Dr. Konstatin Frank: A Finger Lakes Winemaking Hero
I hadn't planned on writing a blog post on Dr. Konstatin Frank until I wrote The Illustrious History of Finger Lakes Winemaking. But once I heard about his story, about his humble beginning in America as a dishwasher (despite having been a professor of viniculture in the Ukraine) to his rise to prominence as a pioneer viniculturist in the Finger Lakes, I had to delve deeper.
Much like the vines he bred to last the long upstate New York winters, Dr. Frank was a survivor and someone who managed to flourish in the face of hard times. Born in Ukraine July 4th, 1899 (and very proud to born on America's Independence Day), Dr. Frank's father was an engineer who also kept a small vineyard. As a result, Frank learned how to tend to the vines and make wine from a very young age.
During the inopportune time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Frank was studying viticulture. In the conflict and famine that followed, several family members died, including two of Frank's brothers. Despite the hardships during this time, Frank was appointed to an associated professor position in 1924, and in 1926 was given a vineyard in the Ukraine to bring back to life after it had been ravaged by phylloxera (an aphid-like pest that feeds on grape vines and leaves).
Frank's solution to the phylloxera problem was a prelude to his success in growing grapes in the Finger Lakes: he experimented with the viticulture technique of grafting. Frank took Pinot Gris and Pinot Chardonnay vines and, simply put, secured the vines to the roots of hardier, phylloxera-resistant varieties. The two varieties grew together as the wood heals. The result is a Pinot Gris and Pinot Chardonnay flavor, respectively, but with a vine that's resistant to the pest and grows better in cold climates.
Frank was considered to be accomplished enough by this time to be awarded a doctorate, and in 1930, he achieved his Ph.D. in viniculture.
During World War II, when Germans invaded Ukraine and Russia, Frank, his wife, and their three children fled to Austria. To avoid detection, they hid behind a coal bin of a train. When Soviet troops eventually moved into Austria during the end of the War, Frank and his family evacuated again to Southern Germany occupied by the American army.
In 1951, Frank moved his family to New York City. Ironically, although he is estimated to have spoken seven to eight languages, he could not speak English. As a result, he worked as a dishwasher to support his family. When he saved enough money to buy a train ticket to Geneva, he moved his family again. There he started asking around Finger Lakes wineries for work, and was hired by the New York State Agricultural Station to do menial jobs in the nursery. Frank described it as "hoeing blueberries".
Despite his vast knowledge of viticulture and his demonstrated success at growing European varieties in freezing climates, no one listened to his assertions that Vinis vinifera could be grown in the Finger Lakes. At the time, French hybrids (a combination of hardier American and traditional French varieties) and Vinis labrusca were the varieties that winemakers relied upon. But Frank was insistent that vinifera could be grown in the cold climate. As he famously said, "Americans have everything else excellent and they deserve to have excellent grapes and excellent wines". Excellence, he believed, could only be conferred if American viticulturists planted vinifera, and only vinifera, varieties.
Eventually, someone did listen to him: the French winemaker, Charles Fournier, then the production manager of Gold Seal Vineyards. Fournier was visiting the station where Frank worked for a meeting, and because both men spoke a common language of French, they struck up a conversation. Frank told Fournier he could bring vinifera to America, and that he'd done it in the Ukraine for years. Fournier immediately hired Frank as a consultant for Gold Seal.
Frank knew he had to find roots that would harden the wood of the vinifera vines and accelerate the ripening of the grapes if he was to be successful. After five years and thousands of grafting attempts, he was able to produce a crop of Riesling and Pinot Chardonnay grapes.
Following this success, Frank eventually purchased his own land, ten years after arriving in the States. He was still employed at Gold Seal when he began to work the land, but was fired due to his priorities lying with his own vineyard. Frank didn't care. He said, "I left Gold Seal because it was sold to people who showed no interest in me or what I was doing. They were interested in money. They imported junk." The "junk" he was referring to were the French hybrids, which he insisted had to be replaced with vinifera, likely to his dying day.
The vintages he produced from his vineyard received many awards, one of which was served to Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Boston in 1976.
And thus began Dr. Konstantin Frank's vineyards, which remain a family business to this day, run by his grandson, Willy Frank.
Dr. Frank is a true testament to American ingenuity and resilience, and if you’ve ever tasted his vineyards’ Rieslings, you’ll agree with me when I say he’s a Finger Lakes gem for certain.
All information in this post was sourced from Chapter 3 of the book Wines of Eastern North America: From Prohibition to the Present—A History and Desk Reference by Hudson Cattell.
Image sources in order top to bottom: Dr. Konstantin Frank (from www.fingerlakeswinecountry.com), Phylloxera (from Wikipedia Commons), Grafting schematic (from Flickr), "Three Generations: Frederick, Willy and Konstantin Frank" (from www.drfrankwines.com)