Rich Frank's Champagne Tastes
“If you want to make sparkling wine good you’ve really got to put your mind to it,” says Rich Frank, owner of Napa Valley’s Frank Family Vineyards and a man who has tackled a few complex productions in his career. His résumé as one of Hollywood’s long-running inside players, still unscrolling at age 70, includes nearly a decade as president of Walt Disney Studios, president of Paramount Television, and leading roles as a mover behind familiar titles, from Cheers, Home Improvement and Entertainment Tonight to Pretty Woman, Good Morning, Vietnam, and The Lion King.
But Frank Family Vineyards, the winery he bought—almost by accident—in 1991, is Frank’s auteur piece, his brainchild from beginning to end.
Though primarily known for its cabernet sauvignon, Frank Family is playing a key part in an under-the-radar development in American wine: The green shoots, here and there, of a movement to make artisan sparkling wines similar to the French farmer-made Champagnes that have become the darlings of international connoisseurs.
Exactly how similar these homegrown sparklers might be is a matter for debate. Frank Family winemaker Todd Graff puts it this way: “The grower-producers have gotten hot in Champagne, but we aren’t trying to copy them. I’d say we are trying to be equal with them.” But the French inspiration, right down to the maverick sense of being a surprising one-off, is evident in the idea.
Until a few years ago, the notion of a small Champagne grower bottling his own wine carried the iconoclastic shock of the runner heaving the sledgehammer at Big Brother in the famous Macintosh ad. In France, nearly all the Champagne is bottled by big houses—the Möet et Chandons, the Veuve Clicquots—that buy their grapes from thousands of independent growers. The Enshrined Idea is that the best Champagne is created by blending, blending, blending all those grapes, to evolve a house style that will be consistent across vintages. This is not a bad idea, as far as it goes: After all, Roederer Cristal tastes pretty darn good, bottle after bottle, with its own identifiable weight and complexity.
Image: David Arky for Forbes
But what if you, a grape farmer, felt that your own 4 hectares yielded strikingly particular wines, and it pained you to have their personality submerged in some grande marque’s blending tub? You might launch yourself onto the uncertain waters of the market under your own brand, like such ‘farmer fizz’ labels as Jacques Selosse, Egly-Ouriet and René Geoffroy. You might say, vive la difference! Let a thousand flavours bloom! Let the consumers figure this out if they can!
This was not exactly what Rich Frank had in mind in 1991 when Koerner Rombauer called him at home at midnight and said, “Let’s buy a winery!” Rombauer, a Napa vintner, was a good friend, so Frank was listening. The property in question was the well-known sparkling wine producer Kornell Champagne Cellars, which had fallen on hard times and was now in the hands of its bankers. Then things got urgent.
“It was a strange story,” Frank remembers. “A local bank had the foreclosure documents but was being bought by a national bank, and the national bank was not allowed to own a liquor licence. And, of course, they don’t tell the local bank what’s going on. So suddenly they have to sell this winery in 24 hours.” To appease Rombauer—and possibly to get back to sleep—Frank said, “Offer them half.”