Wednesday, March 15, 2006


“Will Success Spoil Willy Frank?” asked Wine Business writer Mort Hochstein in November, 2004. “After a quarter of a century of struggling to earn recognition and financial stability for the winery started by his father, Willy has finally pushed that Sisyphean rock to the top of the hill…No, success will not spoil Willy Frank. Neither prosperity nor advancing age can slow him down.” Would that it were so.

"Everyone who knew him expected him to go forever," Frederick Frank, his son, told the press.

Pioneer Finger Lakes winemaker Willibald Konstantin "Willy" Frank died of a stroke Tuesday, March 7, 2006. He was 80. News of his passing immediately spread around the world.

In the New York Times, wine critic Eric Asimov, called Willy, “a tireless promoter of New York wines who transformed Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars into one of the Finger Lakes' best known and most respected wine producers.”

“The son of the late Dr. Konstantin Frank, Mr. Frank is credited with carrying on his father's winemaking legacy of using fine European vinifera grapes. His father was the first in New York state to use the vinifera grapes,” reported Mary Chao and Salle E. Richards in the Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, NY, March 9, 2006). “A self-proclaimed workaholic, Mr. Frank — chief executive of Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport, Steuben County — traveled extensively to promote his products and the Finger Lakes wine region.”

“Willy was an icon,” said Mark Wagner, owner and winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars. “He was the kind of guy you expected to live forever.”

“He really led a very active life for that age, was very successful and has a tremendous following of fans,” his son said Wednesday. “It's sad but we'll continue his legacy.”

“Dr. Konstantin Frank, a World War II refugee from Ukraine, had hauled the Finger Lakes into the modern era by successfully cultivating vinifera grapes in a region where winter temperatures commonly drop to 15 below zero. As a business, however, his winery was failing,” reported the Associated Press.

“He never considered this a business,” Willy Frank said in an interview with The Associated Press in 1995. “I said, ‘Papa, even the Catholic Church is a business - if there is no income, there is no church!’”

“While his father's scientific genius in the vineyard was undisputed,” continued the AP article, “and his wines had often vanquished the French in blind tastings, Frank quickly set about transforming the vineyard from an experimental station into a profitable winery - one he could pass down to his children.”

An old proverb states, “Every father should remember that one day his son will follow his example instead of his advice.” Willy Frank followed his father’s example.

Willy Frank was a pioneer in his own way. While his father, Konstantin, pulled the Finger Lakes Region into the 20th century, when he bred hardy vinifera rootstock that eventually became much of the basis of the now exploding eastern wine country, it was Willy who made excellent wines from those grapes, and helped grow New York state wines, especially Finger Lake wines, into a multi-million dollar industry.

“[Willy] Frank was the son of Dr. Konstantin Frank, the Finger Lakes pioneer who established the first winery in the area to focus exclusively on vinifera grapes, proving that fine wine varieties such as Riesling and Pinot Noir could flourish in New York,” wrote Mitch Frank for The Wine Spectator. “But it was Willy who turned the winery into a successful business that now produces 40,000 cases a year and sells its wines in 30 states—more widely distributed than any other New York farm winery.”

“We’ve lost one of the most important people in our industry, [someone who has been an] absolutely incredible promoter of the Finger Lakes,” Scott Osborn, owner of Fox Run Vineyards in Penn Yan, told Gina Muscato, of the Finger Lakes Times. Osborn often saw Frank at various consumer or trade tasting events. “He believed in not only his wines, but other wines in the Finger Lakes. Out of that belief came passion and intensity. He was just a great guy.”

“I’ve known Willy for a lot of years, and his dad before him. Willy was a bit of a chip off the old block,” said Gene Pierce, owner of Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee. “He was dedicated and enthusiastic. He just went 100 miles an hour all the time. He believed in what he was doing. He was extremely proud of the fact that they grew that winery and built it themselves.”

“Willy's death last week removed an energy force from Keuka Lake, and from us,” wrote Thomas Pellechia in the Elmira Star Gazette.

Howard G. Goldberg, one of the wine experts on eastcoast wines, in Decantor magazine, called Willy, “a Finger Lakes vintner whose wines were often rated among New York State's best.” Mr. Goldberg also wrote, “As gauged by its more than 220 wineries, New York is the fourth most important winegrowing state in America. Most of the wineries grow vinifera because of the legacies of Konstantin and Willy Frank.”

However, I give the last word to Fred LeBrun, of the Times Union (Albany), who wrote, “I can't tell you what his politics were, or what he liked to do on his day off (I doubt that he took one, anyway), or his deepest thoughts on world events. But I can tell you this: No one has been more important for the success of modern New York wines than Willy Frank. Not even his father.”

I had the honor of meeting Willy once, and spoke with him several times by phone about his wineries and wines. He was a passionate wine lover, and a consummate promoter. His passion was infectious. He was friendly, gracious, and a terrific salesman. He was also a pioneer, like his father.

His passing is a huge loss for the industry, for he was a link, as Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants, was to the NFL and his industry’s past. There are many new wineries popping up each and everyday in New York State. And each and everyone of that next generation of winery owners owes a huge debt of gratitude to Willy Frank.

As a writer who covers the region and an aspiring winery owner, I know I do. In a sense, for those of us who follow, support, and are involved in east coast wine, we are all his sons. We should all aspire to follow his example.