Dr. Konstantin Frank, The Innovative Finger Lakes Winery

A European immigrant, Dr. Konstantin Frank arrived in the US in 1951. Born in Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), he held a PhD from the Odessa Polytechnic Insitute in plant sciences, focusing on Vitis vinifera in a cold climate. Shortly after his arrival in the US, the doctor moved up to the Finger Lakes in New York to take a position at Cornell University’s Geneva Experiment Station. Dr. Frank believed from his experience in the Ukraine that European grape varietals could prosper in the region, going on to become a true pioneer, planting the first successful Vitis vinifera vines in the state.

Grape Collective caught up with Fred Frank, his grandson, and Meaghan Frank, his great-granddaughter, about the family's respected and revered legacy.

Christopher Barnes: Fred, you have some of the oldest vines in the United States — how is that?

Fred Frank: We now have some of the oldest vines in the United States, depending on the variety. This is an area that more writers are researching. What they’re finding is because Dr. Frank used the proper root stock way back in the 1950s when he first planted his vineyards, these vines have now become some of the oldest remaining in the United States. The reason being that in California they use an improper root stock, mainly AXR1. Over the last two decades, most of the old vines in California had to be ripped out and replanted with younger root vines on the proper root stock. In our case, Dr. Frank used the correct root stock, mainly pure vitis labrusca or the native wild vine that was evolved to be resistant to this native wild pest, namely phylloxera, which is a root louse.

By using the proper root stock, we did not have the need to rip out these old vine vineyards. In Europe, where they went through this replanting process in the early 1900s, the winemakers there are almost unanimous in their praise of the fruit from the old vine vineyards, where they have more of these old vines remaining, because they used the proper root stock. These old vine vineyards, the roots go down very deep into the subsoil layers. They pick up trace minerals that a younger vine with shallower roots cannot get. Also the old vine vineyards have much lower yields, naturally lower yields, so you get more concentration of flavors and extract in the grapes, resulting into a higher quality wine.

Finally, these old vines have massive trunks, really thick gnarly trunks. These trunks serve as a carbohydrate reserve for the vine, again, enhancing quality. We’re really blessed to have some of the oldest vines in the United States. I believe that helps us produce some of these award-winning wines. Obviously it’s not the only reason we’re winning lots of awards but it gives us an added, I believe, quality advantage, having fruit from these old vine vineyards. These old vine vineyards are managed by my cousin, Eric Voltz, who is also a third generation of Dr. Frank. He is continuing the legacy from his father, Walter, who was our vineyard manager prior, and learned directly from Dr. Frank. We have these old vine vineyards and they’re being carefully maintained by one of Dr. Frank’s grandsons, Eric.

Tell us about this location and how the family started here.

FF: I’m the third generation of the family here to manage Dr. Frank’s wine cellars in beautiful Hammondsport, New York. We’re overlooking Keuka Lake and our old vine vineyards. Our founder, Dr. Konstantin Frank, was a PhD in viticulture. He was the first to introduce the noble European wine grades to New York and the Eastern US. This really created a Renaissance in the eastern wine industry because previously only the native wine grapes, or Vitis labrusca, were grown in this area. When he first introduced the Vitis vinifera, European wine grapes, the quality of the wines was improved dramatically, and we could then compete with the best wines throughout the world, where these European wine grapes are grown, beyond Europe, California, Australia and the whole wine world. I want to introduce my daughter, Meaghan Frank, who is the fourth generation here at Dr. Frank’s Winery.

We’re really excited to have Meaghan on board, bringing her fresh new ideas from her training in Australia, where she worked at wineries and got her graduate degree in wine. I’m really enjoying working with her and passing on things that I’ve learned from both my father and grandfather. It’s really an exciting time at the winery to be going into our fourth generation of family management. The awards that we’re winning currently that are really showcasing the Finger Lakes as a premiere cool-climate wine region in the United States. We just came off our best year ever as far as awards, winning 129 gold medals in national and international wine competitions. The majority of these awards are for Northern European wine grapes, varieties like Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner.

We also have a sister winery called Chateau Frank, where we produce world-class sparkling wines, all done Méthode Champenoise. Again, the cool climate here is ideal for quality sparkling wines. Then on the red wine side, some of the early-ripening reds do quite well here, Pinot Noir is a good example, Lemberger, another early-ripening red, and Cabernet Franc also do well. The region really is showcasing its cool-climate affinity to these Northern European wine grapes, and more and more wine writers and wine trading consumers are recognizing that the Finger Lakes makes some of the best cool-climate wines in the United States. It’s really an exciting time to be in the Finger Lakes and to be at Dr. Frank’s Winery, where we now have Meaghan on board, continuing her great grandfather’s legacy.

Meaghan, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what it was like growing up in a winery and your experiences both here and in Australia.

Meaghan Frank: For me I just assumed that every family grew up in the wine industry. For me it wasn’t anything different. My mom is our town judge. I was always a really good kid in high school. We never really grew up with the culture of drinking at the table, things like that, but I was always really familiar with wine terminology and familiar with the processes. I was able to approach the industry with an open mind, coming at it in my own terms. My dad was really adamant about not pushing us into the wine industry, my siblings and I. It gave me the opportunity to find out that the wine industry was something that really was a compelling choice for me in terms of my future career path. Also working with my family, continuing the legacy was an added benefit as well. Really came kind of full circle in a way.

You’re the fourth generation at Dr. Frank’s. You’ve worked in Australia. How do you take something, which has been very traditional in terms of the wine making and build on it?

MF: Well with my background, working in Australia and studying there, obviously their philosophy is very New World. Everything is about technology, making clean, non-faulted wines. Very different from the European perspective, whereas everything is an Old World technique. It’s passed down from generation to generation to generation. For me it’s about marrying the two. Not that we’re an Old World region, but being that generations past have had techniques, viticultural and enology techniques that have been used for 54 years at our winery. That’s why working with my dad is a really great thing for me. I tend to get really excited about things, have a lot of ideas that I want to start implementing. With his experience, he can say, “Well we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work as well,” or, “Yeah, let’s go for it.” It’s really good with him giving me the experience, background, and me coming through with new ideas. We work really well in that way, sort of bouncing ideas off of each other, and trying out new things.

What does a great Riesling taste like?

MF: What makes a great Riesling? For me, what makes a great Riesling? Everybody’s different. Growing up in the Finger Lakes, I have a preference towards very high acidity Rieslings, and that’s something that I really look for in Riesling. During my time in Australia, it was a warmer climate region, obviously, in South Australia. They tend to have much lower acidity but very fruit forward. My preference and the style that we do in the Finger Lakes very well is the very high intense minerality. It’s almost like licking a wet stone. That’s sort of the characteristic that you get. That’s from our shale. You can see large chunks of shale in the vineyard. It’s really quite interesting. Lots of citric notes as well. Almost like apple blossom, so very complex. Very interesting. Each vintage has its own nuances that will reflect the growing season. It’s quite interesting, Riesling, it’s very expressive.

Let me ask you, what brought Dr. Konstantin Frank to this region? Why did he pick the Finger Lakes? What did he bring with him in terms of his understanding of wine?

FF: Dr. Frank immigrated into this country in New York City back in 1951 and his whole family came with him at the time. He had a son and two daughters, and his wife. They were very lucky. They left Austria and came to New York at that time. He spoke five languages, but English was not among the five. His first job in New York City was as a dishwasher. It was a very depressing time for him, because in Europe he was a PhD. He was a professor of viticulture. He was a consultant for one of the largest wineries in the area. To be a dishwasher was obviously a step down, but it gave him a chance to improve his English skills. He saved up for bus fare to go to the Geneva Experiment Station at Cornell University. There, a lot of agricultural research has been going on, particularly on grapes.

When he got there, the professors in charge really didn’t believe his theories that you could grow vinifera in New York, but they felt sorry for him, so they gave him a job as a menial worker. He took it. Obviously it was a step up from a dishwasher, and it got him a foot in the door in the industry, attending conferences and so forth. Sure enough, within a short time, after working there, he met Charles Pointier. He was the celebrated French-trained winemaker at Gold Seal, which at the time was New York’s premiere winery. Speaking both in French, he communicated to Charles that he could grow the noble European wine grapes in the Finger Lakes if he got a chance. Charles hired him on the spot, made him director of vineyard research, and within a few years he was successful in growing the European wine grapes.

Within a few years after that, he purchased his own vineyard land in 1957 and planted his own vines in 1958, and then his own winery was bonded in 1962, Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars. That winery went on to become the pioneering winery introducing the noble European wine grapes to the Finger Lakes, to New York, and then this knowledge spread throughout the East Coast. Today, all 50 states now have wineries and a lot of that knowledge started with Dr. Frank introducing the European wine grapes to the East Coast. He was very giving with his knowledge. He wanted the industry to prosper. Many of the early neighboring states growing vinifera owe their start to Dr. Frank and his guidance and knowledge. We’re continuing the tradition here at Dr. Frank’s Winery, now in our fourth generation with Meaghan, and we’re following many of the techniques that he taught us over 50 years ago. It really has created a renaissance in the New York wine industry.

What grapes grow well in this area? It could be the winters here are pretty brutal. It’s hard to believe that anything survives it. What grapes do you think are the most expressive of this region?

FF: Well yes, the Finger Lakes wine region is a challenging area to grow the European wine grapes. There are a number of obstacles. The cold winters are one of them. We have to pick and choose varieties that have a high winter tolerance. Most of those are from Northern Europe, where they have cold winters as well. Riesling is probably the white variety that is most known in the Finger Lakes. It’s the variety that is number one for us in vineyard acreage and production, and awards. Riesling certainly is our number one grape. That’s what the region is becoming most known for.

There are other aromatic white varieties that also do well here. Gewurztraminer is one. This famous Alsatian variety. The cool climate works very well with the aromatics, preserving the wonderful fruity aromas of that grape. We’re excited about Pinot Gris. Dr. Frank was the first to produce a commercial Pinot Gris wine in the United States. Again, a cool-climate white. Chardonnay does well here. It’s more of a cool-climate style with a nice, crisp acidity. Then a variety that I’m really excited about is Gruner Veltiner. That’s the number one white of Austria. It’s not that well-known in the US, but it’s gaining popularity. It’s a great food wine.

We now have one of the largest acreages for this variety in the United States. Gruner Veltiner, we’re very excited about it, and it’s doing well in some top restaurants across the country for us, and winning lots of awards. Of course, sparkling wines. We’re here in this cellar devoted to premium sparkling wine production. It was Willie’s dream and we are carrying on his legacy to produce some of the finest sparkling wines in the United States from the cool climate of the Finger Lakes.