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Celebrating Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars

10:03 AM, Jun 29, 2012   |    comments
CARLOS ORTIZ staff photographer Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Left, Gary Peters of California and Bob Larkin of Colorado stop on the side of the road to look at the vines at Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars on June 16, 2012. Fred Frank says the slopes on the opposite side of Keuka Lake used to be other growers' vineyards.
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LAURA NICHOLS
Democrat and Chronicle

On the eve of the 50th anniversary celebration for Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, Fred Frank is in a reflective mood.

"I almost feel the winery has come full circle," says Frank, president of the Finger Lakes' oldest family-owned winery, in Pulteney, Steuben County.

His grandfather, who founded the winery in 1962, was a scientist who tried more than 60 varieties of European grapes to see which would grow best. Konstantin's son, Willy, who followed his father as head of the winery in 1984, was a businessman who tore out most of those varieties in order to focus on the most successful ones.

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Under Fred, Willy's son, the winery has added another vineyard and is growing 18 varieties of grapes for its wines. But rather than his grandfather's scattershot approach, Fred is focusing on grapes originating in northern Europe, which has a cool climate similar to that of the Finger Lakes.

While Riesling remains the top grape grown at the winery, as it has been since its founding, the winery in 2011 introduced five wines, including Grüner Veltliner, a wine of Austrian origin that Fred expects to gain in popularity. "It's becoming more popular in celebrity chef restaurants" in the United States, he says.

This year, the winery will introduce a Pinot meunier wine. It has used the red-wine grape for years in sparkling wines. The non-sparkling version, known in Germany as "black Riesling," was one of Fred's favorites when he attended Geisenheim University.

Despite such changes, the winery remains true to its founder's mission, and its influence cannot be understated. Thanks to the pioneers such as Konstantin Frank, the Finger Lakes region has undergone a transformation in its wine industry and become an increasingly popular vacation destination.

The early years

When Konstantin arrived in the United States in 1951, East Coast wines were made from native Vitis labrusca grapes or French-American hybrids - most of them sweet and grape-y.

The classic European Vitis vinifera grapes, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot noir and Cabernet Franc, had failed to thrive here, despite centuries of experimentation.

One major reason was the root-munching Phylloxera, a tiny aphidlike insect native to North America. Konstantin, who held a doctorate in viticulture from Odessa Polytechnic Institute, was sure the problem could be overcome by grafting vinifera vines onto the resistant labrusca rootstock.

Konstantin washed dishes for two years in New York City while he learned English. He then got a menial job in Geneva at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, where he tried and failed to persuade scientists to let him work with vinifera.

While attending a wine conference around 1954, he buttonholed Gold Seal Vineyards President Charles Fournier, a celebrated winemaker from France, and convinced him that vinifera could indeed be grown here. Konstantin and Fournier searched for good rootstock, then planted the grafted vines in 1957. The vines survived a bitter winter that killed many others, and the pair planted more in 1958.

Konstantin founded his own winery in 1962 on Keuka Lake and quickly gained a reputation for making quality wines and for deriding hybrids.

Sharing his knowledge

People came to see what Konstantin was doing, and some liked what they saw. He called them his "cooperators ... his disciples, you could say," Fred says. "They continued to spread the vinifera gospel, so to speak," in places such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.

One was Arnie Esterer, who with the late Tim Hubbard Esterer founded Markko Vineyards in Conneaut, Ohio. He came to the Finger Lakes often to get vines, rootstock and grafting lessons from Konstantin and to meet like-minded cooperators.

Konstantin also sold juice to home winemakers, and in 1967 he founded the American Wine Society for them, holding the first meeting in his home.

"I think the American Wine Society is one of the great things he did," Esterer says.

The society has become mostly a consumer organization, focusing on teaching people about wine, but 30 percent of its 4,300 members are home winemakers, executive director John Hames says.

Fred remains a member

Change didn't come quickly in the Finger Lakes.

In the 1970s, people such as Bob McGregor and Hermann J. Wiemer planted vinifera in the Finger Lakes, interesting others who saw that " you could grow vinifera grapes and you didn't have to be Konstantin Frank to do it," says Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.

But most area vineyardists had sold Concord, Delaware and other native grapes to Taylor Wine Co. and the region's other big wineries for years and had made a good living at it. "People are resistant to change if things are going well," says Trezise.

However, Taylor and others reduced or eliminated their Finger Lakes contracts in the 1970s and '80s, leaving many grape growers in trouble. Meanwhile, baby boomers had discovered vinifera wines, increasing demand.

A major step in the process was in 1976, when New York legislators passed the Farm Winery Act, making it easier for small wineries to open. Further regulatory relief followed, and the new Finger Lakes wineries started to develop.

Each Frank making a mark

Konstantin Frank retired in 1984, a year before his death at age 86. Son Willy took over Dr. Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, working with his brother-in-law, vineyardist Walter Volz.

Konstantin had run the winery as if it were an ag station but without the state funding, Fred says. Willy, determined to attain commercial success, not only streamlined operations but also cut prices on some labels in an effort to reach younger consumers.

One of Willy's strengths was promotion, and he promoted not only Dr. Frank's wines, but also others'. "He really was the missionary for the Finger Lakes," Trezise says.

Willy also had his own dream: sparkling wine, made with the labor-intensive méthode champenoise.

Next door to Dr. Frank's, he bought a late 1800s building and surrounding vineyards from Walter Taylor, founder of Bully Hill Vineyards. "It was ideal for sparkling wine," with very deep cellars, Fred says. Willy also bought land on Seneca Lake, which averages a few degrees warmer than the area around Keuka Lake.

His efforts paid off with accolades and awards for the winery, named Chateau Frank.

"Each generation is having a contribution to the winery," Fred says.
Fred, who had worked for Banfi wines for 13 years, joined the family winery in 1993, when the economy was shaky. That prompted his own innovation, the less expensive Salmon Run line.
"Consumers were looking for value," he says. In addition, "it's kind of a fun label and we wanted to bring it down to earth."

Willy died in 2006 at age 80, and Fred now is the winery's president. Walter Volz's son, Eric, is vineyard manager, and Fred's sister, Barbara, a trained winemaker, deals with New York City-area sales and consults on the wines.

Fred's years in the wine business paid off in Dr. Frank's distribution network, which now reaches 30 states. He has made a number of improvements, including building a stand-alone tasting room and buying another Seneca Lake vineyard.

The Frank influence

Across New York, Konstantin's message has gradually gotten across. About 5,800 tons of vinifera grapes are being grown on 1,900 acres in the Finger Lakes, according to Bob Madill, president of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and a partner in Sheldrake Point Winery. At the time the Farm Winery Act was passed in 1976, New York had 19 wineries. Today the state has 322, including 119 in the Finger Lakes.

Meanwhile, wine drinking has "really changed" with the millennial generation, the 20-somethings, Trezise says. "They just want to try everything."

"I think the future looks really bright for the Finger Lakes," says Morten Hallgren, who was head winemaker at Dr. Frank's for six years before leaving to work full-time at his own winery, Ravines Wine Cellars. "... I think that what's driving the interest in wine right now is the interest in food," and Finger Lakes wines complement food.

The future at Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars also looks bright.

The current wines may be the best the winery has ever produced, Fred says. They already have won 49 gold medals or higher awards in competitions this year, compared with 51 in all of 2011.

Fred says he has never pushed his children to work at the winery, but daughter Meaghan, who will be at Sunday's sold-out anniversary celebration, has done so. Now she is in the master of wine business degree program at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

"We feel confident that the winery will continue into the next generation," Fred says.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

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