As we at The Better Drink were preparing the Summer issue ’06, we learned of the passing of one of the great sparkling wine makers in America this year—Willy Frank. Willy produced the champagnes of Chateau Frank in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He was a member of an illustrious wine making family that pioneered the growing of vinifera in the North East. We were fortunate enough for this issue to speak with Willy’s son Fred about Willy, his wine, his father, Dr. Konstantin Frank, his relationship with Willy, and sparkling wine. Without further ado please enjoy an interview with Fred Frank.
Fred: Willy Frank was born in Odessa in the Ukraine. His father was Dr. Konstantin Frank. Dr Frank ran one of the largest wineries in the Ukraine and was also a professor at the University of Odessa where he did his PhD, and his thesis was on growing vinifera in a cold climate. He had the perfect background when he came to New York in the early ‘50s. To prove basically what had never been done before, to grow vinifera in the Eastern United States specifically the Finger Lakes Region of New York.
Willy did not get along with his father. Willy’s background was as a businessman. He received his MBA from the University of Nuremberg, which is in Germany. After that he came to New York with his family. It was very hard for the family as it was for many immigrant families just arriving in New York. They had to escape the Ukraine just before the end of World War II because they were of German ancestry living in Russia and the Russians were taking out a lot of reprisals against anyone of German ancestry after the war. So they fled on one of the last trains out of there and moved to Austria. There Dr. Frank, Willy’s father, managed a vineyard and winery, but they were not accepted as Austrians or Germans but thought to be Russians. And in Russia they were thought to be Germans. So they were a family without a country, I guess. So what do you do? You come to America to start a new life. So they did that.
It was difficult. Dr Frank was washing dishes for a year or so. He spoke five languages but English was not one of them. Willy was a photographer for a local newspaper getting paid per photo. Prior to that, he was an elevator operator. They had a difficult first few years, but Dr. Frank saved up enough money for a bus fare to the Geneva Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, which was the center for vineyard research on the East Coast at Cornell University. He presented his papers and dissertation on growing vinifera in a cold climate there but was told basically that they had already tried growing the vinifera there, but it was too cold. So he took a job as a menial laborer there, but deep in his heart he knew that the main reason vinifera failed there was not because it was too cold because he had grown it in the Ukraine where it is colder than in upstate New York. So there were other factors that contributed to the failure of vinifera. Namely three:
So those were the areas that he was able to succeed with vinifera.
Backtracking a little back to Willy, Willy stayed in New York City and developed his own business in the photographic industry.
Meanwhile, Dr. Frank took a job at the Geneva Experiment Station doing menial labor pulling blueberries and sweeping floors. After a couple of years, he attended a wine conference at the Experiment Station and met Charles Fournier. Charles Fournier was the celebrated winemaker at Gold Seal and was the former winemaker at Veuve Clicquot in France. Both men spoke fluent French so Dr. Frank was able to bend his ear at this wine conference. Dr. Frank said. “If you give me the opportunity, I will prove to you I can grow Vinifera in this climate.” Charles hired him on the spot and made him Director of Vineyard Research for Gold Seal, which was the premier winery in New York at the Time.
Fred: Hammond’s Port, NY.
Gold Seal actually won awards with its sparkling wines even in France in the early 1900s and that was with the Labrusca grapes. Charles knew in his heart that he could make even better wine if he could grow the higher quality European vinifera grapes. So he took a chance and hired Dr. Frank and made him Head of Vineyard Research. Of course his theories were correct and he was able to grow vinifera. Dr. Frank eventually purchased a local farm and started his own vineyard. His first commercial vintage was 1962 as Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars. Then he left Gold Seal and worked full time on his winery and vineyards. All this time Willy was helping out at the vineyard. He would come for the crush and work a couple of months and sell wines in New York City on his lunch hour from his other job. So he continued to have his hand in the business but invariably when they got together there would be battles where Willy would make recommendations on how to improve sales and marketing, but Dr. Frank was more of a scientist. He didn’t really care about sales or marketing or money or materialistic things. He cared more about the science, growing the grapes and spreading the word and converting other growers to grow vinifera. That for him was more important. The two never really saw eye to eye.
Willy then started his own operation called Chateau Frank to produce sparkling wine. This was an area that would not directly compete with his father. Dr Frank was never a fan of champagne or sparkling wine. He was quoted as saying, “The only reason the French make spakling wine in Champagne is because they can’t make a decent table wine.” That’s hardcore. He never produced sparkling wine at his own winery and this gave Willy a niche to develop his own project and do something on his own while working for his father.
|Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes, NY|
Willy purchased an old stone winery just next to Dr Franks from Walter Taylor who sold it after his father, Greyton H. Taylor, passed away. They were in the process of restoring it as a champagne cellar. It was a perfect investment for Willy because he needed a house next to his father’s because his father’s health was ailing in the early ‘80s and Willy also needed a project of his own. So Willy began planting vineyards in the early ‘80s and then began Chateau Frank. I believe the first vintage was 1985 for Chateau Frank. That was the first commercial vintage at Chateau Frank. Willy took over full time as president at Dr. Frank’s winery in 1984, and Dr. Frank passed away in 1985. So they were really only together one year full time. But at that point Dr. Frank’s health was failing and he didn’t have the strength to fight Willy anymore. After Dr. Frank’s passing Willy took charge of operation.
Once in charge, one of the first things Willy did was to streamline the list of grape varieties from about 60 to about 12, which was more manageable. So they could begin to make a profit. Also, many of these grape varieties were not suited to the cool climate of The Finger Lakes. It was a dream of Dr. Frank to assemble all of the world’s great grape varieties, but not all of them were from Northern Europe but also from Southern Europe. And they were not suited for the cold.
So, the first thing Willy did was to try to make the business more profitable by streamlining the grape varieties because Dr. Frank ran the operation more like a state experiment station. But the problem was that the state was not giving the business any grants, which led to problems. So Willy began to run it more like a business. Apart from reducing the varieties, he increased sales, and he got rid of some of the older wines that had been stockpiling up. He also hired a professional winemaker. He made the business more professional, more profitable, more consistent. He increased sales even outside of New York state, all the while developing his own business making Méthod Champenoise sparkling wine at Chateau Frank.
He developed a number of labels; one was a sparkling Riesling called Célèbre. He called that a cremant, as a sparkling wine. He also had another Célèbre Rosé, which is made from the Pinot Meunier grape. This is a grape variety that makes up the predominant acreage in the Champagne district. Willy was one of the first to plant it in the US certainly on the East Coast. I’m not exactly sure about California. He researched it and found that 50% of the acreage in the Champagne district is Pinot Meunier, which is an important component of the cuvée. He planted also more Chardonnay and more Pinot Noir. Those went into his other Chateau Frank productions. He had a brut that he proudly called Champagne—a tradition that we continue today.
|Chateau Frank Label|
Tim: He caught some flack for that didn’t he?
Fred: Some of the big sparkling wine producers in California are French owned and in deference to France they do not call their sparkling wine champagne. The last one out there to call their sparkling wine champagne was Schramsberg, but a few years ago when the son took over they switched the label from champagne to sparkling wine.
Tim: So you are the only ones left in the US who will call their sparkling wine champagne?
Fred: Yes, the only producer in the US. Willy had a saying that if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck you call it a duck. That was his analogy for why he should be able to call his sparkling wine champagne. He felt it had become a generic term in the US just like Jello or Band Aid or Kleenex tissues. That is why he continued to call it champagne. In the Brut Cuvée they had the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier; the same as grape varieties as French champagne. He also produced a Blanc de Blancs that was primarily Chardonnay with a little Pinot Blanc and a Blanc de Noirs, which was primarily Pinot Noir. That rounded out the labels that Chateau Frank produced. He wanted to lay the wines down in tirage for several years prior to release to develop that yeasty complexity found in méthod champenoise. So we have continued that tradition so the vintages are more complex because they have lain down for several years.
The current brut is a 2000 and the Blanc de Blancs is a ’99 for example. Basically, they have the same aging as true champagne might. Also, the cellars go very deep into the earth providing the year round cool temperatures that you might find in a champagne cave in the limestone hills. Instead you have cool cellars in the deep bedrock of the Finger Lakes. The sort of aging was similar, the grape varieties were similar, and the cool climate was similar; so the end result in many cases was sparkling wines that would fool experts into thinking they were fine French champagnes but were in fact from the Finger Lakes of New York. He was always very proud of that.
Willy worked very hard to develop the production facilities as well as the marketing of Chateau Frank. And at the same time he was also Chairman of Dr. Frank’s winery where he spent more time on the marketing and sales end helping to legitimize Finger Lakes’ wines, improve their credibility and expand their markets beyond upstate New York to New York city and to other states. We now have distribution to over 30 states and many of those new states Willy opened up.
I joined the winery in ’93. At that time Willy was ill in the hospital, and he said, “You have to come up and take over.” After I left the company I was with, Banfi Vintners, which is a large wine company, primarily an importer, he got better and we worked together for the last thirteen years. He was the Chairman and I was the President of Dr Frank’s. He handled more the sales and marketing, and I handled more of the general management.
So we worked together and tried not to get into each other’s hair too often. Although, we did cross over once in a while. For example, I helped open up several new states. Because of my prior experience in sales with Banfi Vintners, I had developed a number of relationships in different parts of the country, and later I was able to call upon those relationships to expand the distribution for Dr. Frank’s winery.
Tim: Where is Banfi located?
Fred: Banfi is an American owned wine importer and producer located on Long Island in Old Brookville, NY. I graduated from Cornell University in 1979, and I immediately got a job with them in sales. In the first six months they sent me all over the country, wherever they had trouble with sales and they needed extra help. That was my training process…on the job so to speak. It was really an amazing contrast for me going from an ivory tower environment to the streets of Chicago selling Riunite to bulletproof stores. It was an eye opening experience. I really gained a lot from it and matured a lot. It was my dad’s intention that I get experience elsewhere, and not just rejoin the family winery after college. I got new experiences that later I could bring to the family winery and improve things. Willy had this European saying that went, “you should learn to shave on another man’s beard.” What that meant is you should get experience elsewhere before you rejoin the family business.
So that’s what I did. I started with them right out of college in sales. Six months later they gave me a sales management position in New England, and I did that for two years, but I had a yearning to get back into production. So, I left Banfi and left sales and went to Germany, Geisenheim, which is a famous wine making and viticultural school. I speak fluent German, so that wasn’t a problem for me. Also, the director there, Dr. Helmut Becker, was a personal friend of my grandfather. So he arranged for me to be a guest student there even though I was an American. This allowed me to meet many nice European winemakers and visit their families on their estates on the weekends. And take the classes during the week. When I finished my studies there I got an offer from Banfi in a production capacity as Managing Director of their new Long Island vineyard operation. So I took that position and developed the vineyards that surround their corporate headquarters in Old Brookville.
|Willy and Fred at Dr. Frank's|
I planted primarily Chardonnay, about 60 acres of Chardonnay and some other varieties as well, and I did that for 10 years, until my dad became ill in ’93. I came up and became President of Dr. Frank’s winery. Willy recovered and worked as Chairman. We worked together for 13 years trying to divide our responsibilities as best we could. I enjoyed very much working with him and learning from him almost as a mentor. His strengths were more in sales and marketing. He just had this wonderful way of connecting with people. He was very likeable.
Tim: He was a real natural.
Fred: Yes, he was believable; he had this presence that when he was in a room people would flock to him. He was at his best doing wine dinners and wine tastings and he would always have the largest group when he was in a situation like that. Other winery suppliers would often be scratching their heads wondering why everyone was around Willy Frank’s booth. He just had this natural aura about him that was very likeable and very credible. He did a lot for us and for the Finger Lakes. He became not only a spokes person for Dr. Frank’s but a spokesperson for the Finger Lakes and New York wines.
Tim: Did Willy also have a hand in distributing vinifera around New York and even into other parts of New England. ?
Fred: Well, his father had started a nursery where he was grafting the European vines onto American rootstock, and we continue that nursery to the present day. However, it had its greatest impact in the early years with Dr. Frank in the early 60s. At that point his was the only winery on the East Coast producing vinifera wines. And for some varieties he was the first, for example Pinot Gris. We have the very first commercial bottling of Piont Gris in the whole country. Willy continued the nursery as we do. It had its biggest impact in the early years because there was no other nursery on the East Coast for vinifera. His early followers, he called them his cooperators, became pioneers in the neighboring eastern states. So, if you trace the development of eastern premium wines, invariably they reach back to Dr. Frank. The early pioneers included Doug Moorhead in Pennsylvania, in Virginia it was Elizabeth Ferness, on Long Island it was Al Hargrave, in Massachusetts it was George Matheson. Dr. Frank at the early stage had a great impact with the nursery because basically he was the only source of both nursery stock and advice. And then in the later years there were more nurseries developed. Herman Weimer had a nursery, Herman Hamburg had a nursery. So there was more competition and more sources of grafted vines, both from the East Coast and California. Willy did keep the nursery business going. At that point we were just a nursery not the only vinifera nursery on the East Coast. We have kept that nursery going to this day. Now we sell primarily to growers who then sell us the vinifera grapes from the clones that we sold them. But we also sell to non-growers who are out of state.
Tim: I am in Massachusetts, and I know that Westport Rivers Winery in Massachusetts got its clones from Willy.
Fred: Oh yes, actually the vineyard manager at Westport Rivers Winery worked for me for a year when I was vineyard manager at Banfi, where he learned vineyard management. We know the Russel Family very well. And yes they did buy many of their vines from us.
Tim: As far as Chateau Frank is concerned, are you planning to continue with the same line of wines?
Fred: Yes, we plan to continue with the same lineup of wines, and it remains a separate winery with separate winery license, separate holdings and separate vineyards. Chateau Frank is not open to the public; it is only a production facility, and the champagnes are actually sold at Dr. Frank’s in the tasting room and through the same distributors as Dr. Franks.
Tim: As you have described, Willy worked very hard to develop his champagnes. Do you recall what were some of his model champagnes that he thought were great?
Fred: I know that he was fans of many different champagne styles. He did not want to copy any particular one. Obviously, we are a new world producer with different climate and soils, so he was not trying to imitate and particular style. He was though in awe of the French tradition of the great champagne makers and loved often to taste them and compare them. He wasn’t trying to do a cookie cutter imitation of them. He realized that we have different conditions here, but he had the French champagnes on a pedestal. Willy always aspired to produce a champagne of great quality that was as good if not better than the French. In blind tastings, sometimes Chateau Frank champagnes would outscore some of the great French champagnes in various competitions. His wines won many gold medals and were served at the White House and the governor’s mansion. They were featured even on Regis and Cathy Lee’s show. Willy really insisted on the highest quality. There were even some vintages that he did not produce sparking wine because the conditions were not right, and he would sell the grapes off to other wineries to be made into still wine for table wine. He was very careful with the quality keeping the yields down in the vineyards.
Tim: As we wind down our discussion, do you have off the top of your head any anecdote that you would like people to remember Willy by?
Fred: Certainly his duck story is memorable. Working with him side by side, Willy was a real stickler for quality almost fanatical about quality: keeping yields low, taking great care of the vineyard, hiring the best winemaking talent we could find. That would be something to remember him by.
Tim: Thank you again for taking time to speak with me. It has been a pleasure.Fred: Thank you.