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Dr. Konstantin Frank is a true icon to the winegrowers of the Finger Lakes region. He is the New York counterpart of California’s Andre Tchelistcheff with whom he was friends. Konstantin Frank grew up in the Ukraine, became a professor of plant science, and rose to director of the Institute of Viticulture and Viniculture at the Polytechnic in Odessa during the 1940s. He first came to America in 1951, when he was 54 years old. Barely able to speak English, he obtained a menial laborer’s job at Cornell University Geneva Experiment Station. Here he urged New York State winemakers to move away from labrusca and French hybrid grapes and embrace Vitis vinifera, the species that includes all of the most important grapes of fine wine. He was convinced that vinifera varieties would succeed provided they were winter-hardy varieties and planted on phylloxera resistant roots. Frank was told that it was too cold in the Finger Lakes to harvest vinifera successfully. He was ridiculed for his revolutionary ideas but he was ornery and persistent. He told women who drank wine from labrusca hybrids that they would not get pregnant. His legendary comment to doubters was that he had grown Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Odessa, “where the temperature goes to forty below, where when we spit, it froze before it hit the ground.”
In 1953 Frank met Charles Fournier, the head of the Gold Seal Vineyards brand of sparkling wines made with Finger Lakers hybrid grapes. Fournier’s experience working at Veuve Clicquot Champagne in France made him realize that Frank was likely correct and hired him as a vineyard research consultant for Gold Seal in 1953. They teamed up and planted thousands of grafted Chardonnay and Riesling vines on a hardy rootstock discovered in the garden of a convent in Quebec, Canada, where they found Pinot Noir growing. By 1957, he was proven correct.
Frank went on to found Vinifera Wine Cellars right up the road from Gold Seal (now completely absorbed by a large wine conglomerate). His original 9-acre Pinot Noir vineyard was planted on a hillside bluff, overlooking Keuka Lake’s western shore, just up the road a few miles from Hammondsport. According to Frank’s grandson, Frederick, the clone planted here came to the United Statesin the mid-1950s through Maryland from Europe. The clone is now numbered 7 and appropriately named the Dr. Frank clone. In recent years, a Pinot Noir clonal trial was carried out at nearby Cornell University and the results indicated clone 7 was extremely hardy and disease resistant and the best performing clone for this region. The oldest blocks of Pinot Noir were planted from 1959 to 1961, and, according to John Haeger’s North American Pinot Noir, are older than all California plantings still in production except the 1953 block at Hanzell.
Frank worked every day in his Keuka Lake vineyards and winery until he was 82. His plantings of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon and the exotic Rkatsiteli thrived and formed the basis for New York’s wine industry resurgence. The number of wineries in New York increased from 19 in 1951 to over 219 today. He made America’s first Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) in the United States in 1962. His Rieslings have been identified as the best in the United States by many prominent sources including The New York Times and Time Magazine. The prevailing Riesling clone is German Neustadt clone 90 first introduced by Konstantin Frank in the late 1950s. Recent vertical tastings back to 1960 show that Franks’ Rieslings are built for the long haul. Dr. Frank’s Pinot Noir was selected twice to be featured at the New York Wine Experience and was chosen twice to be poured at the prestigious International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon. His Pinot Noirs age extremely well, picking up considerable complexity along the way.
With Frank’s passing in 1985 at the age of 86, the winery was in the hands of his capable son, Willy Frank. Willy was well-schooled in viticulture and viniculture. He was convinced the Finger Lakes could produce a world-class sparkling wine. Konstantin was undaunted and claimed, “They only make sparkling wine in Champagne because they can’t get their grapes ripe enough to make decent table wine.” Willy set up a separate business next door to the family winery and began producing a “methode champenoise” Finger Lakes sparkling wine in the late 1980s using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier (Frank’s vineyards were one of the first in the nation to plant Pinot Meunier). The Chateau Frank Brut, Blanc de Blanc, and Celebre Cremant have received numerous Gold Medals and are truly exquisite examples of their type. I have had the distinct privilege to sample the 2000 Chateau Frank Blanc de Noirs, 100% Pinot Noir. ($40). With a soft mousse and ripe acidity, this beauty had a fine cordon of bubbles. Truly a celebration unto itself.
Perhaps Willy’s greatest contribution to Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera VWC is that he was a businessman that knew it was vital to run the winery like a profitable business, not like a money-losing experimental station that Konstantin preferred. He reduced the number of varietals from 60 to 12, ran his own Chateau Frank sparkling wine business, and brought more publicity and recognition to the New York wine industry. Willy passed away in March of this year at the age of 80.
Konstantin Frank’s grandson, Frederick Frank, hasbeen the president of Dr. Frank VWC since 1993. A businessman, like his father Willy, he has further expanded the reach of the business, developing a popular second label, Salmon Run, from purchased grapes, while purchasing and developing vineyards in the Finger Lakes area to ensure that in the future nearly all of the winery’s grapes will come from estate owned and farmed vineyards. He studied winemaking at Geisenheim, like his grandfather, and speaks fluent German. He has now expanded the reach of Konstantin Frank wines and today the winery sells its wines in 30 states.
There are three Pinot Noirs produced here. The Salmon Run bottling contains young estate and purchased fruit, the Fleur de Pinot is similar but not vintage-dated. Both are made in a lighter, back porch-sipping style. The Dr. Konstantin Frank Pinot Noir is a very serious and age-worthy example made from the estate’s oldest vines. The 1999 and 2001 Pinot Noirs were from the winery’s library cellar and are not currently offered for sale. Interestingly, Cornell University Professor Leroy L. Creasy’s studies on the resveratrol content of wines found that Finger Lakes Pinot Noirs have about fifty percent more resveratrol than ones from other regions of California and France. This finding is attributed to the humid climate in the Finger Lakes, not uncommonly 70 to 90 percent. The wine with the highest concentration of resveratrol Creasy encountered was Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Fleur de Pinot Noir which had a rating of 46.1 uMolar t-resveratrol (the average range for red wines is between 0.1-12.0 uM).
Dr. Konstantin Frank wines may be acquired directly from the winery's website. The tasting room is open daily
2005 Dr. Konstantin Frank Finger Lakes Rkatsiteli
$30. This was a first for me. The Rkatsiteli grape is surprisingly the third most planted in the world with large plantings in Konstantin Frank's homeland. This is a fun wine to stump any taster sampled blind. · The flavors are reserved and similar in profile to a Riesling, but with more citrus evident like in a Sauvignon Blanc. Crisp acidity makes this unusual wine very satisfying. Reviewed May 15, 2006
2004 Dr. Konstantin Frank Finger Lakes Pinot Noir
$25. Clone 7 aged in French oak. · Light in color but with plenty of spunk. Attractive nose of dried cherries and spice. Flavors of tart cherry and pomegranate with lively acidity Reviewed May 15, 2006
2001 Dr. Konstantin Frank Reserve Finger Lakes Pinot Noir
From a hot, dry vintage allowing full maturity. · An initially barnyard nose blossoms with air time into an attractive marriage of ripe cherry and earthy mushroom aromas. The flavors consist of a mélange of dark cherries, gingerbread and brown sugar-coated raisins. A clean and balanced wine of great interest. Reviewed May 15, 2006
1999 Dr. Konstantin Frank Finger Lakes Pinot Noir
This is one of those wines that almost brings you to your knees. I could still taste it the next day. The color is slightly brickish in the glass. The exuberant nose of toasty fruit is sexy and alluring. Crushed, tart cherries dominate the palate with hints of cloves, beef bouillon and smoked bacon. The texture is soft and silky, and the finish is lengthy, clean and lively. I would have loved to spend a few hours with this one. Reviewed May 15, 2006