Thursday, September 20, 2012

Syracuse News Times Celebrates Dr. Frank's 50th!

COVER STORY / Wednesday, September 19,2012By Margaret McCormick Toast of the Town The golden, red and purple-skinned grapes being harvested on the steep slopes rising from the west shore of Keuka Lake won’t reveal their true colors in the bottle for some time. But 2012 has been a good year for Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars. A very good year.

The grapes escaped the late-season frost and hail that devastated the crop at some wineries in the Finger Lakes. They enjoyed a mix of sun and rain—make that plenty of sun—and survived the summer heat. Fruit of the vine: The Wine Cellars are known for their award-winning vintages, some of which are developed by winemaker Peter Weis (right) using grapes watched over by Eric Volz (below, right), who is the cousin of Fred Frank (below, left); both are grandsons of winery founder Dr. Konstantin Frank.

“The weather from year to year has a big impact on the production of quality wines,” winery president Frederick “Fred” Frank, grandson of Dr. Konstantin Frank, said earlier in the season. “In 2010, we had almost a drought year and in 2011, a normal mix of rain and sun. This is shaping up to be a good vintage. The vines look healthy and happy.”

Frank seems happy, too. Friends, family and dignitaries crowded the winery July 1 to officially celebrate its 50th anniversary. And awards and medals have been pouring in this year, particularly for the winery’s Dry and Semi-Dry Rieslings and 2006 Chateau Frank Blanc de Noirs, a sparkling wine.

Meanwhile, Hammondsport, the charming village six miles south of the winery, at the foot of Keuka Lake, has been named “Coolest Small Town in America” by readers of Budget Travel magazine. (Read about it at Frank expects that designation, including a spotlight feature in the magazine’s September-October issue, will bring a boost in tourist traffic to the Keuka Lake community.

“The renaissance in winemaking and quality of the wines here is part of what makes it a cool town,” Frank says with a smile. “It wouldn’t be such a ‘cool small town’ if the wine it was known for was vitis labrusca or Concord,” he adds. He’s referring—without saying so, explicitly—to the Riesling, Chardonnay and other vitis vinifera varieties famously pioneered by his late grandfather.

No Wine Before It’s Time

Dr. Konstantin Frank, an evangelist for vinifera who became an icon for the entire region, died in 1985. But his vineyard practices and his fervent belief that Riesling and other European varieties would not only survive, but thrive, in the cool climate of the Finger Lakes sparked a revolution in the wine industry that is still being felt today.

His story is heard and told often—even more so this milestone year, no doubt. He came from his native Ukraine to the United States in 1951 with a Ph.D in viticulture from the University of Odessa and high hopes for the future. He could barely speak English, but began to learn the language during a brief stay in New York City. Next stop was a laborer’s job at Cornell University’s New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.

It was there that he met the Frenchman Charles Fournier, winemaker at nearby Gold Seal Vineyards, who hired Konstantin and soon promoted him to director of vineyard research. The position enabled Konstantin to save money, buy land and plant his own vines. Vinifera Wine Cellars produced its first wines in 1962.

  Konstantin’s legacy as pioneer was evident by the 1980s, but his ideas about vinifera—and criticism of native and hybrid varieties—earned him detractors and were slow to gain traction. Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, based in Canandaigua, recalls answering the phone at his office in 1982 and hearing a man with a heavy Eastern European accent on the other end.

“I won’t try to imitate his accent,” Trezise says of his first encounter with Dr. Frank, “but he said, ‘Come up here. I want to educate you.’ So I made an appointment and I went up to see him. It was a very unforgettable experience. I was new to the industry. I figured I’d go and have a meeting with him and as long as I was at that end of the lake I’d go to two or three other wineries.

“When Dr. Frank held court,” Trezise recalls, “you were his captive. He talked about his experiments with grape-growing and brought out several wines and talked about his background. He thought only vinifera grapes could make excellent wines. He was a man of vision and opinion as well.

“The meeting lasted an hour and a half, or more, and it was the only appointment I had that day. It let me get to know a person who was very driven. He was determined to make it happen. He ultimately did make it happen, 50 years later, for sure.”

When Dr. Frank established Vinifera Wine Cellars, about a dozen wineries dotted the Finger Lakes. No one was growing Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. No one had heard of them. The revolution would take time—and patience.

Now, there are 320 wineries in New York state—120 of them in the Finger Lakes alone, Trezise notes. Riesling is the region’s star. And Dr. Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars welcomes 70,000 visitors a year to its out-of-the-way location in rugged Steuben County.

“He transformed Finger Lakes and New York and East Coast winemaking,” Trezise says. “His success made this a totally different industry than we would have had otherwise. We’re grateful to him for bringing vinifera into our lives.

“More than the growth of his winery and of the industry,” Trezise adds, “I think Dr. Frank would have a huge smile on his face. In the Finger Lakes, every one of 100-plus wineries is making Riesling. And making it well.”

Frank Talk

Fred Frank likes to say that every generation of the Frank family leaves its own individual mark on Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars. Fred’s grandfather was the scientist, the great experimenter and visionary. His father, Willy, who succeeded Konstantin, was a savvy salesman and businessman who “sort of cleaned house,” paring down Konstantin’s extensive portfolio of vinifera experiments to focus on the varieties that both grow well and appeal to consumers, with Riesling heading the list.

  “Willy was the businessman that his father never learned how to be,” writes Evan Dawson, managing editor of the New York Cork Report (newyorkcork, in his 2011 book Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes (Sterling Epicure). “He spent days on the road, introducing the wines to new markets and customers.” ......

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Margaret McCormick is a freelance writer and editor based in Syracuse. She blogs about food at