Vol. 1, No. 27…the long road to New York

One of the reasons it has taken so long to write up the wineries in the trip was my visit to Dr. Konstantin Frank winery. I was given an information kit containing a biography of Dr. Frank, and it has altered how I want to cover the New York wineries I visited.

Before we get to that, in driving from Minneapolis to New York, we went through, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. I saw a few winery signs along the way but most made fruit wines or didn’t use vitis vinifera grapes and that causes me to lose interest. I may take another trip however to visit select wineries known for producing quality wines.

Not that there is anything wrong with the Marquette grape, developed by the University of Minnesota in 2004 and they explain it this way “is a cousin of Frontenac and a grandson of Pinot Noir” by crossing v.riparia grapes and others creating a complex hybrid that endures cold weather well and can fend off dampness and mold.

I have had several Marquette wines and found them quite tasty if well-made. The problem is the costs of small production wineries which can cause the prices to be high relative to some widely-recognized varietals. Some of the experimenters here though are following the steps of Dr. Frank and planting vinifera grapes like riesling, which is a good start.

Dr. Frank was born in Germany and grew up in the Ukraine, before the Russian Revolution. His history parallels that of the great Andre Teleschieff who made the famous B.V. cabernets of the late 60’s thru the 80’s. He visited Dr. Frank and they exchanged ideas. Had Dr. Frank been in Napa Valley, I am sure his name would be as recognizable to oenophiles as his counterparts. The Doctor was so enthusiastic on vinifera grapes that he advised many vineyard owners in order to spread the word.

Dr. Frank emigrated to the United States after WWII and with his doctorate in agriculture specializing in wines tried to get work at the New York State Experimental Station. His was an uphill battle being an outsider, having a Russian-German accent, and wanting to convert the New York vineyards from Concord, and Catawba grapes to the European varietals. They were convinced, without ever having tried it, that those grapes would not grow in New York. He set out to prove them wrong, and even though he was correct, they didn’t want to acknowledge his success.

Besides, the native grapes were French-American hybrids, which Dr. Frank loathed.He even believed that they could cause disease and although that theory was disproved he continued to rail against them for the remainder of his life. The term French-American is a misnomer in itself, as at the time it involved using inferior grapes, many from Algeria, another reason for his disapproval.

I have been to many  vineyards and wineries in the U.S. and Europe, but can’t think of any other setting that is a beautiful as the Konstantin Frank winery is. It is not far from Ithaca and Cooperstown (a must stop if in the area at the Baseball Hall of Fame), and just outside Hammondsport. The area was known for mainly two things: Welch’s grape juice – Welch was a teetotaler – is still the largest user of grapes in New York state and that is why, despite all the improvements, there are still more concord grapes than all the others combined.  By the way, concord grapes don’t have enough sugar to make wine, the alcohol would be too low. Welch’s adds sugar to get a palatable drink.

After spending a Sunday afternoon at the winery, I was captivated. Rare for me, and since there would be no ‘real’ wine industry without the exhausting efforts of Dr. Frank, I reversed the order I visited in so following the Finger Lakes will be the Hudson Valley and last Long Island (both North and South Shore). That will be in the next issue, followed by Canadian wineries, hopefully getting it all in before Christmas.

Hammondsport is at the foot of Lake Keuka, one of the Finger Lakes, so named because the resemble the fingers of a hand – alhough there are more than five. The other two significant to the wine industry are Canandaigua, and Seneca where Watkins Glen sits at it’s foot. Lake Keuka has high cliffs and it on the westerly side where the Frank winery is located on sloping lands which provide great drainage, a ‘bench’ if you will.

The soils of Keuka and Seneca are much different, the latter loamy and imparting a different flavor to the wine. The Frank’s have one vineyard there to produce a second riesling and while both are dry, the difference is apparent.

I tasted the entire line of their wines, from the sparklers (all made in the traditional French manner – methode champenoise), three brut’s and a blanc de noirs under the Chateau Frank label and a two Chateau Frank Celebre’s, a brut and a rosé, then on to the whites, and finally the reds. My server-guide was Meaghan Frank, granddaughter of the doctor. I enjoyed all the wines but would like to point out a few standouts:

Rkatsiteli: a wonderful grape from Georgia, near the Ukraine where Dr. Frank did his early work. It can be high in acid so it is harvested late so the sugars can form and reduce the acidity. I have only seen it at one other winery: Concannon, in the Livermore Valley of California. Due to the difficulty selling it because of the name I believe they gave up on it.

Saperavi: a red grape, also called the Black Russian, is also from Georgia, and becoming more widely recognized. It is primarily used as a blending grape. I verified that Dr. Frank brought in this grape, and with the help of another Finger Lakes winery, Standing Stone it was classified as a grape.

Their rieslings were wonderful, dry, with a clean finish. The winery has several winemakers, each responsible for and hired for their specialty, which I believe is why the entire lineup is so consistently good.

I forgot to mention their ice wine and even more interesting their 2013 Late Harvest Chardonnay and Riesling at 18% and 12% residual sugar! Full bodies but not cloying. Excellent wines.

When we left, we were hungry and Meaghan recommended a restaurant just down the road at Bully Hill, which was began by Walter Taylor, of the Taylor Family winery, which produced wines until it was sold to Coca-Cola. Predictably, Coke, like so many corporations did not understand the wine business and it went into bankruptcy three years later.

The restaurant was excellent, paid their employees a living wage so no tipping, and the manager was at the cash register to hear customer comments. So much for the theory that you won’t get good service if tips are involved. Think about it: when do you leave a tip? At the end of the meal! The server has no idea whether you are generous or might stiff them.

I  also visited another winery specializing in German wines over on Lake Seneca, J. Weimer, which produces some excellent German wines, especially a Dry Riesling. These wines were well-made and the winery was very nice, albeit without the view from the Frank winery.

Lastly, on a recommendation from a friend, we visited Ravines Wine Cellars on the other side of Lake Keuka and farther north. Their wines were also very good. I particularly enjoyed the reds, something I hadn’t expected from what I read about New York wines. If you keep an open mind, you will be surprised at the quality as I was.


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