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This 60-year-old winery changed the way America grew grapes

Dr. Konstantin Frank Rkatsiteli 2021. (Rey Lopez for The Washington Post)
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Two months ago, I wrote about the “Class of 1972,” wineries that either were founded or released their first vintage that year and went on to have a prominent impact in California wine. This year marks an important viticultural milestone in the East as well, as the 60th anniversary of the founding of Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. That’s a not-so-subtle reminder that the story of American wine has its deepest roots on the East Coast.

I also mentioned Konstantin Frank in a piece on the growing popularity of the Georgian grape variety saperavi, which he introduced to the United States in the late 1950s. Saperavi was a small part of the legacy Frank is most known for: Convincing viticulturists in Upstate New York that European vinifera grape varieties could survive the region’s cold winters, and they needn’t rely on American labrusca grapes or French-American hybrids.

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Frank, of German heritage, was born in 1899 in Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire. He worked in agriculture and viticulture at the Polytechnic Institute of Odessa in the 1920s and 1930s under Stalin’s Soviet Union, helping to restore vineyards decimated by successive wars. He became a refugee toward the end of World War II and settled in the Finger Lakes area in the early 1950s. Since English was not one of the nine languages he spoke, he took a menial job at the Geneva agricultural station. But he could converse with Charles Fournier, a Frenchman from Champagne who had been making sparkling wine at Gold Seal Vineyards since the 1930s using French-American hybrid grapes. Fournier hired Frank, and together they imported and planted vinifera varieties. By the early 1960s, just as Frank was striking out with his own winery, Gold Seal was producing well-regarded chardonnay and riesling.

Frank was proved right, and today vinifera is grown successfully not just in New York but all along the East Coast. He mentored and supported a group of vintners he called his “cooperators,” who became pioneers in their own states. Remembered today primarily by wine lovers of a certain age, they included G. Hamilton Mowbray of Montbray Wine Cellars in Maryland, Elizabeth Furness of Piedmont Vineyards in Virginia, Doug Morehead of Presque Isle Wine Cellars in Pennsylvania, and Arnie Esterer of Markko Vineyard in Ohio.

Frank also helped build consumer awareness of wine. In 1967, he helped establish the American Wine Society, which today is the largest consumer wine group in the country. Six years later, he co-founded the Vinifera Wine Growers Association. Now called the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association, the group continues to hold an annual competition to promote the wines of the East Coast.

Frank’s campaign for vinifera was not without controversy. He was harshly critical of hybrid varieties, which were championed by Philip Wagner of Maryland’s Boordy Vineyards as the best grapes for quality wine in the East. He repeated unsubstantiated claims made in Europe that hybrids were toxic. The vinifera versus hybrid question became a politically divisive debate rather than a collaborative discussion of which grapes grow best where.

Ironically, concern about the environment and climate change is leading today’s viticulturists to take a second look at hybrid and native varieties. Those grapes are more disease resistant and require fewer chemicals in the vineyard than the European varieties. Vinifera won’t be going away any time soon, but hybrids should gain increased acceptance among winemakers and consumers.

Konstantin Frank died in 1985. His son Willy took the reins and transformed the winery from an artisan tinkerer’s laboratory to a thriving business, focusing on the vinifera grape varieties that were most commercially viable. Today, the winery is helmed by Willy’s son, Fred, and Fred’s daughter, Meaghan, the third and fourth generations of a New York wine institution.

Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery has not just been a pioneer in the Finger Lakes, it has mentored several winemakers who worked there and moved on to become leaders in the region. Those include Peter Bell of Fox Run (now retiring), Johannes Reinhardt of Kemmeter, Morton Hallgren of Ravines, Sebastian Leseurre of Domaine Leseurre and Peter Weis of Weis Vineyards.

One of the world’s oldest wine grapes is poised to take off in America

On a recent trip to Hammondsport, I visited with Fred Frank on the porch of Chateau Frank, an old farmhouse a stone’s throw from the main winery on the western shore of Keuka Lake. Willy had purchased this facility in the 1980s to make sparkling wines. As we tasted through several outstanding wines and discussed his grandfather’s legacy, I asked Fred what excited him about the region’s future. His answer surprised me.

“There’s a lot of premium sparkling wine in the pipeline,” he said as he poured me some 2019 Riesling Nature bubbly. “Our climate is closer to Champagne’s than California’s is.”

My mind flashed back nearly seven decades to when a Frenchman from Champagne making sparkling wine in Upstate New York struck up a conversation with a Ukrainian refugee and sparked a revolution in winemaking throughout the Eastern United States.

“Ultimately, down the road, sparkling wine will become the next big buzz for the Finger Lakes,” Frank said.