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WHAT’S IN YOUR WINE GLASS?

John Tilson • 10/2/15        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

 question mark face

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!

 

sucker

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.

Taking Sides Over Sine Qua Non

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,Sig

John Tilson

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8 comments for “WHAT’S IN YOUR WINE GLASS?”

  1. Architecture, art, and sculpture are disciplines which are quite analogous. One man’s museum quality painting is another man’s drop tarp during a home remodel. And never has this schism become so obvious as in this period of relativity and belief in nothing as a force. Ideas, and lack of them, have consequences fp

    Posted by Frank L Parker | October 3, 2015, 6:47 am
  2. Thanks Frank. Very deep thinking. I look at things a bit simpler. I see wine as just another food course. I like natural foods and I like natural wines. I like things balanced and enjoy a yin and yang contrast. I do not like most processed foods and that goes for wine. Like I said, to me it’s simple. Others have different ideas. The SQN article is an example.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 3, 2015, 8:47 am
  3. I don’t begrudge anyone their taste. These are for the more money than brains crowd (and lately the angry too much Fox News syndrome crowd), and they are welcome to them. I especially did not begrudge selling my cults at auction. I object in three circumstances only.

    1. The manipulated wines are made in an old great district. Bordeaux for instance.
    2. The manipulated wines subsume an entire category or most of one. Napa cab for instance.
    3. The supporters of the manipulated stuff impune the integrity of anyone who disagrees with them. “Anti flavor police”? Really? It’s about what you like, it begins and ends there. I quit a longstanding subscription to WA because I didn’t much like what they like but also because the stupid attacks got too annoying.

    Posted by Grant Price | October 3, 2015, 9:07 am
  4. Thanks Grant.
    Tastes are different. People do not have the same sense of taste. Some people can smell and taste different things. Others cannot. And, as opposed to a lot of other human conditions, as far as I know, there is no corrective procedure for altering the sense of smell or taste. Fair enough. Probably no reason to.
    I drink and write about what I like. In the old Underground days we would be highly critical of poorly made wines. Those mostly do not exist today. But, what we have are a lot of overly manipulated wines. I mostly don’t care for this style of wine so I stay away from it. I don’t buy it, drink it, or write about it except for an occasional observation like my article “Where Has Napa Valley Gone?” If someone else likes a wine so what? I only care if the observation comes from someone I know and trust. Wine to me is another food. I drink wine when I eat food and I generally limit my wine drinking to dinner. For my taste, I have sorted our the myriad of wines. If someone agrees with me fine. If not, that’s OK too! As the late Laker’s announcer Chick Hearn said: “No Harm. No Foul.”
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 3, 2015, 9:30 am
  5. It is all a matter of perspective. La Tache is wine, SQN is a confection. If one wants a liquid confection, a very expensive one, SQN makes for a great option. I once heard Randall Graham state, “I went from making wine to making confections.”

    The reality of the situation is that it has nothing to do with the wine industry. There are far bigger forces at play – the food industry.

    Botton line, we Americans are addicted to sugar. If you want to sell to us food or drink, then increase the sugar and we will buy. There can never be enough sugar in the food and wine for the average American. Manfred and Randall figured this out. Randall decided he profited enough and changed course. Manfred and his sugar addicts are staying course.

    Posted by T. Zabelle | October 3, 2015, 11:46 am
  6. Thanks for your commentary. It is spot on. You are right about Randall Grahm. I have known him for 40 years. I just visited with him and tasted a lot of the Boony Doon Vineyard wines. With him the past is the past. His wines now are not at all manipulated. They are very traditional and delicious. He also is listing ingredients on the label. I hope to have an article on Boony Doon Vineyard finished soon.
    And you are right about residual sugar in wine and sugar in our food. Many Americans are addicted to sugar. I am not. I like my foods natural as well as my wines. Residual sugar is a part of many of the cult wines. One winemaker told me a few years ago that a 100 point wine they tested was 17% alcohol and 3% residual sugar. And, this is a “table wine”!?
    But, to each his own. Many Americans also drink a lot of carbonated sugary beverages with their food. There are also a lot of White Zinfandel lovers. Just proving the point about Americans loving sugar. But, if the amount of sugar that is in wines were known to consumers, maybe that would have some impact on their buying decisions? We shall see as time goes on!
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 4, 2015, 6:39 pm
  7. I’ve never tasted the stuff, so can’t comment on the wine. I’ve never taken the cute labels seriously enough to buy a bottle. I thought they belonged on the lower shelves at Von’s, next to Chocolate Cake and Mauvais Garçon. Go figure.

    My winemaker friend calls the whole operation “the bubble gum cards of the wine world.” I suppose whoever paid $42,000 & change for that 1996 rosé was just completing his collection with the Honus Wagner of wine labels. BTW there were at least 5 bidders pushing it up to that point.

    It sounds like a stupid product for stupid people, but doesn’t really affect my life, unless some of my favorite winemakers start putting out syrup concentrate. The scariest one for me is the current 40th Anniversary release from Caymus. Think Robitussin, but sweeter and more viscous. We tasted it and watched as the droplets struggled to find their way down the glass, stranded near the rim. A wine that defies gravity. I used to love Caymus wines.

    Fortunately the general trend seems to be going the other way lately. More great wines available than ever, and way more than I’ll ever be able to get through!

    Posted by Mort Maizlish | October 7, 2015, 4:42 pm
  8. Thanks Mort. As usual you are on top of it. And, having never tasted the stuff you are fortunate. It looks like a lot of the other guys are collecting labels. How novel. Let’s see how that works out! Like I said, PT Barnum was right!
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | October 7, 2015, 5:32 pm

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