As the Torch is Passed

Willy Frank enjoyed his work at the wine cellars. Photo courtesy Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars

Ask anyone who has witnessed one of our infamous winters about spring. Not an elegant transition to cherry blossoms and sunshine, we’re more likely to see days of mud and ice fighting it out until May. But when it comes, we appreciate it in a way that few who don’t live here can comprehend.

As surely as winter marches into spring, the Finger Lakes wine industry is changing. In just three generations, the Finger Lakes have been transformed to a world-class wine-producing region. And taking the lead in that transformation is the Frank family: Konstantin, his son Willy, and grandson Fred.

Who Was Dr. Frank?
It’s nearly impossible to visit Finger Lakes wineries without hearing the name of Dr. Konstantin Frank popping up in conversation. It was Konstantin who partnered with Charles Fournier of Gold Seal winery to prove to the world that the harsh climate of the Finger Lakes could produce premium wines.

Dr. Konstantin Frank was a Russian immigrant who came to this country in the 1950s with a Ph.D., a vast knowledge of winemaking, and the ability to speak five languages. Unfortunately, English was not one of them, which made it difficult for Konstantin to find a job that used his talents. After working in New York for a few years, he earned the bus fare that would take him to Cornell, where he thought his theories of cold-climate winemaking would get a fair hearing. But his ideas were ignored, and he was hired on to do menial work, such as sweeping floors.

As luck would have it, Konstantin met Charles Fournier at a wine conference in Geneva, and the two of them were able to communicate in French. Fournier had been working extensively with French hybrids at Gold Seal. After hearing Dr. Frank’s theories, he was impressed enough to hire him on the spot as director of vineyard research. Konstantin had gone from poor immigrant to his dream job, where he soon demonstrated that his ideas were viable in the Finger Lakes. Soon after, he bought acreage and started his own winery, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars.

Konstantin successfully tackled the three obstacles to growing high-quality vinifera (European) grapes in the Finger Lakes:
• Phylloxera, a root louse that was fatal to vinifera plantings. By grafting disease-resistant American grape root stock to vinifera varietals, the Finger Lakes could indeed grow
European grapes without using costly pest control that could compromise the environment.
• Severe winters. Although the deep waters of the Finger Lakes tend to moderate the temperature of the surrounding hillsides, the best vinifera plantings are located in
microclimates that give them both protection from the elements and unique qualities.
• Fungal diseases. European vines are susceptible to fungal diseases common in the Finger Lakes. These can be controlled with careful and deliberate use of fungicides.

It took Dr. Frank just a decade to counter the notion that the area was not suitable for vinifera grapes. He was also a mentor to vitners across the Northeast. Due in large part to his teachings, more than half of the wineries east of the Rockies now grow vinifera varieties.

Willy Frank’s Challenge
When it came to the business of making wines, Konstantin was at odds with his son, Willy. As a scientist, Konstantin excelled, but the winery had become an experimental station, growing dozens of grape varieties and offering an unwieldy product line. When Dr. Frank passed away in 1985, Willy saw the need to streamline production into 12 key wines, focusing on the profitability of the better-performing grapes.

Willy also recognized that although the region was enjoying the success of vinifera, few people outside the Finger Lakes knew about it. In fact, there was a pervasive belief that the Finger Lakes produced only sweet, foxy American grape wines (think sacramental wines, pink Catawba, or Lake Niagara). This had indeed been true in the past, but times were changing.

Willy’s challenge was to alter the perception of Finger Lakes wines and increase marketing efforts outside the region. Willy proved to be an outstanding spokesman for Finger Lakes wines, spreading the word that not only did the area now produce some fine wines, but the character of some of those wines, especially Reisling, was unique in the world. In his 20 years at the winery, Willy put Dr. Frank’s on the map as an award-winning winery and expanded distribution into 30 states.
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After Willy’s unexpected passing in March of this year, his son, Fred Frank, took the helm. “Willy was akin to an 80-year-old Energizer bunny,” claims Jim Trezise of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. “He promoted not only his winery but the entire Finger Lakes wine industry. His enthusiasm and dedication were infectious. Great talker that he was, we’d always put him last on the agenda when we had panel discussions!”

What’s Ahead for Fred Frank
Fred Frank has been serving as the winery president since 1993, but he wasn’t always involved in the business. “My father believed that you should learn to shave on another man’s beard,” says Fred, “so I worked in the Long Island wine region for 10 years and studied abroad before coming here.”

Fred had a ready answer when I asked about the next great challenge for Finger Lakes wineries: Grow more grapes!

“Now that we have the reputation as a world-class wine region, we have to satisfy the demand,” says Fred. “The time is ripe to take advantage of all the hard work Willy did getting the word out about these wines.”

Production is also down due to two severe winters that killed some vinifera plantings. And it takes at least four years from planting to production. To add to the problem, many grape growers are finding it more profitable to sell their land to developers rather than switch to more costly vinifera plantings.

By the time this is in print, we’ll be caught up in the heady throes of spring. The drab coat of winter will have given way to a robust affirmation of life, and memories of ice and wind will be put in hibernation until November. One season will have gracefully surrendered to another.

So it is with families as one generation passes the torch to the next. Thank you, Konstantin and Willy, for the fires you have lit. We’ll raise a glass to you and to Fred’s continued success.


by Joy Underhill
Joy Underhill is a freelance writer from Farmington. She can be reached at joy@wordsbyjoy.com.