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A winemaking region comes to life

Konstantin Frank changed the course of New York wines

periodiCALS, Vol. 7, Issue 2, 2017

Konstantin Frank uses a hydrometer to measure the progress of a fermentation in the 1960s. Photo provided by Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery.

In 1940s Ukraine, Konstantin Frank was a highly regarded scientist and viticulturist. But as it did for so many, World War II changed everything. He fled with his family, arriving on Ellis Island in 1951. 

Frank spoke nine languages, but English was not one of them, so when he called and then showed up at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva to ask for a job, the only work he could get was janitorial and hoeing blueberries. 

Still, the position allowed him to begin meeting players in New York’s wine industry. At the time, everyone was growing native grapes or French-American hybrids. Frank considered these inferior, and had a theory of how to grow true European Vitis Vinifera in the Finger Lakes. He was met with skepticism—everyone believed New York was too cold for vinifera. But having successfully grown the grapes in frigid Ukraine, the vintner knew that wasn’t the issue.

The problem was phylloxera—a pest that feeds on the roots of vinifera, stunting vine growth. Frank had seen it in Europe and knew the solution: American rootstock, with European vines grafted on top. 

In 1962, Frank founded his own winery in the Finger Lakes, successfully growing vinifera varieties that shocked, then overtook, the New York wine industry. He is widely credited with raising the quality and profile of New York wines, and his family has continued that legacy of experimentation. 

Meaghan Frank

Meaghan Frank ’11, MPS ‘15 is the winery’s general manager, and the fourth generation of Franks in the business. She credits Cornell with providing research, outreach and teaching that help the winery at almost every level: cooperative extension newsletters with information about sugar content and fruit maturity; formal degree programs and business conferences that have trained many of the winery’s 50 employees; and relationships that help raise the status and the excellence of the wine industry in the entire region.

“There are a lot of people that are doing really neat things in the Finger Lakes region, and Cornell CALS has been an essential part of the growth,” she said. “So we’re among very good company.”

Pruning vines with his grandson Fred Frank '79 in 1971. Photo provided by Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery.

 

Grapes in the vineyard today. Photo by Stu Gallagher.