While I am an ardent believer in free choice when it comes to wine (to read my article Drink What You Like And Like What You Drink click here), I must confess that I do not like wines that are manipulated and over the top and that includes a lot of the high octane cult wines. And, some of the worst highly rated cult wines I have ever tasted came from Sine Qua Non or SQN for short. One taste and they went in the dump bucket. These are wines I would not drink. Surprisingly, this winery was started some 20 years ago by Manfred Krankl in an industrial building on north Ventura Avenue in Ventura, California. This is where I lived on El Medio Street during the period from kindergarten through junior college some 40 years prior to the arrival of the winery. During these formative years, the only wines I ever saw were the cheap high alcohol wines with screw caps that were sold in liquor stores. But, since I was rarely ever in a liquor store (although I must say that at some point I did taste some of the same cheap high alcohol wine and hated it), I saw more of the empty bottles alongside the road and in vacant lots and fields. And, I especially saw a lot of the empty cheap wine bottles at the mouth of the Ventura River next to the beach where there was a “hobo jungle”. Believe me, Ventura Avenue is as unlikely a place to have a winery making expensive wine as you can ever imagine.
So you can understand my surprise when I first heard that there was a winery making very expensive wine in my old neighborhood. And, the wine that originally came from this location to me was bizarre, over the top, and not to my taste. Like I said, for me, the best place for the wine is in the dump bucket. However, bizarre or no, the wine found a following. Since that time on Ventura Avenue, with gushing praise from the 100 point boys and lovers of big, fat, alcoholic fruit bombs, the winery has moved. Now they are located in bigger and more upscale quarters just a few miles up the road in tiny Oak View California. Here SQN is neighbors with Ojai Vineyards (to read my article on Ojai Vineyards click here) and the contrast in the two wineries could not be more different!
The nay sayer SQN commentary below came from Wine Searcher earlier this year. And, I am firmly positioned with the nay sayers. Their commentary, I find agrees with my taste and offers the additional benefit of being a great read and very funny. But, like the SQN wines, part of it does seem like fiction. Especially the part about a bottle of SQN rosé that sold for $42,780 last year. But, yes, you read it right. And, that is a fact. I guess P T Barnum was right – There’s a sucker born every minute! But the goofy price for the bottle of rosé is only the tip of the iceberg. Again, this is a great read and very funny! Please take a look:
HERE’S SOME FOOD FOR THOUGHT!
Sine Qua Non? Or Non Sign Vin?
The Russian novelist Tolstoy wrote that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and this observation can just as easily be applied to good and bad wines: the best wines share certain similarities, while truly awful wines are often sui generis in their wretchedness. That’s part of what makes it so easy, and entertaining, to write about wines we dislike and, when it comes to wine journalism, there are few things more pleasurable than a witty, erudite, brutally candid takedown of a crappy wine.
A recent broadside against the cult California winery has Mike Steinberger cheering from the bleachers. Here is what he had to say:
In a recent issue of Noble Rot magazine, Keith Levenberg contributes a delicious screed aimed at Sine Qua Non, which has become the ultimate in California cult wines.
“These wines are trash,” Levenberg wrote. “They are worse than trash, because they are trash elevated to the level of the profound.” Of Sine Qua Non devotees, he says that they “are not just destroying their livers. They are destroying society. They have not just chosen bad wine over good wine. They have chosen Bieber over Beethoven, poison over sustenance, barbarism over civilization, anti-matter over matter.” Levenberg, as you may have gathered, is not a fan of Sine Qua Non.
This 2500-word broadside was prompted by the sale of a bottle of Sine Qua Non rosé that fetched $42,780 last year on Wine Bid.com. As Levenberg explains, part of the appeal of these wines is the, um, quirky names that proprietor Manfred Krankl gives them – things like “Boots, Pastie, Scanty-Panties and a Ten Gallon Hat” (it’s a Roussanne, in case you were wondering) – as well as their oddly shaped bottles and distinctive labels.
But what has mostly given them such cachet is the fact that a lot of people just really like the wines, which are mostly Rhône varietals and blends from California’s Central Coast. In the last decade, probably no estate has won more rapturous praise, or more eye-popping scores, from Robert Parker, and there are clearly many people who share his affection for SQN – to the point that they will spend $42,000 for a bottle of Krankl’s rosé.
Like Levenberg, I’m not a fan of the SQN wines. I find them grotesquely alcoholic and rich. To put it as snootily as possible, they are amazingly vulgar – a Kardashian collection of wines, if you will. But unlike Levenberg, the existence of SQN does not make me despair. I view the SQN phenomenon partly through the prism of self-interest – the millions of dollars that are spent chasing Krankl’s confections are millions of dollars not spent chasing the wines that I happen to prefer.
But the main reason I’m not troubled by the SQN craze is because I find it genuinely intriguing and, in a strange way, gratifying. SQN produces arguably the most polarizing wines on the planet – a distinction that used to belong to the Australian producer Mollydooker. I’m fascinated by the reactions to these wines. I’m not being dramatic when I say that I literally can’t stomach them. I’d think twice about dumping the wines in my sink for fear of damaging the pipes.
And yet, Parker and scores of others believe that SQN produces some of the greatest wines on the planet – wines that can comfortably share a table, if not eclipse, Bordeaux first growths and the most acclaimed wines from the Rhône. There is simply no way that Levenberg or I can convince them otherwise, nor is there any possible way that they can persuade us to feel differently. It is a debate that is not lacking in certitude.
It is also a debate that is unlikely to yield resolution. As much as I might hope that SQN devotees will eventually come to their senses, or undergo palate transplants, that is a faint hope. And, much as I enjoyed Levenberg’s essay, I doubt that it caused even one SQN fan to look at Krankl’s wines in a less flattering light. Personally, I’ve made my peace with this kind of polarization. The evidence is overwhelming – tastes vary dramatically, and one man’s nectar is another man’s rotgut. That’s just the way it is, and I think it’s part of what makes wine such a compelling topic and rewarding hobby.
The beauty of “extreme” wines like SQN is that they reveal these differences instantly and unambiguously. They function as a kind of Rorschach test for palates – you either love them or hate them; there is no middle ground, no prevaricating. And that’s why I am suspicious of any wine critic – and there are some – who claims to find great merit in wines like SQN but also in wines like those of, say, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which are the total antithesis of Krankl’s confections.
Critics, of all people, have an obligation to take a stand, and if you truly adore the subtlety and elegance of La Tâche, it is impossible to believe that you can derive equal pleasure from wines like Krankl’s The 17th Nail in My Cranium (it’s a Syrah that weighs in at around 16 percent alcohol). These are wines that offer completely conflicting notions of balance and quality – and, no, it doesn’t matter a bit that they are made in different regions and from different grapes. In fact, I’d say that any critic who gives whopping scores to SQN and then turns around and does the same with DRC is not really a critic; he’s a shill or – worse – a cynic, deliberately not coming down on one side or the other for fear of offending his audience or costing himself potential readers/subscribers.
That’s a strong statement, I know, but SQN provokes strong opinions.
(To read the original article including many reader responses – some interesting, some not so interesting, some just bizarre, and some as goofy as the SQN wines – click here).
So there you have it!
What’s in your wine glass?
In Vino Veritas,