Saturday, November 14, 2009

German Wine Makers in the World: Dr. Konstantin Frank (USA)

Dr. Konstantin Frank (1897-1985) was a viticulturist and wine maker in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, USA. He was born in Europe, in Odessa, now Ukraine into a Russian-German family. Dr. Konstantin Frank ignited the so-called vitis vinifera revolution, which changed the course of wine growing in the Finger Lakes and the North-East of the US.

Well, was Dr. Konstantin Frank a German and can he be included in the series of German wine makers in the World? He was born in the former Soviet Union into a family with German roots. The Germans came in waves from the West to Russia and settled there from the 16th century onwards. A big wave of German immigration occurred in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, who herself was a German from Anhalt. The Frank family belongs to the Black Sea Germans. They settled in the territories of the Black Sea in the 18th and 19th centuries in what is now Ukraine. At the time Konstantin Frank was born, Odessa belonged to the Russian Empire. When he left for the US, it was part of the Soviet Union. Now, after his death, it has become Ukraine. I met Dr. Konstantin Frank's grandson, Fred, who now owns and runs the estate this year; we communicated in German. Fred got his wine growing and wine making training at the wine college in Geisenheim in the Rheingau, Germany.

Dr. Konstantin Frank’s achievement is that he was the first to find a way to plant vitis vinifera varietals in the cool northern fringes of the north-eastern US. The struggle to do this goes back many centuries.

In the original charter of the thirteen colonies was a royal commission to pursue three luxury items that England was unable to provide for itself: wine, silk, and olive oil. Every colony made attempts to satisfy the requirements of its charter, but made only limited progress. The problem was that on the one hand there were the native American grapes. All these native American grapes were cold tolerant and disease and pest resistant, but not well suited for wine making, due to their coarseness, high tannins, and "foxy" flavors. On the other hand, the vitis vinifera which settlers brought from Europe, were well suited for wine making, but uniformly unable to survive long enough to produce a crop.

Despite many years of failure, the early Americans persisted in their efforts. And they had some success. First, they planted several different native varietals in the same vineyard and over time some natural mutations occurred; the results from some of these hybrids were far better than any of the unadulterated natives. A big step forward was made in 1740 when a natural cross pollination occurred between a native American grape and a European vitis vinifera. Other successful crossings followed.

Only native American grapes and hybrids were grown in the Finger Lakes area, when Dr. Konstantin Frank arrived in the United States in 1951, finding work at a Cornell University experimental station in the Finger Lakes region. Having grown vitis vinifera back home in regions so cold that "spit would freeze before touching the ground" Dr. Frank believed that the lack of proper rootstock, not the cold climate, was the reason for the failure of vitis vinifera in the Finger Lakes region. He thought that European grapes could do well on the rolling, well-drained hills around the Finger Lakes provided they were grafted onto early maturing American rootstock. He realized that the deep, narrow, glacial lakes had a warming influence, and that varieties with a short growing cycle like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as hardy, late-maturing grapes like Riesling could thrive in the area's unique terroir.

With the help of the French champagne maker Charles Fournier, Dr. Frank put his ideas into practice. He developed the right root stock and grafted European vitis vinifera on them. He planted these vitis vinifera in the slate soil around Lake Keuka and he opened a winery.

Dr. Frank founded Vinifera Wine Cellars in 1962 on Keuka Lake and began growing Pinot Noir grapes with great success. Despite his success, other winemakers still doubted him for many years and he had trouble getting New York distributors to handle his wine.

Today, Dr. Frank is recognized as having led the revolution in wine quality in New York State and the East Coast. Dr. Frank's example has spurred a genuine wine rush in the Finger Lakes region with scores of new wineries now dotting the region.

The Finger Lakes AVA in upstate New York encompasses seven glacial lakes, although the majority of plantings are around Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. Most vineyards are planted on hillsides overlooking the lakes. These deep lakes help to moderate the climate, as stored heat is released from the lakes during the winter, keeping the weather mild (relative to surrounding areas) and preventing early frosts. The reflection of the sun off the lakes during summer extends the growing season. This cool-climate region is often compared to the Mosel wine-growing region of Germany, and like that region, has had special success with Riesling.

With the help of his cousin Eric Volz as vineyard manager, Fred Frank, Konstantin's grandson took over leadership of the winery in 1993 and expanded production with the introduction of a value brand, Salmon Run. Fred’s business degree from Cornell University and his study of viticulture and enology in Germany helped prepare him to take over the family business. Under Fred’s leadership the winery’s production and amount of medals earned has increased greatly and he looks forward to one day turning over the reins to his son, Kyle Konstantin, who hopes to continue as the fourth generation of Franks at the winery.

This is part of the series German wine makers in the world:

Dr. Konstantin Frank, USA, November 14, 2009
Christian Woelffer and Roman Roth, USA, November 12, 2009
Robert Anton Schlumberger, Austria, November 7, 2009
Robert Stemmler, USA, November 3, 2009
Eduard Werle, France, October 29, 2009

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