Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Dr. Konstantin Frank (1897-1985) was a viticulturist and winemaker in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He was born in Odessa, during the Russian Empire and received his PhD in viticulture from the University of Odessa, his thesis being on techniques for growing Vitis vinifera in a cold climate.

After working for a time in then Soviet Georgia managing a large state-owned vineyard, he came to the United States in 1951. Frank, 54 years old at the time, brought his family with him. While working for the Cornell University Geneva Experiment Station, he urged New York State winemakers to move away from French Hybrid grapes and Vitis labrusca, and instead plant Vitis vinifera, the traditional grapes of European winemakers.

His ideas were ridiculed. The men who ran the Geneva Experiment Station, a Cornell agricultural extension, gave him a job only as a janitor. No one thought that vinifera would grow in the colder New York area. His advice and theories were ignored. Instead, he was told, to push his broom. So strident and vitriolic was Frank with his thoughts on vinifera vs. hybrids, that at one point, sub-station personnel discussed the possibility of having him committed to Willard State Mental Hospital.

However, there was a man who was willing to give Dr. Frank’s theories a try. Charles Fournier, the cellar master and president of Gold Seal Winery champagne, one of America’s largest producers of the day, offered Dr. Frank a job. Fournier was a celebrated French winemaker from Veuve-Cliquot, before coming to America. At the time, Gold Seal was awash in hybrids, and Fournier and Philip M. Wagner were friends. However, Fournier was used to working with vinifera. If Frank could successfully grow Pinot Noir, Fournier reasoned, he would be able to duplicate his successes in France here in the U.S. and establish a level of quality here in the U.S. theretofore unknown in the world of sparkling wine.

Frank and Fournier went to work, and in a few years he was able to successfully cultivate vinifera in the Finger Lakes region. The two got along well together. Frank spoke German and French fluently, and so the two chatted away in French. Frank spoke English only reluctantly. He planted and experimented with Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, and the exotic Rkatsiteli. Fournier was ecstatic! Frank was encouraged.

After years of working with Fournier, Frank bought a parcel of land with money he had saved, on Keuka Lake, and began growing Pinot Noir grapes. He established, in 1962, Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellar. It was New York’s first, all-vinifera vineyard and winery. Despite his success, other winemakers still doubted him for many years and he had trouble getting New York distributors to handle his wine.

Frank was a singular individual, iconoclastic and cantankerous, he did not suffer fools nor the non-believers well. He could be rude and sometimes impetuous. He could be tactless. While on his crusade, he went out of his way, according to amateur historian and winemaker Ken Liftshitz, of Silver Stream Vineyards, in October of 1963, while still working for Fouriner, to oppose hybrids. He gave a lecture in Buffalo wherein he insisted on the banning of hybrid grapes. Frank’s remarks were sparked by the French movement of that time to ban hybrids from grape production in certain parts of France. But hybrids were then the backbone of the industry, even as prices were falling for hybrid grapes.

Frank received a huge rebuff from the Geneva Experiment Station. And it angered Philip M. Wagner, the champion of hybrid grapes, so much so, that he wrote to Fournier, with whom he had been friendly (especially since Gold Seal grew many of the hybrids Wagner championed). Wagner wrote to Fournier, cautioning Fournier about allowing his name to become associated with Frank’s. Wagner complained, “he had the gall to push publicly for a legal prohibition of the hybrids.”

The war between Frank and Wagner was on. By publicly calling on for a ban on hybrids, Frank had broken the social contract by asking for the banning of another man’s livelihood. Especially he man who had saved east coast grape growing and wine making.

According to Lifshitz, “Whatever Frank’s foibles, it is clear that Fournier harbored a genuine affection for him. It can be discerned in his correspondence with Philip Wagner. When Wagner attacked Frank in his correspondence in 1963 there is a noticeable cooling of tone in Fournier’s responses which become immediately almost strictly business whereas before there had been a personal tone.”

Lifshitz also wrote, “Several less than rigorous experiments were undertaken to show that these were toxic among these, the feeding of hybrid wine juice to chicken and pigeons. There was as result an increase in birth defects. Certainly these could have been attributed to the alcohol content of the wine as easily as the genus but Frank continually cited these as evidence that the varieties were toxic.

For his part, Wagner was furious. Frank was cutting into his reputation and his livelihood. For every chicken bone story, Wagner would tell people, during talks, lectures, and passing conversations, that Frank’s research was not to be trusted, and related on numerous occasions that he had in fact visited Frank’s vineyards, and seen row upon row of dead vines. In a letter to Philip Wagner in 1982 Fournier states that Frank is finally calming down with his ‘pigeon and chicken’ stories.”

However, Frank was a man who was willing to pass down his knowledge to anyone who wanted. So famed was the vineyard and Frank’s work that Robert Mondavi paid a visit before opening his own winery. Another one of those who paid heed was Herman J. Weimer, who eventually, following Frank’s lead, followed suit, making world class Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. Frank had many good friends during his lifetime, despite his quixotic ways, and was in fact good friends with Andre Tchelistcheff, the renowned and celebrated Russian-born √©migr√© winemaker (who had made a name for himself in France) in California at Beaulieu Vineyard.

He died at the age of 88, in 1985. While Dr. Frank’s wines eventually gained a good reputation within the industry, no one could repay him for his gift of vinifera. It was at this time, that his son, Willie, took over his father’s business, restored the vineyards and wine cellars, linked it with his own Chateau Frank sparkling wine label, that Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars vaulted to the prominence it enjoys today.

Today, Dr. Frank is recognized as having led the revolution in wine quality in New York State and the East Coast. In 2001, the Vinifera Wine Cellars, under direction of his son, Willy Frank, won the first "Winery of the Year Award" from the 2001 New York Wine & Food Classic competition held at the Hudson River Club in Manhattan.

Dr. Frank, in short, is the Prometheus of east coast winemaking, having given vintners east of the Mississippi, the opportunity to grow vinifera of all kinds, as well as plant other varietals in cold weather climbs, using his theories and ideas. He was easily among the giants in 20th century winemaking.

p.s. Thanks to Ken Lifshitz for his background work on Frank, and point to his research, 'Down by our Vineyard', Kenneth Lifshitz, pp. 80-97, www.kenlifshitz.com, 2004.