Local Wine Merchant Passes: Remembering Frank Crandall

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on January 8, 2012)


Frank Crandall may well have been one of those lucky people who lived two unique incarnations to their fullest.

Renegade Wines
For more than two decades, he was the go-to guy for many Santa Barbara wine aficionados.  As founder and owner of Renegade Wines, he garnered a following for his expansive selection of fairly priced bottles, his large wine storage space and a knack for tracking down hard-to-find labels.  But a younger Crandall lived a completely different reality – a young man’s rock and roll dream.

“You know, his brother in law was Alice Cooper,” says Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association and longtime friend of Crandall.  This fascinating fact – that Crandall’s longtime wife, Nickie, was the sister of a rock legend – wasn’t something a decidedly unassuming and humble Crandall would readily mention.  But his affiliation, with both Alice Cooper and the world of rock and roll, extended well beyond family ties.

Crandall taught himself to play electric guitar and bass a young teen.  Many a prepubescent’s dream, but Crandall had a special knack.  In the 1970s, he helped found a classic rock band, Jett Black, that would soon become familiar with the roaring of crowd-swarmed stadiums by touring the East Coast and opening for hot names like Aerosmith and Bruce Springsteen.  When he moved to Southern California, his skill with strings got him headlining gigs on the wildly popular Sunset Strip and with accomplished performers like Tony Childs and The Motels.  And it was sheer talent that garnered him songwriting awards alongside colleague Alice Cooper; the domestic connection simply made the accolades sweeter.

It is quintessential irony that such an accomplished strummer would be afflicted with arthritis.  Crandall’s was, in fact, especially severe, and it affected both his hands and feet.  Those who met him in his later years undoubtedly noticed a visibly crippled hand whenever they went to shake it.  But Crandall always extended it without hesitation, and always with a distinctive, infectious guffaw.

Necessity forced Crandall to look at a different career track.  “His arthritis is why he gave up the bass,” recalls Fiolek.  But the wine business proved more than mere employment; it became a veritable way of life for Crandall.  His new incarnation started at the wine department inside Jurgensen’s, a now-closed but once-popular grocery along Coast Village Road in Montecito.  “People would come by asking for rare wines and Frank would put together these fabulous cases for them,” remembers Antonio Gardella, a fine wine specialist with wine distributor Henry Wine Group, and Crandall’s longtime supplier and friend.  “Over the years, he had this Rolodex of all these people and their wine wants, and when Jurgensen’s closed, he took it with him.”

Briefly, he sold wine while he worked at the Wine Bistro, another Coast Village Road landmark of yesteryear.  But, as friend and Renegade business partner Steve Wayne tells it, “he soon said to himself, ‘Hey, I could do this on my own.’”  His solo venture launched in 1990 from a wine warehouse near Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone run by then-wine merchant and successful winemaker Chris Whitcraft.  But it wasn’t long before he found a quirky spot at East Gutierrez and Santa Barbara Streets to open a wine shop that would be his own.

“The Wine Cask had just opened so a lot of people called him nuts for going off on his own,” recounts Wayne.  “They called him a renegade.”  The name fit, and stuck.

Renegade Wines opened in a 1500-square foot, no-frills storage space in an industrial complex.  Not a splashy spot, and not easy to find.  “The speakeasy of wine shops” is how one tourist recently described it after finally finding his way there, Wayne recalls with a laugh.  Indeed, committed wine buffs have made their way there over the years, enough so that Crandall expanded his shop twice – once around 1995 and again about six years ago – by knocking down the walls to neighbor spaces that became vacant.  He built his business by engaging customers with genuine enthusiasm for wine and making a point to keep prices competitive.  And he forged solid, long-lasting relationships with purveyors like Gardella, who still recalls the largest order Crandall ever placed with him: “25 cases of Dow’s Port,” he says.

Crandall also developed a keen palate for tasting wine.  “We’d have distributors come in with samples and Frank would take on sip and say, ‘Corked!’” recalls Wayne.  “And after two or three more sips, you’d realize, yeah, he’s right, this wine is corked.  And the distributor would tell us he’d been tasting other buyers on the same bottle all day and they’d loved it!”  Crandall preferred whites, chardonnays in particular, and especially those from the Corton-Charlemagne appellation in Burgundy.  “On special occasions, the bottle he’d open all the time was the Louie Latour,” remembers Wayne.

Today, Renegade Wines is a nearly 5000-square foot shop with a burgeoning selection that Crandall regularly updated for his customers online, at www.renegadewines.com.  Most of the space is, actually, home to temperature- and humidity-controlled lockers for wine storage that are under 24-hour video surveillance.  Budding collectors have smaller eight-case lockers to rent; serious connoisseurs can choose spaces that hold close to 600 cases.  The store’s total storage capacity is more than a quarter-million bottles.  Renegade obtained a license to hold monthly tastings four years ago, which has also helped bolster business.

When Crandall passed away on December 29th, it came as a surprise, a shock even, for many who knew him.  “I had no idea he was that sick,” says Fiolek.  Par for the course, perhaps, for a man who wore humility on his sleeve.  Wayne says the 64-year-old ended his daily visits to the wine shop in May of last year, a victim to health complications wrought by cancer.  But his spunk managed to survive.  “He was still cracking jokes last time I spoke with him on the phone,” says Wayne, “about three or four days before he died.”

Wayne worked with Crandall at Renegade Wines for 10 years.  He is hoping to buy Renegade Wines outright.  For now, he says the store is still very much open for business.

For Fiolek, the few days since Crandall’s passing have spurred memories of both wine and rock and roll.  Turns out, the man who successfully lived two incarnations found a way to perfectly, wonderfully – but briefly – enjoy the two together.  The launch of Renegade Wines in 1990 coincided with the formation of a band of Santa Barbara-based winemakers and wine aficionados called “H2S”; the formula for hydrogen sulfide was a tongue-and-cheek title equating the chemical compound’s notoriously stinky rotten-egg smell to the purported talents of the band members, which included Fiolek and Whitcraft, among others.  “Our first gig was [winemaker] Fred Brander’s 40th birthday party in October of 1990,” remembers Fiolek.  Crandall was the rock band’s bassist for about three years, until the debilitating pain from arthritis won out.

“But Frank always played through the pain, had this fierce look in his eye, just kept it going, kept it going, and always kept our rhythm, and made sure things always fell into place,” recalls Fiolek.  “So he was a lot like the instrument he played: steady, and always kept the beat going.”


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