Did you know that Frank Family Vineyards, famed for its chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, operates out of an old stone structure, built in 1884 as home to the original Larkmead Winery on Larkmead Lane? This place was once home to Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars, which is the genesis of our story.
A German immigrant who spent time at the Dachau concentration camp, Kornell was allowed, through the intervention of English diplomats, to leave his homeland after a year in captivity—as long as he did so within 48 hours. After working in England to gain passage to America, he boarded a ship, which was torpedoed by the Germans, but he was rescued and made it to New York City. With just $2 to his name, he hitchhiked to California. There, he worked at several wineries, eventually earning enough to purchase Larkmead Winery, which had been previously owned by Lillie Hitchcock Coit (for whom the landmark Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco is named).
Kornell introduced méthode champenoise to California in 1958 and quickly became known for his riesling-based sparkling, which was reminiscent of the Sekt produced in Germany. For decades, he valiantly produced champagne-style wines while everyone else was making sparkling in vats. And then came the French and Spanish invasion of the 1980s, with the big European houses (Taittinger, Chandon, Roederer, Gloria Ferrer) investing in California properties to expand their sparkling empires. Against this tide, Kornell could not compete; an overly ambitious, exceedingly expensive, and way-too-late overhaul of the winery caused Kornell to go bankrupt. He promptly lost the winery and eventually died penniless. Opportunity is a two-way street, though.
When Disney mogul Rich Frank purchased the property in 1992, he was captivated by the tales of Marilyn Monroe tripping into the winery back in the day to stock up on bubbles. Frank knew eventually, he would reintroduce a sparkling program. And then he met Todd Graff, who joined the Frank Family team in 2003, with 10 years of high-end sparkling wine experience at Schramsberg and Cordoniu (which later became Artesa).
From the beginning of his tenure, Graff set about establishing a California version of a “Grower Champagne” program at Frank Family, using century-old methods to craft single-vineyard wines entirely in-house. FFV currently produces about 4,000 cases of four distinct styles of sparklings: Blanc de Blancs, Brut Rosé, Rouge, and Lady Edythe Reserve Brut.
The sparkling grapes come from the Frank Family’s 86-acre Lewis Vineyard on California’s San Pablo Bay, an ideal spot for growing sparkling wines, where 58 acres are planted to chardonnay, and 10 acres to pinot noir. Each sparkling wine is truly handcrafted, and one person in particular, Ana Lopez, makes sure that each bottle is perfectly hand-riddled. Look at the bottom of any FFV sparkling, and you’ll see her signature marking.
At Spirited magazine, we love our bubbles, so we quizzed the talented Todd Graff about his special and especially delicious craft.
Spirited: What’s the trickiest part about making bubbles?
Todd Graff: There’s a lot of detail and finesse that goes into crafting sparkling wines. You must pay attention to the small details. The bottom line is that the secondary fermentation in the bottle is the trickiest part. At that time, you have however many bottles you make, and each is an individual fermentation. You have to balance that while striving for consistency and a complete fermentation.
What was the first sparkler you ever made and how did it turn out?
In 1990, I started as an assistant winemaker at Schramsberg, that same year they had started a venture with Portugal, so I was making sparkling wine both in Portugal and California. The first sparkling wine I ever made on my own happened to be in Portugal. It was a blend of codega, malvasia fina, and tourega francesa, and was awarded sparkling wine of the year in Portugal, so I would say we had great success.
How did you decide what sparklers to add to the Frank Family portfolio?
Frank Family’s Larkmead winery facility was formerly owned and operated by Hanns Kornell, one of the oldest and most historic California sparkling wine producers, so we inherited his history. He was making a Blanc de Blancs and a red sparkling, so Frank Family carried that over, but I decided to bring on the Brut Rosé and the Lady Edythe, because frankly, I think they’re great wines.
The Lady Edythe is our version of a tête de cuvee. It spends longer resting on lees and is a much richer wine; it’s also a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, unlike our Blanc de Blancs. The Brut Rosé is a wine I’ve always liked and wanted to bring to Frank Family. We want to embody everything a California grower-producer can be, to the likes of the world’s best Champagne. We have vineyards in Carneros, where we grow great chardonnay and pinot noir, so making great methode champenoise sparkling wines makes sense.
Can you briefly describe the process you employ to make sparkling wine at Frank Family? Native yeast or innoculated?
Each Frank Family sparkling wine is made in the traditional French method, where secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle. The wines are inoculated with partial malolactic yeast. Our Blanc de Blancs, Brut Rosé, and Rouge bottlings each spend three years resting on the lees before disgorgement. Our late-disgorged Lady Edythe Reserve spends six years on its lees.
What do you currently have en tirage in the cellar? How many cases per lot do you typically make?
We have all four of our sparkling wines en tirage in the cellar. Our current vintages are the 2014 Blanc de Blancs, 2014 Brut Rose, 2015 Rouge, and 2011 Lady Edythe, so everything that’s been bottled after that is currently en tirage. The oldest wine we have en tirage in the cellar right now is the 2012 Lady Edythe, which we won’t be releasing until next year, when it has a good 8 years in the cellar. We produce somewhere between 500 to 1,000 cases per cuvée/lot.
Where did the idea for Rouge come from?
Rouge came from the Hanns Kornell days. He was making a sparkling red and we just changed it to make it a little more modern. We make ours with chardonnay and pinot noir, mainly pinot noir. He wasn’t using Burgundian varietals; he was using a little bit of everything else.
We took what he was doing and created a balanced, elevated rendition that is truly unique for Frank Family Vineyards. There was no blueprint for our version. There are lots of sparkling reds, every country has one, but this is definitely not a sparkling shiraz or like any other country’s sparkling red. We don’t look at others, we just try and make the best sparkling pinot noir in a Champagne style. That’s the key thing, it’s not a still wine with bubbles in it: It’s a Champagne-style red.
By chance, did you try another dark red sparkler that caught your fancy?
I experimented with a lot of interesting varieties because of my time in Portugal. We experimented with many indigenous varieties and Vinho Verde varieties, more than I can remember. Of those, there were several that were particularly successful, albariño, a variety called codega in the Douro, and many Vinho Verde classics.
Is it true you’re still using French riddling racks?
Well, a riddling rack is just a piece of wood with holes in it—it doesn’t add any flavor or anything to the quality of the wines the way French or American oak barrels do, so country of origin does not really matter. But we do have French riddling racks in our cellar. We also have some homemade ones that we inherited from Hanns Kornell, which are special to the history of our property.
Rumor has it you’ve moved to mechanical riddling.
Yes, we recently switched over to mechanical riddling as a matter of worker safety. However, we plan to keep the old Hanns Kornell riddling racks for posterity, as it’s important to Frank Family Vineyards to preserve the history of the property. In this way, you’ll also see many other historical objects from the Hans Kornell days scattered about our winery and tasting room.
What’s the most amazing sparkling you’ve ever had?
Cristal usually comes into the conversation immediately. Cristal has always wowed me. I think it’s delicious—the whole package, with power, finesse, structure and flavor.
Whatever Frank Family bubbles you choose to pop (we love the Blanc de Blancs), remember the contributions of Hanns Kornell to the California wine industry, and toast his legacy. He’d most likely be quite honored.