Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Fred Frank: The Quiet Frank, Empire Builder

An Appreciation of Fred Frank’s Legacy

First, there was Dr. Konstantin Frank, easily one of the most important people in US winemaking. He was a Promethean figure, bringing fire to the wine world, by showing that vinifera could be grown on the east coast. Then came Willy Frank. He made classic French-styled, European sparkling wines with vinifera, when many said it couldn’t be done. Willy took a Finger Lakes winery and made it a regional powerhouse. Both men were bigger than life personalities. Konstantin was secure in his cause and his research and his belief in his techniques. Willy was sure of his project, his background, and a belief in what they had accomplished. Both were loud and brash in their own way. And utterly successful to different degrees. They laid the foundation for the modern-day Dr. Frank’s winery.

But then came the quiet Frank - Fred Frank. Grandson to a Titan; son to a local legend. Where Konstantin and Willy could take the air out of the room – with laughter, anger, or charm – Fred often can go unnoticed (despite his imposing figure). Those two men were a hard act to follow. But by working behind the scenes, and seemingly invisible in front of it, Fred Frank took Dr. Konstantin Franks Vinifera Wine Cellars from a regional powerhouse, to a national brand. Of the three men, Fred was the longest severing family member to helm the winery, from 1993 to 2019 (26 years!). The road was long and arduous, but quietly he took a winery available in five or six states, and brought it to national prominence, now available in more than 35 states.

I first met Fred Frank in 2000. He’d been president of Dr, Franks little over a half decade, manning the table at the Finger Lakes Wine festival. He had a middle aisle booth, and was, if I recall correctly, alone at the time. I had met his father, once, briefly, maybe five years before, watching him sell his wines. Jokes. Pride. Stories. Willy was a terrific salesman even into his later years. Something akin to seeing a Hall of Fame pitcher in his last season – tired, worn, but the flashes of brilliance were to be admired.

Fred is a big fella. At least 6’ 2” or 6’3”. A shock of springy gingerbread hair, tightly quaffed. Big shoulders. Big forearms. Wire rimmed glasses. He moved at a moderate pace, but his moves were deliberate, not a wasted movement. He might have hurried, but he never rushed. As if every move was pre-thought-out. Standing for a moment, looking at him, he resembled a major league first baseman. 

If you know anything about the wine industry, most winery owners are at times, and by and large, insufferable. To them, their wineries are like superstar children. To be doted upon and bragged about. Chest pumped up. Eyes glinting. Its exactly the kind of performance that makes wine writers’ eyes roll over white. “We have the best wine!’ ‘Nobody makes it as good as we do!’  A rare few are immune. Ugh! (I know, I was one. And I probably wasn’t any better).

Fred was absolutely different. He was quiet. His voice never fluctuated (it still doesn’t). He explained things at time like a school teacher. Keep it simple stupid. It wasn’t talking down, as much as it was just even keel. It was stunningly quiet and bizarre. But he was good. Explained everything. Got his points across. And I’ll tell you what? I remembered him.  

Fred at the Blogger's Station, sitting next to 
Michael Kaiser from Wine America

The other thing about Fred is that he has a bit of the everyman in him. One of my favorite memories of Fred, was when we were at the Eastern Wineries Exposition one year. There was a bloggers’ table where wineries could drop off a bottle and a group would taste the wines, and I would write a review. Fred brought by a bottle for review. But then asked if he could join in. We were thrilled to have him as a guest. He stayed almost through the end. When some of the writers scoffed at certain wines, he defended them. If he didn’t like something, he shrugged. He never said a bad word. He talked wine with the group for an entire afternoon, as affably as you please. 

The most interesting part about Fred, when you do a deep dive on him, is that he is a Long Island boy. He grew up on Long Island. Went to grammar school and high school on the island. He grew up speaking German at home with his parents. Willy, during Fred’s youth, had his own series of businesses. Willy sold his father’s wines in New York City, and went up to the Finger Lakes every fall to help with the harvest. 

Willy’s first job in the US, when he came over, was working for a newspaper, as a professional camera man. He knew a lot about cameras. And then he transitioned that into retails sales. He worked for Olden Camera. And from that he transitioned to more of a supplier role where he was a manufacturer’s representative for a number of different camera and movie brands. “And it was quite a successful business,” adds Fred now. “In his heart, though, he wanted to continue the winery.”

“My mom was from Germany. Magarit was born in Hamburg, Germany. She met my father in New York City. They met through their dentist. He was named FredErick. So they named me in honor of the dentist who introduced them,” said Fred. She was a seamstress in New York City. She made dresses for famous celebrities. I think it was Patty Duke or Patty Paige. Then when she met my dad, she just helped with the household chores while we lived on Long Island,” recalled Fred. 

“Konstantin had a tremendous work ethic. You have to understand, he had been through so much. He had risked his life so many times. The Russian Revolution. And World War II. I think that toughed him up. Basically, if you face death many times in your life, I think it has an effect on you. Where, little problems don’t mean that much, because you’ve seen the worst.” Konstantin brought his wife, Eugenia, and family to the New World through Ellis Island. “It was daunting,” said Fred. A former professor in the Soviet Union, Dr. Frank was reduced to washing dishes in NYC.

“Konstantin never took a vacation, that I am aware of. Ever. At least when he was in New York. He was 63 years of age when the winery was founded in 1962. Most people think of retiring at that age nowadays. He had this boundless energy. Incredible conviction. And a stubbornness. Back then everybody was saying he was crazy. They called him ‘The crazy old doctor on the hill.’ Cornell was certainly not embracing his ideas. They felt vinifera was too risky for the average New York grape grower. He was one man against the industry and academia at the time. He just knew he was right.”
When Fred was a young man, he met numerous acolytes of his grandfather, who also wanted to grow vinifera grapes and start their own wineries. Frank trained interested students in informal internships. He called his students "cooperators." The cooperators included Douglas Moorhead of Presque Isle Wine Cellars, Arnulf Esterer of Markko Vineyard, Hamilton Mowbray of Montbray Cellars, Elizabeth Furness of Piedmont Vineyards, and George Matheson of Chicama Vineyards. 

Fred with his father Willy, and his grandfather Konstantin

“I grew up working summers, meeting these people,” says Fred. They were from all over the east coast and mid-west. They were called “cooperators”. These were pioneering vineyardists in their states. Historic people now. Even the Hargraves consulted with Dr. Frank before they started their vineyard on the North Fork. Many worked a harvest with Dr. Frank as he taught them about winemaking and vinifera growing. “It was almost a university, research environment. A lot of hustling, and bustling, and learning. And also fun. This was the environment over there when I was working with him,” says Fred. “It was like a teaching winery. And I’d meet all of these interesting people from all over the US. My grandmother would cook the meals. And they would learn from Konstantin as did I.”

There were three grandsons. “One thing Konstantin did to cement his relationships with his grandsons…were all up there in the summers. Often together. He was very much an outdoorsman. He loved hunting and fishing. This is the way he bonded with his grandsons. He taught us how to fish, how to hunt. He had four ponds on the vineyard property. He made sure to build these ponds when they built the vineyard, to stock them with fish. So this was the way he created a bond with his grandsons. And then he transitioned that into teaching them about the vineyard and the winemaking. So it wasn’t all work which would have discouraged us. He was smart in developing the relationship and having fun. And then teaching us.” One of the grandsons, Eric Volz, is the current vineyard manager, who took over from his father. “So you can see, the strategy worked,” stressed Fred. 

Grandson Eric Volz, vineyard manager of Dr. Frank's

“Willy also shared his love of the outdoors with his father. He also enjoyed hunting and fishing with me. He also had other hunting and fishing friends, too. That was a common thread through the family. Enjoying the outdoors.” Fred shared his love of the outdoors with his son. Is Fred still an outdoorsman? “My son Kyle is very much into it hunting and fishing, but I have kind of stepped back from that,” admitted Fred. 

Willy’s transition was that he bought a historic vineyard site in 1979 that had originally been built in 1886. To boot, it was right next to Dr. Frank’s. He wanted a house where he could be close to the winery. But he also wanted to build his own winery, and create his own legacy. The brand was named Chateau Frank. The winery would only make vinifera sparkling. 

Fred graduated from Cornell in 1979. His major was business. “At the time, Cornell only offered one viticulture class, which I took. But there really wasn’t a major,” Fred recalled. “I had worked with Konstantin many summers growing up,” recalled Fred, who remembered working summers through middle school, high school, and college. 

Willy had thought to have Fred work with them right out of college. “I was able to get along with both Konstantin and Willy. I did not have the strong personality that either had. Konstantin basically wanted me to usurp his son, and either learn with him and take over. Of course, Willy was very much against this,” Fred guardedly told me. A tough position for a teenager to be in. Willy told his son, at the time, “Why don’t you go a work for a larger wine company and get experience, and then come back. And then you can take over from me.”

Fred was lucky. He got a job with Banfi Vintners, right out of college. Literally in a month. “It was in sales. So I started training with them and they sent me across the country working in different wine markets. It was a great learning experience. After six months of training, I got a position as a sales manager in northern New England, working with distributors. I lived in Portland, Maine. I learned a lot. And at the time Banfi had quite the portfolio. They had of course Riunti Lambrusco which was selling like hot cakes. They had premium Italian wines, Brunellos, and Barolos, from other suppliers, and Conch Y Toro Chilean wines, and they had Brown Bros. Australian wines. So, they had quite a nice portfolio. And that was a great learning experience.”

“When I first started with Banfi, I literally every week worked in a different market. So I was living out of a suitcase. And it got to be tiring after a while,” said Fred. 

After two years of that, Fred had a yearning to get back into production. Through his grandfather’s connections, who was friends with the famed Helmut Becker (8 March 1927 – 19 July 1990), German viticulturist, was chief of the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute. As a successor of Heinrich Birk, he viewed viticulture from a global perspective and promoted the globalization of a quality wine industry. He did early important work in Neustadt/Weinstrasse during the 1950s and 1960s in the European phylloxera eradication program. He bred a half dozen wine grapes, including Rondo. 

Fred got a student visa. Fred spoke fluent German. “I just felt like the conditions for us in the Finger Lakes were much closer to Germany than they were to California,” recalled Fred. He took classes in viticulture and enology. He also worked in their micro vinification lab, creating experimental wines. He worked under Becker himself. “I had an Aunt in Vienna. And I used to go see her on weekends. And I fell in love with Gruner Veltliner.” This was 1983 and Willy still had not taken over full time at the winery. 

Fred and his daughters Gretchen and Meaghan

Upon his finishing his course work, Fred was rehired by Banfi. But this time, he started a vineyard from scratch at the old Vanderbilt Rynwood Estate (which Banfi had renamed Villa Banfi) on the Long Island north shore, the Gold Coast, in Nassau County. In 1983 he planted and started the Old Brookville Chardonnay vineyard. And he oversaw that from 1983 to 1993. This was an old Vanderbilt estate. Then owner John Mariani’s dream was to have an old-fashioned Bordeaux styled chateau, with the mansion surrounded by vineyards. The wines were made by Premium Wine Group. 

“You'll find sweet oak from the barrels, mouth-watering acidity and a dab of pineapple-like flavor. Though this young, light-bodied wine is still knitting together, it is eminently drinkable today,” wrote Howard G. Goldberg of the 1998 vintage in the New York Times. (The Banfi vineyards were eventually plowed under by 2006. A series of hurricanes, bad storms, even hail, and a severe cold snap all conspired to deplete the vineyard beyond repair over a two-and-a-half year period.)

Fred couldn’t do much to help Willy with Chateau Frank while he was living in Portland. But once he was back at Banfi in Long Island, Fred could go and help his father on long weekends, or took vacations to help. “But it was really Willy’s baby. This was his pride and joy. He was a workaholic, like his father. Managing one winery was not enough. And, he had to prove he could do one on his own.”
According to Fred, “[Willy} and Konstantin didn’t see eye to eye on everything.” It wasn’t until 1985 that Willy gave up his business and took over the winery. They only worked together for one year before Konstantin passed away in 1986. “They were both very strong character individuals. And both saw things from a different prism. Konstantin was a scientist. PhD in viticulture. He had developed techniques to grow vinifera in cold climate. It was all about the research for him. For Willy. He had an MBA. It was all about sales. The measure of a business was its profitability. The two of them didn’t see eye to eye. It was unfortunate, because they both really complimented one another, with their skills.”
When Willy took over, after Konstantin’s passing, the winery was really floundering. Konstantin’s health had been suffering for several years. And Willy needed to right the ship. There were old wines in the tank that hadn’t been bottled. There were older vintages in the bottle that hadn’t been sold. So Willy really set out to improve sales, got a distribution network going. 

“When they moved up state to the winery, Margarit took on a role more of a role, assisting Willy, entertaining, she was a great cook. And they would often entertain, dinners. People in the industry. Writers. So forth. And she was also a good, stabilizing force for Willy. Helping him with decisions, and so forth.”

Willy hired professional winemaker Eric Fry. Konstantin was close friends with AndrĂ© Tchelistcheff, the great winemaker who re-invented California winemaking after Prohibition. Willy reached out for a recommendation for a winemaker to Andre. And it was Eric Fry who Andre recommended. Eric had learned viticulture and winemaking in France and with Robert Mondavi. Fry had worked with Tchelistcheff before moving to New York state. “Eric was here for four years. He really created more of a professional winemaking program,” said Fred. “It was great having him on board.” Fred’s uncle, Walter Volz was there during that transition. “He was basically Konstantin’s right-hand man. He was more of a trained vineyard manager and not a trained winemaker.” 

Dr. Frank’s has graduated a who’s who of now famous winemakers: Eric Fry who went off to of Lenz Winery; Peter Bell now of Fox Run Vineyards; Morten Hallgren of Ravines Cellars; and Johannes Rheinhart now of Kemmeter Vineyards. All have made exceptional wines.

Fred's Sister, Barbara

Fred’s sister Barbara was brought in as the winemaker in 1989. The plan had been for Fred to oversee production. Barbara would be the winemaker. And Willy would be sales, and eventually retire. She had gone to Cornell, then gotten a masters from Fresno in enology. She attended Geisenheim Institute and worked at Domaine Mumm, Schramsberg, Navarro Vineyards, and S. Anderson Vineyard. “The plan was that she was going to be the winemaker. That was the goal, that a family member would takeover. She did a great job, but she had a very bad car accident. After about a year, she hit a horse, with a car,” recalled Fred. Somewhat debilitated by the accident, she found herself uncomfortable in the cellar doing manual work. At the same time, she met her future husband and moved to New Jersey where she helped with sales and was the consulting winemaker for Dr. Frank’s, especially on sparkling wines.
In 1993, Fred was married with three small children. And Willy became very ill. “I left Banfi. And we moved up, with my wife kicking-and-screaming. She was from Westchester. She was the former General Counsel for Forbes magazine. She had a great position. We moved up the whole family, and then Willy had a miraculous recovery.”

“We worked with each other from 1993 to 2006, when he passed away. He did relinquish his title of President. So, I took over in 1993 to President to this day. It was great working with Willy. We complimented one another. I handled more of the production side. And he was great in sales. He was a born salesman. He promoted the winery, but he promoted the Finger Lakes as well. I learned a lot from him. And I think it smoothed the transition, having such a long tenure together.”

Fred was ambitious. He wanted to expand the family’s plantings, increase sales and distribution, improve PR, and keep high quality wines going out the door. While at Banfi, Fred had learned many things he would bring over to Dr. Franks. “The experience was fantastic. I got to understand how the three-tier system worked. I met distributors across the country, some of which I was able to reconnect with. So when I came back to the family winery, we were basically just sold in New York. Back then it was much tougher because Finger Lakes wines were not as well known.  I kind of joked that we were the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the wine business. ‘We don’t get no respect.’ It was the legacy of the 100 years of the Concord wines. It was kind of the memory most people in the wine trade had when you said New York. We had to over come that negative stigma. We described it as missionary work. Where it was so challenging about getting the word out. But working with Banfi was a great experience because I worked with distributors across the country. I knew who were the good distributors. I knew how to work with sales, and how to market the wines. Set up programming. Back then, there were no schools where you could learn this stuff.  You basically had to be in the trade to learn it.” Banfi had been Fred’s wine business school. 

“When I did return to the family winery, I could hit the ground running, because I had a lot to offer. I had new ideas and I could expand our distribution,” he said. With Chateau Frank and Dr. Konstantin Frank wine brands going strong, Fred looked to establish his own line of unique wines. Looking at the wine market, Fred saw that the value end of the wine market remained untapped for the winery and introduced the winery's value brand, Salmon Run, in 1993.

“At the time, the winery was just using their estate grapes for the Dr. Frank label. And I also wanted to expand the vineyards, but that would take more time. At the time also the economy was in the doldrums, and I kind of felt like we could increase production and also have a niche in the value line pricing, that it would kill two birds with one stone. So I met some local growers in the Finger Lakes, established contracts and relationships. That really helped our growth,” said Fred. Today, it roughly half Dr. Frank’s production. 

“It’s been a nice way to grow, and have some wines in that lower price line,” said Fred. It’s an understatement. It was easily the best, smartest launched value brand east of the Mississippi. It was easily the best produced and most successful launch of a value brand by a quality winery from New York state. And it moved Dr. Frank’s into a whole new weight class of wine producers. Dr. Frank was playing with the big boys now. Salmon Run ran and ran. And Dr. Frank’s went from a dominating state producer, to a winery that is now available in 38 states. 

“My goal was, let’s ramp up the PR and ramp up the awards, and get the distribution. If a somme wanted our wines, it didn’t matter how much they wanted us, if we didn’t have a distributor in that state, they couldn’t get our wine,” said Fred. “At the time, in many states, we were the only premium New York wine. Now, that’s changed. We have a number of New York brands that have expanded their distribution. So, the Finger Lakes brand is much more known now outside of New York.”
Fred also oversaw the expansion of the estate vineyards. They now own vineyards in Seneca Lake and Keuka Lake. They’ve now added more Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Saperavi, and Blaufrankisch, among other varieties. About 130 acres total. It’s a sizable amount for the Finger Lakes. That’s just for the Dr. Frank label. The Salmon Run are still purchased grapes from local growers. 

Especially of his East-Side, Seneca lake plantings, Fred confided, “It’s been a very important part of our growth. A. it’s contributed to steadier production. And B. it’s allowed us to grow more tender varieties. And c. it’s given us a different flavor profile for our Rieslings. Riesling is very expressive of the soil where it’s grown. And we can use this to our advantage. In general, our Keuka site is very rocky. It’s acidic soil. Very high shale content,” says Fred. The dry Rieslings are from their Keuka site. “Our semi-dry style we source from our Seneca vineyards. It has deeper, loamy soils. And that produces a more fruit forward style, which works better in the semi-dry style.” 

Is he a workaholic like his grandfather and dad? “I’m not as much of a workaholic, let’s put it that way,” said Fred. “I’ve tried to combine work with family time. Having three children all a year a part. A lot of times I would combine sales trips or wine seminars with a weekend family getaway. I’d be in Cleveland, doing an AWS national conference. And tug the family along and we’d go out and see the sights on weekends. But, I believe in time off. It’s healthier. Nowadays, I’ve just learned to delegate more. The business has grown so. It really doesn’t require that kind of workaholic atmosphere as it did in the pioneering days. 

But there was also succession planning. “I have three children. Meaghan was really the one who stepped up to the bat to continue her great grandfather’s legacy. Meaghan is the oldest,” said Fred. Fred has another daughter, Gretchen, and she’s an attorney in New York City. “She continued my wife’s legal legacy. And our son, Kyle Konstantin. The plan was that he was going to eventually come back to the family winery. He was actually in the viticulture and enology program at Cornell. And also studied business. And after Cornell, he got a job at Gallo. Which has a great training program, particularly on the business side. Many of the top California wine executives have Gallo training,” said Fred. Gallo is the Paris Island or the Harvard Business School of the California wine industry. “Kyle was working at Modesto at the corporate headquarters. We were thrilled about that. Then he left Gallo, to study the wine business in Germany as part of an exchange program. And he worked at the state-run winery in Wurttemberg. Then he worked for Paul Hobbs.” And then he was lured away by Silicon Valley. He now works at Salesforce. 

Fred and daughter Meaghan Frank

“So, I’m trying to do the same thing with Meaghan. I also insisted Meghan get good experience in education before she came back to the family winery. So she kind of mirrored what I tried to do. She also went to Cornell undergraduate.”  When she graduated, Fred had made connections with the University of Adelaide. They had been doing market research in the north east. Fred got to meet some of the professors. “I was so impressed. They’d had a wine MBA for thirty years. I think only Sonoma State recently started one. They were the experts in this field. It really spiked her interest in wine, and gave her a wonderful professional background. She also worked for some Australian wineries while she was there to get some experience.” After her studies were over, she came back for a year, and then it was decided she needed more of a production background. From there she went to Cornell’s master’s program in enology and viticulture. She worked at the winery any time she wasn’t in school. She’d been in and around the winery for ten years. It’s been great to have the time with her.”

“I kind of learned from my dad things not to do,” he chuckled, “getting the next generation on board. I’ve tried to not discourage her. To be supportive. And let her have free reign.” Fred is thrilled. “It’s been great working with her. She has new ideas, and a fresh set of eyes. She’s seen things that Willy and I kind of overlooked. She sees with a different perspective. It’s been great, working together with her. We try to stay out of each other’s way. And she’s handling more the sales and marketing, and working with the winemaking team.”

“I’ve stepped back from a lot of the travel. Obviously with the pandemic, the travel has been greatly reduced. But Meaghan, because of her expertise in communications, she has really perfected the zoom calls and wine tastings. And she’s been able to meet with a lots of writers and trade people via zoom through the pandemic,” lauded Fred. I am assuming that’s going to continue, because that is efficient.”

“One of Meaghan’ s ideas was to combine market the name. So, today it’s all under the Dr. Frank’s label, just as our premium table wines are. She felt that there would be a greater synergy, having the same brand,” said Fred, explaining the company’s dropping the name Chateau Frank, and putting it all under one label. Was that an emotional decision for Fred? Disappearing his father’s namesake label? Fred admitted a family member “needed a little time to come to grips with that. I was OK with it. I never really liked the name ‘Chateau Frank’ as a brand. It never really had a nice ring to it,” admitted Fred. He wincingly remembered morning TV celebrity Regis Philbin once made fun of the bottle of the sparkling on air, calling it ‘Chateau Joe’. But certainly, he admitted, it was a part of his family’s legacy, and they still pay homage to Willy with their sparkling wines. “I think it’s been a big plus for us,” he said of the move, from a marketing and sales perspective.  

“Every generation has contributed to the winery’s growth and success. And we’ve all tried to do it different ways. We’re all different people. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, Konstantin had the biggest influence. And we owe the most to him. It’s been great continuing the legacy. And now knowing that Meaghan is continuing the fourth generation…It’s so rare. There’s so many obstacles,” says Fred. “When we had out fifty-fifth anniversary Meaghan did research and discovered that only less than 3% of family businesses in general make it to the fourth generation, which is amazing when you think about it. And on the winery side it’s even lower. There’s such a temptation. So many brands are selling out to big interests. You look at Europe and some of those wineries have been in the same family for hundreds and hundreds of years.” Knowing Meaghan, it seems like Dr. Frank’s in good hands for the future. And of course, Fred is enormously proud...still there to back her up. 

Every generation has something to add. They have strengths and weaknesses. Fred was not a winemaker, although he oversaw operations. Fred Frank's real talent? Empire Building.