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Frank Family Vineyards – In the King’s Court

January 27, 2011 Fifty-Two Weeks, Napa County 1 Comment

I had a chip on my shoulder. I had a bad attitude. I walked alleyways and vineyards muttering the same four-letter word: Napa! Napa! NAPA!

You can’t pursue wine, particularly domestic wine, without tripping over praise and loathing for the juggernaut that is Napa. Like it or not, Napa is the very heart of American wine. Everything flows through Napa. American wine is relevant in the world, because of Napa.

But it wasn’t for me. Accepting Napa as a Lord of the Wines wasn’t my road, it wasn’t the way I was going. I like vineyards in the middle of nowhere and antique barns that house barrels instead of hay. I like it real, I like it gritty and I like it raw. I hate tour buses, I don’t pay $50 to taste, and I don’t buy drunken cases of wine. In other words: I DON’T DO NAPA!

But that was before.

So I don’t overly offend, let me clarify my ranting and musing with this: Napa Valley is a wonderfully beautiful place that produces some of the finest wines anywhere. I cannot and will not dispute this. But Napa is often presented with its entire natural and unnatural splendor as a bit over the top and a bit disingenuous. So, with an almost beatnik hippie mantra I thought, “purists stay away from Napa.” And so I relegated Napa to some dark corner of my consciousness like a Moloch of greed and arrogance. After all, had men not broken their backs lifting Napa to heaven?

Before I get on another tangent channeling Ginsberg (see “Critic”), I should tell you how my eyes came to be opened and how I came to appreciate Napa the Great.

Last early December I found myself driving up highway 128. The mid-morning weather was crisp and wispy white clouds hung over the pine crowned hills in the distance. The well endowed properties I now passed were in stark contrast to the black berry thickets and ancient apple orchards the Anderson Valley presented the day before. This was California wine country at its grandest. I was entering the belly of Moloch to fight with my own preconceived ideas.

The geography of the valley cannot be described as anything other than bucolic. In the overwhelming beauty of Northern California, Napa Valley is a gem. As I sped through a long tunnel of oak trees just outside of Calistoga I had to admit: this is everything enchanting about wine.

My destination was Frank Family Vineyards. With a glass of Champagne in hand, I set off with winemaker Todd Graff for a tour of the impressive stone property. Little did he know, he bore the responsibility of convincing me to love both his wines and the valley he has dedicated himself to.

ALP: How did you get involved with wine?

TG: “I grew up in Sonoma County and even though my family wasn’t involved in the industry it was an outlier out there, so I was exposed to it. When it was time to go to college I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to stay in Northern California. I wanted a blend of; I want to be outside when I want to be outside, I don’t want to be digging ditches in the winter, but I don’t mind driving a tractor in the summer. I might want a desk and computer some day, but I don’t want to sit at one the whole day. And I knew I wanted to travel. I hadn’t been anywhere. My family took vacations in California, we went to the Sierras. I remember my parents letting me out of the station wagon just so I could touch Nevada. That was traveling for me!”

“So college came and I went to a local Jr. College and took an introductory course [to wine] and I thought, ‘you know, that kind of solves a lot of issues. I would be able to travel if I wanted to, I would be able to work indoors, outdoors, create something.’ So, I transferred to Davis and got a degree. The first person I interviewed with gave me a job and it happened to be Phelps and it happened to be in Napa, so I have been here ever since.”

“Since then I have traveled all over the World, I have lived in other Countries. So it turned out to be just great.”

After wondering the winery, we found our way back to the tasting room and to Dennis Zablosky’s office, Retail Manager for Frank Family Vineyards and a long time veteran of the Napa wine industry. Dennis is an impressive man, both in stature and personality. He doesn’t play the PC “high society” Napa games. He talks, he converses, he laughs, and he covers your mic when he doesn’t want you to print something (Sir, your stories are safe here). He’s a man of anecdotes and great quotes, i.e., when referring to the attitude of some Sommeliers he said: “you can lead a horse to water, but if it’s not Perrier, they won’t drink it.”

For the next hour, we sat in his office, drinking the beautiful wines Todd has labored over, and discussed the folly of getting hung up on what others say about wine and why the customer is King.

DZ: “Rich Frank, when he started with us…the first thing he told the winemaker was, ‘take it to the envelope and push it. If you screw up, we’ll sell it. But I want to push the envelope and I don’t want you making the wine you like, I want you making wine the public likes.’”

“Todd really has his own style; you aren’t going to find a bad wine in this line-up. I have been around a long time and most wineries have a great Chardonnay and their Cab is OK, or they have a great Sangiovese and their Zin sucks. These across the board, it’s just, which one do you want to buy? This is the only winery in Napa Valley that I know of that can put a dinner on and I can take you through Champagne with the oysters, Chardonnay with your salad, the Pinot Noir with what we are going to have, to a Zin, to a Sangiovese, to a Cab, and finish with a Port. I don’t know another Napa winery that can take you through a whole dinner with their own wines.”

A major flaw I had perceived in much of the endless chatter surrounding Napa was that everyone seemed to claim to make the best wines there. Not only was Napa said to be King, every producer seemed to consider themselves the King’s most loyal and trusted servant, the King’s confidante. It was an attitude I found lacking at Frank Family. Dennis explained the importance of being humble and recognizing the phenomenal wines everyone else is making as well. About this time Todd re-entered the conversation. “You still have to think you compete though,” he added.

DZ: “You still have to compete, but you don’t have to tell everyone you have the best wine in Napa Valley.”

TG: “We taste comparatively and blind all the time and we invite some other winemakers, guests, and friends to taste with us. So we are not blind, we are not house palating. For us, we don’t need to win, but we need to be in that top tier of the group. Our goal is to be able to compete with whoever is making the best. If you say, ‘who is making the best sparkling?’ I’ll put ours in. ‘Who’s making the best Chardonnay?’ I’ll put ours in. ‘Who’s making the best Cab?’ I’ll put ours in and we will not come in last.”

It’s a dedication to quality championed by the wineries namesake, Rich Frank. Rich made his career in entertainment serving as President of Walt Disney Studios in the mid nineties amongst other things. Years spent focused on pleasing the customer carried over into the very foundation of Frank Family Vineyards.

I recently spoke to Rich on the to find out why a guy as busy as him wanted the added stress of competing on one of the most high stakes wine markets on Earth and how they do it differently.

RF: “For years, when I was President at Disney I worked 24/7 and when I could get a free day away, Napa was always the place I went. Of course, what you do when you are up there is eat, drink and go see wineries. I was always very uncomfortable with the feeling of some of the big wineries, “sit down and tell us what Champagne you would like to taste and it’s $5 and we will bring it to your table.” Everyone was trying to make themselves more self-important than they were. Everyone was trying to say ‘no it’s not sweet it’s fruit, it’s not this it’s that.’ Whatever you said up there they tried to make you a little uncomfortable that they knew more than you.”

“Maybe it was my Disney background, but that wasn’t what [I thought it should be]. Make people feel comfortable and once they are comfortable then you can engage in an actual conversation. I thought that coming to a tasting room should be more than going to a bar; you should come away having a good time and learning something. So that’s how we really created the space. I also carried that into two things that I thought were important. One, was not to charge for tasting so that people didn’t feel like they were going to a bar and the second, when they walked in we handed them a glass of Champagne. So instead of saying, ‘oh good morning, give me $10,’ it was: ‘Hi, welcome, how about a glass of Champagne?’

ALP: With everything you had going on why take on the added stress of making wine?

RF: “I guess my answer to that is it’s not stressful, I love doing it. If you like what you are doing it’s never stressful…This started as a hobby, I mean I made 200 cases of wine my first year. I was in the entertainment business; I wanted a wine with my name on it so I could give to some friends at Christmas time. It just started growing slowly. We never had a meeting where we said ‘Gee guys, how are we going to sell this, we have a lot of Cabernet leftover.’ Every year it’s been a conversation of, ‘well can we get more next year, because we ran out in eight months.’ So we’ve built it in a way that I don’t believe it’s stressful, it’s fun. If you are up there on the weekend you will see me, I love hanging out with the people in the tasting room and pouring for them. It keeps me going. I believe you get old and you lose all of your tone and all of your being when you do retire and step out of it. So I am happy every one of my days is full.”

You hear it all the time, America is a young wine culture, and that it is. Out of all of the wineries I worked with in the past 52 weeks, maybe half were around 20 years ago. Even fewer have histories of 25 years or longer and only a couple are older than my 27 years.

American wine regions reflect this same lack of history, because the history is still in the making. Napa is different. For those of us who have not or cannot experience the old world charm of France, Napa offers us a chance to be a part of something large and impressive. In Napa, I am transported into a wine region rich in history, character, and charm. I can try to resist, this is Napa the Moloch after all, but I cannot. And so I lend my back to lift Napa to heaven.

At the heart of it all is Frank Family Vineyards. It isn’t an ancient European nostalgia they are selling; theirs is an American history, an American story. I loved the genuine craft Todd puts into his wines. I love the architectural history they have preserved in their structures. And I love that they respect the people who visit them.

So am I converted? Did I drink the Napa Kool-aid? Maybe. In just a few days I will revisit Napa and I find myself eager to do so. In part, because I will be doing this with a new wife and that certainly makes it special. But we are also excited just to be there, to be in the middle of something so impressive, so iconic.

I remain who I am. I still love the vineyard in the middle of oilfields, the winery built in a shed. I remain a fan of real people making real wines, whatever and wherever those might be. While you won’t see me with NAPA CABS tattooed across my knuckles anytime soon; you just might see me under an oak tree in Calistoga with a bottle of Cabernet and a smile.

Richard Frank! I’m with you in Napa

where you’re thirstier than I am

I’m with you in Napa

where you must live dreams

I’m with you in Napa

where you share the wines of history

I’m with you in Napa

where you’ve built a name in vintages

I’m with you in Napa

where you laugh at the perceived pretensions

I’m with you in Napa

where the vines grow as giants

I’m with you in Napa

where you must build trust in conversation

I’m with you in Napa

where the story still unfolds

I’m with you in Napa

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  1. [...] the best experiences of all of my travels, eating and drinking with winemakers and executives from Frank Family, Schramsberg, and others) and traversing the very steep slopes of Hidden Ridge would have [...]

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