Just about the first thing Frederick Frank tells visitors at Dr. Konstantin Frank Vineyards is that they're looking upon some of the oldest vinifera grapevines in the country.
"This is a great legacy that Dr. Frank left us," said Frank, president and CEO of the family-owned winery. The vines' age seems hard to believe if you're old enough to remember when wine from New York was considered something of a national joke.
But Fred Frank's late grandfather, the man whose name is on the winery's label, changed all that with his once-radical theory that fine wine grapes could be grown in a region hostile to all but the native grapes that are better suited to jams and baked goods.
Dr. Konstantin Frank's work in his vineyard and winery on Keuka Lake in the town of Pulteney, Steuben County, is widely credited with starting the fine wine revolution that gave way to a booming tourism business in the Finger Lakes. His specific contribution was grafting European vitis vinifera vines onto North American vitis labrusca roots, which are able to withstand the onslaught of a native aphid-like bug that eats the roots of vinifera vines.
Perhaps in deference to that role and his stature as a scientist, even his close relatives refer to him as Dr. Frank.
New York grape growers used Dr. Frank's propagation techniques and often his grafted vine stock to evolve into makers of fine wines, with some vintages competing head to head with European wines, especially in the Riesling category.
"That has transformed this industry and this region," said James Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. "I can't think of another winery in the Finger Lakes that has played as dramatic a role as they have." The Finger Lakes region now boasts more than 100 vineyards and nearly all grow vinifera grapes, thanks to Dr. Frank, Trezise said.
Dr. Frank's winery, meanwhile, has reached far outside the region. Unlike many New York wines that sell mostly in-state, Dr. Frank is distributed in 30 states.
"It's been really great to see the continuity and the integration of the business over time and the evolution of it," Trezise said. Dr. Frank wines, controlled by a group of shareholders all related by blood or marriage, is one of the very few three-generation wineries in the country. Fred Frank notes that most of the older family wineries in California have been sold to corporations.
Science at fore
At 53, Fred Frank has witnessed and participated in much of the winery's history. He grew up hunting and fishing on his grandfather's land and working in the vineyards with his cousins, including Eric Volz, 51, who now manages the vines. He describes the original vineyards as more of an experiment station without the state funding, growing 60 different types of vinifera grapes. "Money was secondary. It was always about science," Fred said.
Dr. Frank, the passionate scientist, often clashed with his son, Willy, a professional photographer and photographic equipment salesman. But Willy still helped out in the business during busy times and nurtured his own wine passions.
When Dr. Frank's health started failing and his business wasn't doing much better, Willy returned full time to the family business, taking over and making decisions based more on business than scientific curiosity.
That put Fred Frank in something of a spot. He graduated with a business degree from Cornell University and, with his grandfather's connections, obtained Old World winemaking schooling in Europe. Dr. Frank wanted Fred to succeed him immediately, but Willy wanted his son to go out in the world and learn from others, much as he had learned about business away from the control of his strong-willed father.
Fred followed his father's advice, working for a Long Island vintner in sales and distribution before returning to Keuka Lake years later. Dr. Frank had his way, though, with another grandson. Volz had earned a degree in agronomy and planned to continue his education in California.
"But my grandfather persuaded me to stay here," Volz said, recalling a conversation that began with Dr. Frank saying, "'This is what you're going to do....'"
While the third generation prepared for a greater role in the winery, Willy beefed up the business.
"One of Willy's first orders of business was to whittle down" the collection of vines to about 20 types, focusing on those that grew best in the cool climate, Fred said. He also began a second winery — Chateau Frank — that employs French champagne-making techniques. He planted additional vines on land in the Seneca Lake area.
A healthier Dr. Frank would have opposed the shift that began before he died in 1985. "He was quoted as saying the only reason the French made champagne was because they couldn't make a decent table wine," Fred recalled.
But Willy was successful, elevating the Dr. Frank label and Chateau Frank on a national level, and bringing along other New York wineries for the ride.
"His contribution was as an ambassador," said Trezise. "He was in perpetual motion. He just never stopped." Willy died four years ago at 80.
Fred said his father and grandfather were equally strong-willed, though they often disagreed. Observers describe Fred as easier-going than either of the other men, but he also ran into paternal conflicts.
One was over the best way to make the wine-tasting experience more welcoming for visitors.
"My father and grandfather both felt people should focus on the wines and not be distracted by the view," Fred said. Hence one of the first tasting areas, still in use at the winery, is nicknamed "the dungeon" because it's windowless and resembles a basement rumpus room. Despite Willy's objections, Fred turned the front room of Dr. Frank's modest former house, which has picture windows facing the lake, into a second tasting room. He added a deck, providing additional opportunities for visitors to take in the scenery.
When the need to accommodate up to 1,000 visitors a day during the height of the season became obvious, Fred and Willy were at odds about how to do that.
"There were times my father felt we should take out a big loan and build a Taj Majal like one of our neighbors," Fred said. "Willy's ambition was to redo the whole winery, so when you drove into the parking lot, you'd be awed by the architecture." His design also minimized the view.
Fred, meanwhile, wanted to promote "the beautiful view and the proximity to the vines and the lake." He also had a much more conservative approach to expansion, aware that production can fluctuate between 20,000 cases a year and 40,000, depending solely on weather conditions.
The addition wasn't built until after Willy died, so Fred built it his way. A fire destroyed the original expansion last year, but it was immediately rebuilt. The current overflow tasting room is somewhat plain but makes the most of the lake view.
Fred's frugality in more than one area — he introduced the Salmon Run label to appeal to budget-conscious wine drinkers — has paid off. With the recession, people are still drinking wine, but many have switched to less expensive vintages or brands. Salmon Run has helped carry the day at Dr. Frank's.
"Fred brought kind of a global look at the whole thing," Trezise said. Blending the scientific approach of his grandfather and the business experience of his father with his own style, he "hired a very impressive team of wine makers," representing several countries.
Yet Fred and Volz credit their upbringing in the vineyard with instilling in them a strong work ethic.
"There's a feeling of responsibility, of trying to make the best wine we can," Fred said.
Neither Fred's daughters nor Volz's have decided whether they'll do more than spend summers in the family business. But Fred's youngest child, Kyle, 18, has made up his mind and just started in the enology, or science of winemaking, program at Cornell.
His son's decision helped Fred feel at ease about planting additional vines on Seneca Lake that will take years to match the quality of those closer to the winery.
"It was easier for me knowing that we have the next generation waiting in the wings," he said.
Diana Carter Tomb, DCARTER@DemocratandChronicle.com
Hours: Open year-round, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The tasting room is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and New Year's Day. Wheelchair-accessible.
Group policy: Reservations are required for all groups of 8 or more. Groups of 8 or more will be charged with a non-refundable fee of $5 per person and will get to keep their Dr. Frank Logo Glass from their tasting. There is a 24-maximum group size. Call (800) 320-0735 for a reservation.
Wine tasters from California stop in to sample the wine at Dr. Frank's.