones I also banged my head pretty hard during my accident and so during rehab, they check you all the time because they want to see how you’re doing. So, every day they would come into my room and say “Good morning”, and I would say ‘Good morning.’ And then they would say, “Do you know what your name is?” And I would say, ‘Yes, it’s Manfred Krankl,’ and they’d say, “Can you spell that?” and I would say ‘M-a-n-f-r-e-d’, and they would say, “Oh, very nice.” And they’d make notes. And they’d ask, “What’s the season? Where are we?” And all this stuff. And then they’d ask, “And, who’s the president?” And they would ask this every single day and it was very annoying to me, because it was always the same question and they made notes. So, one time I thought, ‘I’m so sick of these stupid questions,’ and so, when they asked me, “Who’s the president?” I looked at them and said, ‘ Nikita Khrushchev.’”
Later in the day, Elaine jokes that Manfred was a terrible patient, “He used to try and get out of all of his therapies. He even had me put a sign on the door that said “Keep Out.” And, they’d knock on the door and I’d say, ‘he’s sleeping…didn’t you see the sign?’”
When we arrive at their home, Elaine joins us and we sit down a simple lunch of small baguette sandwiches made with salted butter, cheese and cured meats, cous cous and a fresh green salad. The wines accompanying our meal include Sine Qua Non’s 2006 “Shot in the Dark”, an arresting, beautiful Grenache that is built to age, and their 2004 “Ode to E”, a delicious, compelling Syrah that has great texture and length. Light spills into their airy, atrium-like dining room where art of all kinds lives on the walls and floors.
I guess I’ve always thought of Elaine and Manfred Krankl as being a part of the Art world more than the wine business. For me, each bottle they release is a small, captivating, poetic biosphere unto itself. No wine they make is ever repeated, ever re-named, ever duplicated. Their home embodies the same aesthetic that informs Sine Qua Non, Next of Kyn and most everything they do ---unpredictable, quirky, stimulating and heartening, all at once.
The bond between these two is palpable: resilient and tender. Since founding Sine Qua Non together in 1994, they have gradually developed ways to balance each other and cultivate a family life that complements their mutual artistic visions.
“In the beginning,” Elaine says, “we came to the conclusion that we needed to open our own facility in Ventura. We moved the winemaking to Ventura and had the old warehouse set up for production because Manfred’s oldest son from his first marriage was coming to live with us. I was raising our twins more or less by myself as Manfred’s bakery business in Los Angeles with his partners was quickly expanding. Manfred had three children from a previous marriage; we had the twins and a budding winery. I said, ‘I can’t do all of this by myself. I need you closer,’ because he was driving from Los Angeles to John Alban’s place in Arroyo Grande, where we were making wine early on, to our home in Ojai. So in ’97, in the spring, I said ‘Okay, I’m going to go ahead and find us a building, and I went out and found us a building, and started the construction, putting up walls, dropping ceilings, putting in plumbing. He ordered equipment and that was our first vintage together…alone. We only had sporadic help. It was pretty crazy.
“But, you cannot occupy the same space at the same time, all the time,” she continues. “It’s not good for your marriage, it’s not good for your partnership. You’ll start to butt heads and it doesn’t work. We kind of found a way to make it work where we could both grow and expand and still be partners and be together. And so in our life, the office, the ranches, the children, our home, our animals; that’s more my realm. And he’s in the cellar. We come together and talk about everything and make decisions together, but we found a way we could do the dance and be happy. We just found a way to make it work. As the children are now grown, our roles keep evolving, keep developing, keep changing; it’s kind of like a river in a sense. It’s wider and narrower and you always come together and you just keep going.”
“Elaine’s obviously my partner,” Manfred says, “and she has been my partner all along, and she’s done a lot of wine stuff, in the beginning, really a lot of physical stuff too. She’s sort of the ultimate quality control. So, you know, if I had died, who knows what would have happened with the business, but odds are that she would carry on and she could carry on with the staff we have because everyone’s been there for a long time…but, um, you know, luckily, this didn’t happen. I worked this harvest all the way through.”
Over the years, Manfred has emerged as the more recognizable partner in their relationship and I ask Elaine how she feels about that. “We have different needs,” she explains. “Attention is a kind of currency, if you will, and we need different kinds of attention.” Here, Elaine turns to Manfred and addresses him directly, “So, I think you are much more flowery, flamboyant, verbal. You’re a big character. I mean that in a lovely way.”
“We made some decisions early on, to do with the family, and I made certain personal decisions when we started. The twins were maybe five when we started to notice their need for more time, and so at that point, I shifted a little and did what I could at the winery and I took care of our life and the kids and allowed Manfred the freedom to go into the cellar and not have to worry about anything outside of that. I took care of everything else. Which in some ways has been really good.”
“Looking at the situation with this accident, aside from the emotional part, I could handle any of the other stuff; all of our finances, running of the ranches, any of that, I can handle. So I think that what has occurred by me taking care of those parts of our life and freeing Manfred up to really focus in the cellar has helped me in the long term. From the outside people would look at us and say, it’s like a one-man-show and there’s one guy and he’s doing all this stuff, and he single-handedly does it, but he’s very quick to acknowledge the group participation.” Again she turns to Manfred, “You never had to worry: ‘I have to be home at a certain time, or I’m going to miss something with our family, or I have to take care of this appointment.’ I just made sure that he was free to do what he needed to do.”
As driven as they are, and as hard as they have continued to work, it is still impossible to maintain a wine estate of this caliber without an estimable team. Many times during our two-day visit, Manfred and Elaine talk fondly, almost reverentially, about their team. “The best part of this,” Manfred says, “to be honest, is, again, the people. The people who work for us work with the vineyard, they work with the cows, they work with the chickens, they work in the winery, they package the wine. They see the whole process; what actually happens: meaning, whenever you do pruning, whenever you do green-harvesting, whenever you do leaf-pulling, whenever you do something, and then you make the wine…they see how that all translates. How it all comes together. That’s certainly beautiful.
“When you travel, say, to Hong Kong or Shanghai, and you go to a restaurant and they have your wine there—I always wish our employees could see that, because they would just die of excitement, of pride. We have that going big-time, which is great. Our people are our strength, I feel. That’s what makes the difference during stressful times because you can say, we can plow through this.” Elaine is quick to add, “They care about every little detail. We have a very strong core of people. Trustworthy people.”
Once the wines have journeyed through their era of elévage, Elaine and Manfred continue their collaboration in the cellar. Manfred explains, “The way it works now—and this has obviously evolved over time—you know, let’s say I make a cuvée now…a Syrah for example. I might have 16 different Syrah lots. Then I have to assemble the wine. Make the actual cuvée. So I taste and taste and make notes and then I come up with the idea. I then taste with Elaine and it’s really nice to have someone like her for input because I keep her notes. They are unadulterated, but with this knowledge and care. She doesn’t get bogged down as much as I do.”
“The goal,” says Elaine, “is to come to the best possible end product, and so my criticism is not an attack on him, it’s about ‘how do we get to the very best place?’ The investment is different. Turning to Manfred, Elaine adds, “Your investment, I don’t mean to sound odd, but you’re aware of every problem your little child has. I go in there and just taste the child. You’re hung up on, ‘oh, I was frustrated with this, I was frustrated with that….’ I can go in and just say, ‘this is what I think.’”
“Her thoughts mean a lot to me because I know she cares about me and what we do,” he says, “and she cares about the wine and I know she is honest. She doesn’t get sidetracked by wine geek minutia. Sometimes with a winemaker, they get macho about it, but she says, it’s too acidic, or too oaky…it’s very helpful to have a discussion about it.”
Fans and collectors of Sine Qua Non and Next of Kyn wines often cite the wines’ youthful approachability and their ability to age. I’m intrigued by the Krankls’ ability to create this kind of innate balance in their wines, “Of course,” Manfred says, “wine changes and evolves and becomes something different, and that’s good, but it should be fairly, pretty decent all along. Our business is such that we do sell a product. You can romance the death out of it, and I like the romance of it. I like to chat with people about wine and blah, blah, blah. But, it is a product. At some point, someone gives you money and you give them a bottle, or two, or ten, or whatever, and I always think, at that point, when this exchange happens, I gotta have enough security in my head that says ‘what I’m giving you for your money is worthwhile.’ I try not to come up with some stupid excuse. I mean, when you buy a case of Bordeaux, and if you drink it three years later, and you were to say, ‘Ah, well, no wonder it was too harsh. You have to wait ten years or twelve years, or whatever. And you drink it again in twelve years, and now it’s over the hill. . . . I always think that, ‘There’s no other product that you could bloody sell that way. You couldn’t say to someone, ‘I sold you this shirt and it’s way too big now, but in 15 years, you may gain weight and it will fit you.’ That would never happen.”
The Krankls own four estate vineyards. They are: Eleven Confessions Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills near Buellton, The Third Twin Vineyard near Los Alamos, Molly Aïda Vineyard in Tepusquet Canyon near Santa Maria and of course the home vineyard Cumulus near Ojai.
The next day, I meet Elaine and Manfred out at their Third Twin estate vineyard, located in Santa Barbara’s North County. A split-rail fence lining their driveway leads me to their modest homestead there, a small-ish, unassuming farmhouse near a duck-friendly reservoir that provides water to the vineyards. When I arrive, smoke is billowing from their chimney and Elaine comes out to greet me. “Ignore the two dead mice on the porch. This is the country!”
Once inside, we enjoy a little more conversation over some soup and sandwiches. It seems to me that in the past decade or so, I’ve been very drawn to risk-takers. I especially admire people who take great creative risks to express themselves or to explore parts of themselves that are unfamiliar to them, and sometimes even a little scary. For me, risk-taking is one of the greatest virtues a person can possess because pushing oneself to create or engage with something outside of one’s comfort zone can be a profoundly frightening, lonely, yet exhilarating experience. In other words, engaging in the creative process is a great way to feel fully alive, at least for a time.
So, as a mist envelopes their little farmhouse and the rain outside falls harder, I ask Elaine and Manfred to talk to me about how they’ve embraced risk-taking, “I was scared to death, to be honest,” Manfred says of launching Sine Qua Non with Elaine, “because I knew it was a risky undertaking and it cost money. I would not have likely taken that risk had it not been for someone like Elaine, because Elaine is an incredible partner; a strong person and incredibly encouraging, and a great, great partner to have. She was extremely receptive to the idea at the time, even though she was scared also. At the beginning, we didn’t have very much money at all. So, buying $3,000 worth of barrels, which now probably doesn’t seem like a lot, seemed like a real burden. And, there were times when she was crying because, ‘how are we going to pay the electricity bill?’ Now, many years later, you see this big winery building and this and that, and nice cars or whatever, and you sort of forget. If you have somebody that you can truly lock arms with and say ‘let’s make this happen,’ then everything changes. You become stronger and more encouraged.”
“I remember at the beginning – our first wine ever – I bottled a half-bottle and I took it home and I was nervous and happy, all at the same time. I poured it and I gave it to Elaine without her knowing what it was.” Elaine says, “I didn’t know what he was opening, he just brought it into the other room. I think I was folding laundry.” Manfred continues, “She said, ‘oh, that is so good.’ And, I was so happy. God dammit. It was really fun!” “By nature,” Elaine counters, “I’m slightly more cautious than Manfred. We take a lot of risks. I take risks differently than Manfred does. But I think together, we both may be slightly manic, we push hard.”
“I disagree with you,” Manfred says, “I don’t think you’re more cautious than me, I think you approach it differently than me. By that I mean…you know I am sort of more of a bully, I hate to say. So if you say, from the risk respect, if we’re both running down a hill, I will run as fast as I can, and probably fall on my nose. Elaine would say, ‘There’s a tree over there, so I will go around that tree,’ and, she may outrun me, but it will be a different style. I think that’s why we make a good team, frankly, because you’ll say ‘put the brakes on.’”
“Manfred has every intention of riding bikes again,” she says. “And, it horrifies me, but I will never tell him, you cannot ride bikes. I have a lot of opinions about it. If those are the practical realities, if we’re going to do this, how do we better prepare ourselves in the case that something bad were to happen? And, in all reality, if something happened to me, you should be much more prepared in other ways.” Manfred responds, “Yeah.”
“So, it’s just practical,” Elaine adds. “It’s unfortunate that you have to look at it that way (unforeseen tragedies), but there’s nothing worse than standing in that position and thinking, from every direction, how to keep all those balls in the air.” Here, Manfred draws an interesting analogy, “It’s like you’re a bobsledding team and you say, you take the brakes and I’ll take the steering. And, that’s great, but at some point, if you keep doing it, you have to say, let’s switch positions at some point, right? Just to see what it’s like. So we have more understanding now.”
“I’ve always loved art,” Manfred says. “I always loved music, I’ve always loved wine. I’ve always thought, somebody that drinks a $500 bottle of wine and can detect every nuance and every smell has to be someone who loves art. I couldn’t imagine that one sense was hyper-developed and in every other sense they’re nearly blind. I find it difficult to imagine someone who says, ‘Oh, I love the finest wine, but I don’t give a shit about food or I don’t give a shit about painting.’ It (the wine business) is a very weirdly old-fashioned business. There are good old-fashioned parts to it. It’s fun for me that we’re still using barrels like they were used a few thousand years ago. But from a marketing perspective, it’s odd to me how staid it is. It’s not that creative.
“If you’re sitting down with a bottle, looking at it all night long, drinking, eating, it’s supposed to be fun. We’re not inventing a cure for AIDS. It’s just about a good time, and being happy about something that’s tasting good and smelling good...all of it should have something that enhances our sensitivities, whatever they are.
“I got a fair amount of criticism from people who would say (of Sine Qua Non), ‘It’s all marketing.’ And I always thought that was odd because when you think of Thomas Keller’s restaurant, he gives you one plate that is triangular and one that is long, and one that’s . . . he doesn’t think he’s going to put one over on you. He doesn’t serve his food on paper plate to show how good a chef he is. He wants to make a creative statement. He might think his tuna tartare, or whatever, looks better on an oval plate. Now, you can argue about that, whether it would have been better on a square plate or something, but that’s his interpretation. And, it’s good that somebody does that, because it sort of makes it more interesting.
“I pick bottles that way; because a particular bottle fits this or that wine better. Not every bottle is meant for every wine, in my mind. Just because you call it a Bordeaux bottle doesn’t mean a Cabernet has to go in it. So what? In our case, it’s just Elaine and I, and we consider it our own, and we have our own ideas. It’s just ours. You have to make it yours, because people relate to that.”
Indeed, people do relate to that; to the creation, and then sharing of, a singular expression of one’s true self with others. As dusk settles on the hillsides surrounding their home, I’m feeling motivated and I’m eager to get creative myself. By the time I get back home early that evening, my mind is almost fevered by inspiration. I want to grab a pen or my drawing pencils, sit at the piano, prepare a good dinner. I think of that word…inspiration. It comes from the Latin, in-spirare: to breathe into or to breathe upon. And so I take a seat in my writing room, take a deep breath, open up a blank notebook and begin to draw something that has yet to reveal itself to me.