If you know a single fact about the wine making history in The Finger Lakes area of New York state, then you know of Dr. Konstanin Frank. He relentlessly pursued his belief that Vinifera could grow there, against the better judgement of all who were considered experts on the area. An immigrant of German heritage, who lived mostly in the Ukraine, he had escaped the era of The Cold War, with his family in tow, to pursue the ever-alluring American Dream. This my friends, is a success story. It is complicated and fraught with taxing tales of a man so steadfast to his own convictions, that eventually he loses his edge. But he did it. He accomplished what he set out to do. In his 50's, when most people are thinking about retirement, cozy dinner holidays with grandchildren, warm and therapeutic vacations to Florida, Dr. Frank was just cranking up.
To be clear, this post is not about him. But you need the back story to have some context for the present day: Meaghan Frank. She is the great-granddaughter of Dr. Frank and current General Manager of Dr. Konstanin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport, New York. Given the male hierarchy of most family business models, she is an unlikely heir apparent, but that she is. She credits her dad, Fred Frank, who served as President of the family business for many years, taking it over from his father, Willy Frank, son of Konstanin. She said it was her dad Fred who noted her interest. She has a brother, and he was slated to be the next in this line of Frank family winery proprietors, but it was not to be. He just wasn't that into it. You cannot force these things. Meaghan took to it and she now represents the 4th generation.
I had the pleasure and privilege of making her acquaintance in August of 2015, when I attended the annual Wine Bloggers Conference in Corning, NY. Opening night, there she was, pouring some of the famous family juice. She was kind, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about her product. I quickly learned why! I felt instantly drawn to her, a calming and happy presence, openly discussing her business. I encountered Meaghan several more times over the 4 days of the conference, and by the end, felt like we were BFF's. She also spoke on a panel at the conference, in the company of Karen MacNeil, of The Wine Bible, and it is indeed a bible for oenophiles. During the panel, she intimated that her being ordained the next one, wasn't immediate. I wanted to know more about how that happened, about her choices, her daily regime and how she got here. She graciously granted me an interview, which we conducted over the phone.
She attended Cornell, as many in the area do, for her bachelors, unrelated to wine. She recalls sitting in a Wine Appreciation class, taken as an elective, a huge seminar class of 700 or so people, when an entire lecture was dedicated to her great-grandfather. That was when she put it all together. She recalls, "Everyone wants to think that their family is no different than others." That lecture made her realize what a pioneer Konstanin had been and how critical his contributions were. Realizing from whence she came, essentially the preeminent wine family of the area, she saw things differently. She began to get really interested. She was a newly minted legal drinker. Assumptions may be made about her growing up in a family winery, but with a mother who was the town judge, very strict rules were applied to the Frank household. The terminology though, and the language of wine was most familiar. Perhaps it took that missing piece of drinking it, to seal her fate.
Her father, Fred Frank, grandson to Konstanin, took notice in her newfound interest. He encouraged her to consider a new chapter: The Master Of Wine Business degree at The University of Adelaide in Australia. She took the leap and left the Finger Lakes for two years to see how they do wine down under. She gained an in-depth knowledge of the business of wine: retail distribution, market development, and sales. There was some viticulture thrown in. She worked at a winery in The Adelaide Hills. She became acquainted with other wine legacy families. She saw another industry in another country and she learned.
Upon her return to the Finger Lakes, she wanted to add another layer of education: Enology, Cornell style. This meant that her Dad had to quell his plans to pull back from the business while Meaghan finished her second wine-related Master's degree. He was amenable. She still worked for the winery during that time, just not full time, as she pursued her Masters in Enology. Some people consider that a full time gig, in and of itself, but Meaghan pushes limits. She graduated in January and did her research on YAN Variation in The Vineyard...er, come again? As I learned from her, YAN stands for yeast assimilable nitrogen and refers to an essential nutrient needed for winemaking. She was trying to find ways to better predict YAN levels in the vineyard, so they won't have to scramble doing so. She explained that this is a problem exacerbated in cool climate regions. I dare say that this research was a page out Konstanin's book, minus the big personality and habit of barraging people with letters just make a point. Meaghan is determined, to be sure, but her vision is different. She has made herself a professional and is leveraging a career in the family wine business, while still building upon the foundation bequeathed to her. She wants to keep the family business relevant and try new things. She is thinking about the next 50 years and being a good steward to the environment. But the driving force for her is simple, "to make my family proud".
Meaghan also wants to tell the story of the women in her family. The fact that Eugenia, wife of Konstanin, held power and influence. The family shares that it was Eugenia, especially in the later years, once Konstantin began to lose his taste, who tasted, made notes and advised him. It was Eugenia who was resilient and tough, that Meaghan got know as a young girl. As homage they have created a single vineyard Riesling named for her. There is a also one named for Margrit, her grandmother, still living, whom Meaghan describes as "selfless". These women have been a critical part of that foundation built for her, and she fully recognizes that.
I was curious, did she have any reservations about taking this on? She did. She said that she thought about a lot. It is a huge commitment to ask someone in their early 20's to dedicate their life to a family business in Hammondsport, New York, a town of 700 people. She knew what it meant for her and she had to weigh out her goals in life. She says, "I can't really go back from this." Her dad is her boss and she lives on the property of the winery. She knew she would be "married" to the business but clarifies that she is "married to my husband first". Yes, warm smile, she got married last year. She met her husband in Australia and he came back to the Finger Lakes with her. That must mitigate some of the "what if" questions. She feels very fulfilled by her choices and articulates a sense of it as "bigger than me". This woman has perspective.
The fun question was: what do you like to drink? Her response, "High acid whites", one of the trademarks of the Finger Lakes Region. She is open to everything though. She tries not to drink one thing and embraces a spirit of adventure and experimentation, which she applies to the vineyard as well. She reminds me, "There is so much we can try still! We can never rest. What are our limits? Where can we go?" If you take Meaghan Frank as an example, the possibilities are limitless.
*If you can't get enough Meaghan Frank (who can?!), then check-out my Wine Talk with her in the July issue of Wine Tourist Magazine here.