Revolutionary Winemaking and its Aftermath
Courtesy of Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars
It’s hard to believe that there was a time—only about fifty years ago—when nearly every New York winemaker was convinced that the grapes to grow these wines—specifically, vitis vinifera grapes—could never flourish in the northeastern climate. It’s even harder to believe that it took a Russian immigrant, working as a janitor, to set everybody straight. The story of New York State winemaking does not start with Konstantin Frank but, by any standard, he is the focus of its most important chapter—a chapter we’ll get to presently. Prior to Frank’s successful introduction of vinifera grapes, winemaking had been taking place throughout the US since colonial days, and much of that activity was centered in New York.
Wherever there are people willing to drink it, wine is made, and that happened pretty quickly in colonial America. William Penn tried to grow vitis vinifera in 1694. He failed in his attempt, but pollen from his vines accidentally crossed with that of the wild American native grape vine, vitis labrusca. A new variety from this cross—the Alexander—led to some early winemaking successes. Thomas Jefferson also failed with vinifera grapes, but learned about the new varieties from native vines and advised other winemakers to continue using them, as the European varieties “will take centuries to adapt to our soil and climate.” This advice led to a series of experiments with vitis labrusca varieties such as Catawba, Delaware, Isabella, and, of course, Concord, which is still the most widely grown grape in New York. These early experiments set the stage for the early days of the Finger Lakes wine industry.
Bubbling to the top
The winemaking world is filled with great stories, but champagne seems to garner the lion’s share. Even better than Dom Perignon’s “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”—better, mainly, because the Dom story is a total myth—is the story of the first American champagne. The first bonded winery—though not the first winery—in New York was Hammondsport’s Pleasant Valley, which began commercial production in 1860. When the winery introduced its first sparkling wine (made from a blend of Delaware and Catawba grapes) during an 1870 industry gathering, a connoisseur named Colonel Marshall Wilder enthused, “Truly, this will be the great champagne of the West!” So Pleasant Valley named the wine Great Western, and it went on to win prizes in European competition, the first American champagne to do so. Of course, by “West,” Wilder meant New World, which may clear up any confusion about the odd nomenclature of this longtime favorite, which can still be found in almost any local wine retailer.
The first Great Western was made from the only grapes its producers felt would work here, but as more European immigrants arrived on the winemaking scene, they began to emulate the traditions they knew from the old country, such as offering named varietals and dated vintages. They also didn’t want to be limited to using vitis labrusca varieties. After surviving Prohibition by selling grape juice and sacramental wine, some Finger Lakes winemakers started using French-American hybrids, made from deliberate crosses between the vitis vinifera and vitis labrusca vines. In 1950, Charles Fournier of Gold Seal, who had been the chief winemaker at Cliquot Ponsardin in France, won a gold medal with his Finger Lakes champagne, made from these hybrids. Three years later, Fournier created another milestone moment by hiring a man who was currently working as a janitor at Cornell’s New York State Agriculture Experiment Station.
Clockwise from top: Konstantin Frank, a meeting of the American Wine Society, a wine bottle showing yeast formation, Charles Fournier and Konstantin Frank, Frank in the vineyard, Chateau Frank rendering and an archival image from Russia. Photos courtesy of Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars. Bottle with yeast photo at bottom right by Stu Gallagher.
Enter Konstantin Frank
Konstantin Frank had a Ph.D. in viticulture from the University of Odessa; his speciality was growing vitis vinifera in cold climates. Frank worked in the vineyards of the Ukraine until World War II hit. The Franks, though settled in Russia, were Germans, and during the war they were forced to flee to Vienna; they emigrated to the United States in 1951. Upon arrival in New York, the fifty-two-year-old, multilingual professor found a job as a dishwasher to keep him going until he could learn English, the only language in which he was not fluent. Hoping to find work in New York’s grape-growing region, he moved two hundred miles west, to Geneva, but his credentials and ideas about growing vinifera fell upon stony ground at the Agriculture Experiment Station. Researchers there were convinced that New York was inhospitable to vinifera. Frank did menial work at the station for two years, all the while expounding his vinifera theories to anyone who would listen. Finally, Fournier did—the two wine experts were able to converse easily in French—and Frank worked for Gold Seal for ten years. During that time he planted rows of chardonnay and riesling grapes, both at Gold Seal, and, later, at a farm he hoped would become his own winery.
“He left Gold Seal when he was sixty-five,” says Konstantin Frank’s grandson, Fred Frank, who is now president of Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport. “At a time when most people were thinking of retirement, he was embarking on this new venture. He had so much passion and energy for this cause, which was that Americans deserved better wine.”
The two obstacles that Konstantin Frank overcame in his quest to grow vinifera were the upstate New York climate and the phylloxera louse, both of which meant death for vinifera vines planted on this side of the Atlantic. Frank grafted the vinifera vines to hardy vitis labrusca rootstock—which was impervious to both cold temperatures and the pest—in order to protect the more delicate European vines. As a side note, Fred Frank notes that other grafting attempts were not always successful. “Dr. Frank’s California colleagues used ARX1 rootstock, which was not resistent to phylloxera,” he explains. “Those vines had to be replanted. These vineyards here [at the Frank winery], therefore, are among the oldest in the entire US, particularly the pinot noir.”
The grafting concept sounds simple, but it still took many years for the sixties-era New York wine makers and consumers to sign on. Outspoken in his crusade, Konstantin Frank was nonetheless not able to talk other winemakers out of using the French hybrids. In fact, it was not until the seventies and eighties that other Finger Lakes wineries, such as Heron Hill, McGregor, and Hermann Weimer, started wineries that focused on vinifera varieties. Frank’s work did become known throughout the winemaking industry. Robert Mondavi visited Frank before opening his winery in California, and Frank was good friends with another esteemed left coast winemaker, the Russian emigre, Andre Tchelistcheff. Frank died in 1985, at the age of eighty-eight. Although his innovations increased his reputation throughout the industry, they did not bring him financial success.
Marketing the wine—and the region
The building of the Frank brand was accomplished by his son, Willie Frank (who died in 2006), and is being continued by Willie’s son, Fred, who credit’s Willie’s countless wine tastings, wine dinners, and coast-to-coast traveling as part of the enthusiastic ambassadorship that helped popularize not just the Frank winery but all of the Finger Lakes offerings. This mission was given a boost in 1976 when the state’s Farm Winery Act allowed wineries to sell all their production at their locations and loosened licensing restrictions. Willie Frank also streamlined the winery’s offerings, getting rid of many of the experimental varieties—Konstantin was basically using the winery as a laboratory—that were not succeeding in the bottles or on the shelves.
Fred Frank is convinced that the Finger Lakes are perfect for certain grapes: “With our cool climate, we do well with the Northern European varieties. Riesling is our number one variety, but there other varieties such as gewurtztraminer, pinot gris, the Austrian gruner ventliner, pinot noir, and the Austrian red, lemberger.” He continues, “As consumers have learned more about wine, they’re more willing to experiment, and varieties like gruner vetliner are becoming much more well-known.”
Clockwise from top: The Frank vineyards overlooking Keuka Lake, grape blossoms, wine barrel, Fred Frank, winery sign, riddling racks, Willie Frank, gewurztraminer grapes, Salmon Run riesling in cases. Vineyard, grape blossoms, barrel rack, boxes, and signage photos by Nicole Young; Fred Frank photo by Bates Photography; grapes and Dr. Frank image courtesy of Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars.
Help from the state
There are now over 330 wineries in New York. Many carry vinifera wines; most offer a smorgasbord of vitis labrusca, French hybrids, and vinifera. Over 100 of those wineries are located in the Finger Lakes. In recent decades, further regulatory loosening from the state has allowed the wineries more freedom in selling and distributing their products internationally. The Farm Winery Act was only the beginning. Throughout the eighties, winemakers asked New York State to give them the same help it extended to dairy farmers and horse breeders, including funds for research and promotional assistance. Many in state government and elsewhere have urged the legalized sale of wine in supermarkets.
Although no wine (from anywhere) is currently sold in NYS supermarkets, there have been significant changes in other areas. The Uncork New York campaign (newyorkwines.org), started in 1985, has done much to provide centralized marketing for all NYS wines. In 2005, thanks to the Supreme Court, wineries became able to ship their products directly to out-of-state consumers, and it is likely that the state will add new initiatives meant to encourage a better presence for local wine throughout New York’s liquor stores and restaurants. Spirited debate continues over the possibility of wine in supermarkets; the issue is still very much in play.
A new uncertainty
Dr. Konstantin Frank winery is located on the shores of Keuka Lake, a body of water that, according to Fred Frank, is one of the cleanest in New York. “It’s used as drinking water and there are no restrictions on human consumption of the game fish here,” he says. “Fisherman can eat these fish every year.”
Given their dedication to chemical-free—or close to chemical-free—grape growing and their pride in the beautiful natural surroundings that are a big part of the reason wine touring is so popular here, it should come as no surprise that many Finger Lakes winemakers are opposed to the hydrofracking industry coming to their areas. According to Fred Frank, small towns and chambers of commerce throughout the area have voted for drilling bans, and, with millions of dollars of tourism revenue at possible risk, winemakers have been mobilizing for a fight that may be over by the time this article is published. As of this writing, the state was rumored to be considering a plan that would allow limited shale gas drilling in a part of New York that includes the Frank winery’s Steuben county.
Fred Frank is concerned about hydrofracking, but seems unable to believe that it will really come. Right now he lives in the present—with fifty-one gold medals awarded to Dr. Frank’s wines in 2011 and a continuing stream of visitors coming through his doors.
Elizabeth Licata is editor-in-chief of Buffalo Spree. Sources for this article included New York Times archival articles, Buffalo News archival articles, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s Finger Lakes Wine timeline, and Emerson Klees, Wineries of the Finger Lakes Region.