Rich History and a Star in Wine
Frank Family Vineyards
Sensing the history was a bit deeper than I knew of the winery located on Larkmead Lane I began a little digging. Frank Family Vineyards is the third oldest wineries in the Napa Valley region circa 1884. Larkmead Lane, in Calistoga, it has a prominent place in the history books as the land was once owned by a wealthy San Francisco woman, Lillie Hitchcock Coit. The Coit Tower was named in her honor. She purchased the winery and the stone building with two foot thick walls that still stands on the property today.
“This to me is rural America. It’s still Friday Night Lights.”
Rich Frank, Frank Family Vineyards
The winery and the land surrounding Frank Family Vineyards was later bought by the Solari family in 1948. Part of the winery was sold in 1958 to a German-born Frenchman, Hanns Kornell. Kornell had a pedigreed winemaking background. His studies took him to the esteemed Geisenheim Enological Institute, founded in 1872. He later spent time making wine in Champagne, France and would one day open his own winery. One that made California “champagne” in the traditional method. The venture failed in 1991, which opened a door for Rich Frank.
I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have found this place.
Frank Family Vineyard’s modern-day existence evolved almost by accident. It was the 1990’s and Rich Frank was in the midst of his 10-year leadership gig as President of Disney Studios. He was looking for a place to escape the 24/7 days of work when a rare three day weekend might arise. His life in LA was demanding. Finding a place close enough to commute to where he could relax and decompress was key. Napa was calling.
Napa Valley only makes 4% of the wine in California. What happens to one of us happens to all of us.
After a few years of traveling to Napa, an opportunity was presented to him by his friend Koerner Rombauer. Yes, that Rombauer. There was a Tudor home on a vineyard for sale in Rutherford. Rutherford is today one of the most esteemed and respected AVA‘s in the Valley. The views were stunning, the home was modest. He was taken with the location and the panoramic view. The 10 acres of vineyards that were planted on the 107-acre property were intriguing, but not the reason for the buying. He decided this would be the perfect location for his Napa getaway.
Then the call came. It was not the news he’d hoped to hear. Another more attractive offer was accepted. It was not to be his. Time passed and he couldn’t get the home out of his mind. Thinking about what was lost. The view, the property, even the vineyards. But it was not to be.
In retrospect, that’s what made Napa Valley great.
Four months had come and gone and Rich could still not shake the feeling he had lost something significant. The Tudor remained in the back of his mind. Late one night, an unexpected call came notifying him the deal on the Rutherford property had just fallen out of escrow. This time he was not going to lose it.
The land and the vineyards would be called Winston Hill after his cherished Spanish Springer. The fruit this first vineyard turned out would be sold to eager vintners on other properties. Rich recognized the opportunity. His fruit was in high demand and there was a reason for it. The volcanic and sandstone soils provide the perfect drainage for this fruit along with the steeply terraced vineyards. The vineyards are strategically positioned to capture the sun of the south and take in the gentle breezes that cool the hillside. Reaching almost 500 foot in elevation, it’s a great recipe for outstanding wine.
Phylloxera hit Napa Valley in the early 90’s. They had to plant new vines because the Phylloxera was eating away at the roots.
“In retrospect, that’s what made Napa Valley great,” Rich said. Everyone had to replant. Which really helped Napa turn the corner in vineyard farming. Vines planted by the old Italian and German farmers didn’t always thrive.” The immigrants planted where they landed. Not a lot of focus was given to weather and terroir in the early days of wine in Napa Valley.
“Up valley (towards Calistoga) where there is heat you want to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Syrah but there was also Chardonnay mixed in. Down valley, in Carneros (which wasn’t even a real region at the time) it was cool and foggy. There were red grapes growing down there. We were smart enough at the time to say if I have to pull this out, let me look at my neighbors to and see what is growing best. So the valley got reoriented over 5-6 years as people pulled out the phylloxera infested vines replanted. So now in the valley, everything is where it should be.” Rich explained.
“It’s different here. People care about each other. I think it started because our vineyards are all right next to each other, separated by a wire fence in most cases. That bug who is going to hurt my crop doesn’t know where the fence line is. Everybody has learned to cooperate with each other. People share information. If you see something amiss you are going to share it right away. It’s not a secret organization. Everything is out in the open. It’s a fun place to be. It’s also a place everyone wants to visit.” Rich Frank on why Napa farmers and vintners work so well together.
I asked Rich when he was first bitten by the wine bug, was it a person, a place or a particular wine that turned him into a wine lover? He had this to say, “I think my real first exposure to good wines was when I was President of Paramount Television and I would travel all over the world trying to sell our shows to international television networks. When I’d get there we would go out to dinner. They wanted to show off and wanted to buy Paramount shows. So they were very nice to me. With every dinner, we’d have a great bottle of wine. Which they were picking and I got to drink. In those days we didn’t have all the cameras on the phones so I made it a point of asking the Sommelier if I liked the wine to please soak the label and give me the label. When I went back home I would buy a couple of more bottles and I put one in my library and one I would taste again. I just started really enjoying wines. I enjoyed most in Europe was the Bordeaux as opposed to the Burgundy (Bourgogne) which sort of built my palate for the Cabernet Sauvignon and the grapes we grow up here.”
On Napa Valley and what makes this valley great, Rich said, “We are a microcosm of America today. We have many many immigrants here. We couldn’t run the farming and wine business without them. We realized what the Napa Valley Wine Auction would do for people here. We raised $15-16 million a year. All of that money goes to take care of issues and needs in the valley (from education to community health and beyond). People care about each other up here.”
Unless you’ve been stranded on a remote island somewhere in Antartica, you have likely seen it. On a restaurant wine list or in a wine store. Frank Family wine brand, but there are a few of their wines that will not cross your path at least organically. The most promising grapes are saved for smaller productions of specialty higher priced wines, as is the case with some of the best in Napa Valley wine. The reason? Small lot production, wildly delicious tastes, and highly prized fruit. When you talk about 500 or 600 cases of wine, it goes quite quickly.
The Patriarch and Lady Edythe
On my first visit to the winery, I learned the story of the Edythe and Hy Frank, the parents of Rich Frank and the inspiration behind two of his favorite wines.
Edythe and Hy Frank met on a blind date with friends. After the date when Hy was going to walk Edythe to her home. He asked where she lived and learned her and her family lived not only on the on the same street, but in the same apartment building and on the exact same floor as Hy Frank. Some call that fate.
Rich always had a special connection with his Dad. He was a first-generation American, from Lithuania/Poland. They settled in Brooklyn where his father went part-time to college and began in the meat packing business. World War II broke out when Rich was just a year old. His father enlisted in the Army. When I first heard him speak about his father and the wine devoted to him, a single tear fell from his eye. At that moment I was utterly moved. But I didn’t understand the dramatic part of history Hy’s Army adventure had played.
It was World War II. Hy Frank spent four long days and nights in the English Channel and eventually landed on Omaha Beach. He drove trucks with the oil for Patton’s tanks, lived through the Battle of the Bulge. Eventually, he returned to the US and became business partners with his best friend Gus. Hy would put Rich through University with the help of that venture. The first child of the family to go to University. The sacrifices his father made had a profound impact on Rich Frank.
He began to work on a symbol of his love, honor and dedication to his father. One that would take the most outstanding fruit of the best vintages of the estate. Patriarch which would be the ultimate homage to a man who had sacrificed so much for his family. He began the process in 2009, but the vintage wasn’t quite good enough. He tried 2010, then 2011 all leaving just a little bit to be desired and none as great as what his father deserved. Then 2012, came along and he told Todd, his winemaker, this is the one!
2012 then hit a trifecta of sorts. The bottles weren’t even labeled yet, but Robert Parker Jr. had gotten his hands on a bottle and said it was the wine of the 2012 vintage and rated Patriarch at a stunning 98 points. It was an omen of sorts. It was also his father’s 98 year. So on the day of his father’s birthday, the family gathered in Brentwood to honor him. Rich presented the 2012 Patriarch to him. It was a magical moment. The next day after his party, Rich’s Dad phoned him and said he needed eight three-packs of the Patriarch. Rich said, “I know you like wine Dad, but you don’t drink that much.” Hy said, “I know. I want to give them to my doctors and thank them for keeping me alive this long.”
The packaging is unique for each as well. For his father, they wanted to tip a hat to the meat packing business he was in. There is a circle on the front of the label that says “Prime” and in the back of the label, it shows a meat cleaver.
This story wouldn’t be complete without a nod to dear old Gus, Hy’s best friend & business partner since the beginning. Gus had passed 30 years prior. Gus, was German so he couldn’t go to war with Hy. It was up to him to keep the fires on the homefront warm while Hy was away. The importance of this friendship is reflected on the back label of Patriarch. Hy insisted his friend be mentioned there. It didn’t matter that Gus had no family to read it, it was a symbol of honor and thanks to his dear friend.
“There’s nothing wrong with the big guys BUT, you start to get a homogenization of what they’re making because one or two winemakers are making the whole array of wine. At the end of the day, our name is on the bottle. Our brand is our name. If I learned anything at Disney over 10 years it was you can never mess with the name.” Rich Frank on the quality aspects of artisanal wine and family-owned vineyards.
Today Frank Family Vineyards has 380 acres of estate vineyards and was recently awarded “Winery of the Year” for a second time by Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine.
1091 Larkmead Lane
Calistoga, CA 94515