Manfred Krankl: The Innovation Interview

Manfred Krankl, Owner & Winemaker of SINE QUA NON shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and SINE QUA NON.

Born in Austria, Manfred started his career in the hospitality industry after graduating from the Hotel School in Gmunden, Austria. After completing school and his apprenticeship, Manfred worked in various Austrian hotels in different capacities including the positions of cook, waiter, bartender and sommelier.

In the spring of 1978, without good reason or plan, Manfred left Austria with the notion of immigrating to Canada. Manfred arrived in Toronto with little English language skills, and no work permits or any work set up. After several weeks of nothing and money getting thin, he went on a freight ship to Greece. During his time in Greece, Manfred bummed around Greece – various islands, as well as the mainland – for seven months, until the greenbacks were completely exhausted. During his time in Greece, Manfred met his first wife, who was from Los Angeles, CA.

After Greece, Manfred moved back to his native Austria for a year and worked in a mountain hotel resort for a year. In October of 1980, Manfred moved to Los Angeles, CA. Over the next few years he had three children, Andreas, Nikolas and Annika and settled into his first job in the U.S. His initial job for only four months was at the Cheese and Wine Store of Beverly Hills. This was followed by a job as the Director of Food & Beverage at the Westwood Plaza Hotel. During his tenure at the Westwood Plaza Hotel, Manfred was later promoted to General Manager, a job he held until early 1988.

In the spring of 1988 Manfred formed a partnership with Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton to open a restaurant and a bakery. On  January 3, 1989, the partnership opened La Brea Bakery and in the spring, Manfred met his current wife Elaine. Then on August 16, 1989 they opened Campanile Restaurant. Both businesses were in the same building, an old gray brick building that was originally constructed by Charlie Chaplin. In addition to serving as Managing Partner of both businesses, Manfred adopted the job of wine buyer for Campanile.

From 1990 through 1993 Manfred produced several “project wines.” Wines that were made with other winemakers, at their wineries, and originally intended for the Campanile restaurant only. Then in 1993 together with his wife Elaine, they founded SINE QUA NON. In 1994 they produced the first wine under the SINE QUA NON brand. A Syrah called ‘Queen of Spades’. As the brand grew, they increased production somewhat in 1995 and made first white wine under the SQN brand, called ‘The Bride’ as well as two Rhone-style reds.

In 1997 Manfred separated the business entities of Campanile Restaurant and La Brea Bakery in order to facilitate the expansion of the ever growing Bakery. At that time gave up all day-to-day management responsibilities at Campanile and instead functioned as President and CEO of La Brea Bakery which was by then producing bread in several locations and was growing rapidly and on a national basis. The rapid growth of La Brea Bakery was happening all while SINE QUA NON was starting to gradually grow.

Soon thereafter in 2001, a 22 acre vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills appellation was planted. The vineyard is called “Eleven Confessions” and is planted to predominantly Syrah and Grenache, with some Roussanne and a single acre of Viognier. During that summer as the new vineyard was being completed, Manfred sold La Brea Bakery, which had grown to have more than 500 employees at that time and was selling bread in 40+ states of the U.S. and Mexico.

After the sale of La Brea Bakery, Manfred consulted for the new bakery owners for two years. After the consulting engagement, in the summer of 2003, Manfred dedicated his full attention and efforts to SINE QUA NON and the production of wine.

In 2004 Manfred and his wife Elaine moved to a new home on a ranch in Oak View, California, where they planted a six acre vineyard dedicated to Syrah, Grenache and Roussanne. Then in 2008 they planted another 6.5 acres of vineyards at their Oak View ranch called Cumulus and started new brand called NEXT of KYN that is dedicated to the wines produced from that vineyard.

In 2009 they purchased property in Tepusquet Canyon and re-planted a tiny 2 acre vineyard called Molly Aïda. Then in 2010, they purchased a large ranch with a 15 acre vineyard near Los Alamos called The Third Twin. Soon after the purchase of The Third Twin, Manfred planted an additional 11 acres. The First fruit to arrive from that vineyard block will be in 2014.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Of course in the most literal sense innovation means doing something new, but to me
innovation has many connotations. Most of all it is an ability, in my mind really a necessity, to think freely and logically and without preconceived ideas. It is a way of operating without the shackles and dogmas of often mindless traditions. It is combining imagination with intelligence in order to be creative. And creativity is intelligence having fun. And when one is having fun creating, innovation…new ideas…come naturally.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

All industries better constantly re-evaluate and take calculated risks. Everything is always in motion. There is no such thing as a sustainable culmination point. Things either move up or down. So they better be moving in an upward motion. And in order to maintain such a trajectory one has to continuously be innovative and alert and never rest on one’s dry laurels. It is also vitally important to remember that it can be a great risk NOT to do something. To become stagnant, scared or overly cautious. An innovative, bold and brave move may bring great success to a person. So much so that then risk aversion becomes the prime goal.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi said: “When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all the skill. If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous. If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets – he is out his mind! His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him. He cares. He thinks more of the winning than the shooting – and the need to win drains him of power.”

So also remember why you are doing what you are doing in the first place and act with the same zeal as if you were just starting.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

My father used to say “I love to go to work because if I didn’t love it, I’d still have to go.” He meant it as a joke, but of course there is great truth at the core. Find what you love to do, what you are passionate about and pursue it. It is the single best way to live and the most likely road to success. Enjoy money, but don’t make it your goal. Love and passion bring about desire. At the beginning of all success and achievement is intense desire. It creates its own opportunities and talents. Nothing stops a person who desires to achieve, not even the many hardships and failures the road to success is littered with.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

Having been able to create a life pretty much exactly the way I want it to be. All too many people compromise and rationalize or perhaps never even think out what kind of existence they want to have. My wife Elaine and I have quite consciously and diligently worked at creating our environment. And we now live where and how we want to live. I think neither one of us would change a thing. I consider that to be a great achievement.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Generally I am a paper man. I enjoy using all my senses and as such I like the feel and smell and crackle of paper. But I enjoy the convenience of digital, particularly when traveling and for its efficiency.

Owning a company and working with your wife is truly a great joy. Why did you and your wife Elaine decide to start Sine Qua Non together?

We have both been wine lovers ever since we were youngsters. We simply wanted to see if we could do it and if we might be able to create something special. It really was just a hobby at first, something that was purely for fun.

What was the inspiration behind your desire to create a new name and new label for every wine that you create?

There are several reasons. First off I have always loved to draw and do artwork and so this was a way for me to foist my dilettantery onto people. Second, wine by nature is different every year, no matter what. That is the beauty of wine and I wanted to emphasize this fact by giving each wine its very own, unique identity. Third, since our wines are made in a very home spun, artisanal way, I loved the idea of also making our own labels. I wanted as many things as possible to be made in-house and the fewest things possible hired out. That way there is more of a soul and more of an imprint of us and our personality. Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it. This was a way of autographing my work…the wine in the bottle. Lastly, I get bored easily and I couldn’t even fathom the notion of having a label on which only the last digit of the vintage date changes each year. I would go insane.

Every bottle of wine that you create has it’s own unique personality that changes as the wine ages. Do you design the bottles and labels around your vision of the wine’s personality?

It is always different. At times yes, the wine itself somehow inspires the name and the art.

That was the case with our first release…Queen of Spades Syrah 1994. That wine seemed so extraordinarily dark and yet somehow so majestic and feminine that this name popped into my head. Other times it is derived from some experience in our life. Quite often it is a sort of quixotic love letter to Elaine. And every now then it is a tribute someone or something, even to something we find irritating or obnoxious. A middle finger into the face of the antagonist(s).

What, if any, new technologies are you currently experimenting with that can assist the winemaking process and how do you balance these new innovations to ensure the wines of Sine Qua Non still have a unique personality?

To begin with I am never worried that our wines might lose or not have the “unique” Sine Qua Non personality. I very much operate from intuition and with my senses. So even if I wanted it to – and I don’t – I can’t crawl out of my skin. The wines will always have a SQN style. I am not too big on technology for technology’s sake. The most sophisticated computer can’t replace my nose, my palate and my feel.

I can’t really think of any new meaningful technology that I would love to acquire or work with at this point. I wish someone would come up with versatile labeling machine that could work efficiently with our ever changing label sizes and bottle styles. That way we wouldn’t have to do every bottle by hand. But even that has its benefits. It allows us to keep all of our employees, even during the dead winter months. The most important mechanical machine is a fork lift. Pretty much everything else can be done just like it was 1,000 years ago. But I am not averse to technology. I am quite open to it, but it has to improve quality and not just be convenient. That’s the measure I use.

With four different Estate Vineyards you are able to experiment with different soils and microclimates to produce unique and interesting wines. Is there a favorite wine that you created just by experimentation?

Since grapes are only harvested once a year, wine is only “made” once a year. That makes for a very slow learning process. I was already 34 years old when I started making wine. If I am lucky I have some 40+ chances to get it right in my life time. So working in more / different environments or terroirs enables me to learn more in a shorter period of time. Each vineyard and each block and scion brings about something unique. A color to paint with, as I am fond of saying. The more colors I have, the better chance to paint a great picture.

My job, my responsibility is to create something of pleasure and I need to do anything and everything to achieve that for my customers, for Elaine and for me. I not writing a thesis, I am not teaching a class, I am not running comparative studies. I am making wine. My experiments should not be visible to my customers. They should aid me in a better outcome. So yes, I experiment, but not for experimentations sake, but rather so that forever I somehow improve the quality of our wine(s) and by extension the pleasure for those who drink Sine Qua Non.

Sign up for IDEAS — Our weekly insight into innovation.