We’re sliding into that time of year when family becomes even more important than usual. Gatherings around the groaning holiday tables celebrate the hold that “family” has on most of us.
And today I want to celebrate another family — the Frank Family and their lovely wines and historic Napa Valley winery.
Back in 1990 Rich Frank was a top executive with Disney Studios in Los Angeles. He loved wine country and built a mansion in the Rutherford area. While dining in a Napa Valley restaurant he encountered a Chardonnay that intrigued him. It was one of Koerner Rombauer’s wines and Frank and Rombauer became friends.
In 1992 the former Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars property went on the market and, with Rombauer’s aid and advice, Rich Frank bid half the asking price … and wound up a winery owner.
Since then Rich and wife Leslie have turned the property around. It’s up in the northernmost region of Napa Valley, outside the mud bath town of Calistoga, on narrow Larkmead Lane, named for the original winery on the site, Larkmead Winery.
Rich and Leslie are hands-on winery owners and run the place. But Rich delegated wine-making chores to the well-respected Todd Graff, who annually turns out spectacular wines — including some highly regarded sparkling wines in tribute to Hanns Kornell.
The location, away from the hustle and hassle of the mid- Napa Valley, lends itself to a more casual atmosphere. Visitors are welcomed into the bright yellow former home that serves as the public tasting area. If you go there ask to see the Hollywood Room, where many of Rich’s awards and memorabilia from his film days, and Emmys won by Leslie during her TV broadcasting career, are on display.
I recently had a chance to sample three of four Frank Family wines and was reminded of how much I enjoy this winery’s products. I search out value wines like a pig rooting for truffles. I celebrate when I find a $15 Pinot Noir that’s a hair’s breadth away from being as good as that $50 bottle.
Todd Graff’s wines, made from fruit from a variety of prime vineyards, are what I call “high value wines.”
A prime example is the 2016 Pinot Noir from the Carneros Region just off the upper reaches of San Francisco Bay, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive. Using an aerator I poured about two ounces. Almost immediately I smelled soft spices wafting from the glass. After a good swirl I took a taste. Spice, red fruit and soft tannins took over my mouth. It’s a stunner!
Now about that “high value …” The Frank Family Pinot retails for about $40. It is better, more balanced than an Oregon wine I sampled, which has received high praise, but costs upwards of $70.
I had the same reaction from the 2016 Carneros Chardonnay, a product of lots of TLC in the vineyards and the winery. It is fermented in a mix of new and used French oak and, as a result, the vanilla nose from that wood is muted — but it’s there. I got a hint of citrus and crisp apple from a wine that truly fills the mouth.
Same price as the Pinot Noir, but it made me think back about six months to one of those cult Chardonnays I sampled priced at $80. In a blind tasting I would have grabbed the Frank Family bottle and run with it.
I hated to pull the cork on the 2015 Napa Valley Zinfandel … but, sobbing softly, I did. While it obviously needed another 2-3 years in the bottle, it was glorious. I confess I am a Zinfanatic. A touch of black pepper, black raspberries and restrained oak flavors ran around. It was clear why this wine won Best in Class, Best of Varietal and a Double Gold in the New World International Wine Competition. At just under $40 this was one of the best Zins to pass my lips in a very long time.
I balked at opening the 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Just could not do it. I’ll let you know in about three years what it’s like. But here’s what the online International Report had to say, while giving this Cab a score of 94 points: “This is a total success from the winemaking team at Frank Family Vineyards, who have managed to capture the ripe characteristics of the vintage while retaining wonderful balance.”
One closing note. This is a family business. These wines don’t come down from some faceless corporate boardroom dictating flavor and aroma. My thanks to Rich and Leslie Frank and Todd Graff for bringing excellent wines into the world at sensible prices.
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WINE OF THE MONTH: FERRARI BRUT
The wine: Crisp, dry white sparkling wine.
The grapes: 100% Chardonnay.
The source: Trentodoc region, northern Italy.
The verdict: Want a Ferrari (bright red, of course) for Christmas? Howsabout one for Thanksgiving? This sparkler is a great choice to serve with the Thanksgiving turkey … or ham, or beef roast. Italy has a good news/bad news situation. It is home to more than 500 indigenous grape types. And that can be confusing … especially to American consumers. So some Italian wine makers have concentrated on classic European vinifera grapes — such as Chardonnay, one of the three grapes permitted in the production of the classic sparkling wines of Champagne. This Ferrari brings the crisp toastiness of Champagne to your glass for less than half the price of even the most budget-priced Champagnes. It mates well with just about any kind of food, but would enhance the aromatic roasted bird to perfection. This is a well-made, well-balanced bubbly.
The price: About $28.