Have you ever believed something with all of your heart? Have you ever known a thing could be done deep down in your bones? But no one would listen? No one would believe you were right?
Imagine having a PhD, being one of the foremost experts in your field in your home country, then moving to a new world, not speaking the language, but knowing you had the answer to a question no one in the new country had ever been able to solve. Not for hundreds of years. Not Benjamin Franklin, a scholar immortalized for his wisdom, and a wine lover who appreciated European-Style wines. Not Thomas Jefferson, who had been described as America's “first distinguished viticulturist” and “the greatest patron of wine and wine growing that this country has yet had,” yet he couldn’t figure out how to make the delicate vinifera grapes (whose wines he loved) grow here. Not even the best minds at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva which was dedicated to horticulture (i.e. the science and art of researching and growing fruit, berries and grapes, and other plants.
In their defense (sort of), when people have struggled with something decade upon decade, generation upon generation, the idea that it just can’t be done seems to become ingrained into their collective subconscious. They simply learn that it can’t be done and they are often unaware that they have dismissed any possibilities before having even heard them. Before ever understanding them. Though, sometimes, they are very aware that they’re dismissing ideas because they believe they have already exhausted every possibility.
Lucky for us, Dr. Konstanin Frank wasn’t just smart or experienced. He was persistent. Okay, he was flat out stubborn. With good reason! He was not going to take no for an answer.
Oh, and he realized, for all those years, we had been asking the wrong question. Yep!
When he arrived in America, Dr. Frank had already spent over 30 years honing his skills and acquiring an expansive amount of first-hand experience. There’s a brief passage in Tom Russ’s book Finger Lakes Wine and the Legacy of Dr. Konstantin Frank: “At home in the Ukraine, Frank had been technical director of a large agricultural experiment station, had received honors for his work restoring and managing large collective farms, was a noted inventor of farm implements and was a leading researcher in the field of viticulture, specializing in growing wine grapes in cold climates” (39). You could say, back home, he was the man.
When he arrived in the United States in 1951, none of that impressive background translated into instant success. If there had been Twitter and Facebook and social media back then, it might have been a different story. A few YouTube videos of Dr. Frank in the field (literally) might have gone viral here in the U.S. where the common belief was it was just too cold to successfully grow those delicate european grape varietals.
But Dr. Frank knew the cold wasn’t the problem. Growing grapes in the cold was his specialty, after all.
There were a few challenges that he had to overcome though, beyond the learned preconceptions and presumptions he faced from those people who were theoretically “in the know.” For one thing, while he could speak nine languages (yes, that’s a whole bunch), English was not one of them, so communicating his ideas had some inherent challenges.
If you’re a fan of irony, there’s a lot of it in Dr. Frank’s story.
When he arrived in America, Dr. Frank tried to find work in agriculture. He wanted to use his expertise and experience and help his new country. He wrote to the government saying as much. But he couldn’t find anything, so he worked as a dishwasher on the night shift and he and his family lived quite frugally in NYC.
But he continued to search for a more fitting career. He even thought about returning to Germany, but decided to try the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva before giving up.
When he arrived in Geneva, he did so unannounced. He inquired about working there, but the station was fully staffed and, at the time, there were no positions for someone of his background. After all, he had been technical director for a similar station, albeit a larger one, in the Ukraine.
You could say he was overqualified for anything available, but they did offer him a temporary job working in nursery investigations. This despite his having over 20 years nursery experience in Russia. But he took the job. It was a chance to get his family out of NYC and to get his foot in the door. He was certain, once there, he could share his ideas. That eventually someone would listen.
According to Russ, in Geneva, Dr. Frank “found that his ideas were at best politely discounted and at worst outright ridiculed” (42). But that goes back to everyone asking the wrong question.
You see, Dr. Frank believed from his years in the Ukraine that the lack of proper rootstock, not the cold climate, was the reason for the failure of Vitis Vinifera vines in the Finger Lakes region. He continued to promote his beliefs and to seek a sympathetic ear, which he found in Charles Fournier, a French champagne maker and president of nearby Gold Seal Vineyards.
Communicating in French, Dr. Frank revealed his research for growing the delicate European vinifera grape varieties in cold climates. For the first time the Northeastern United States could produce European varieties of wines.
Fournier gave Dr Frank a chance which is all he needed. The rest, you could say, is history.
Except, Dr. Frank’s story doesn’t end there. His legacy continues today and can be seen far beyond the winery that bears his name (which is run by his grandson, Fred, and great-granddaughter Meaghan).
After hearing at nearly every turn that fine European-style wines couldn’t be made here because Vinifera grapes couldn’t be grown, Dr. Frank took matters into his own hands and changed the history of winemaking in the Eastern United States. Fred and Meaghan have inherited more than a vineyard and a winery. They’ve inherited a legacy for being pioneers: for leading the way when it comes to innovation, and also when it comes to making exceptional wines, which they continue to do to this day.
To learn about what Dr. Frank actually did next to spark the Vinifera Revolution which enabled him (and others) to grow the vinifera grapes here, and other contributions he made, as well as how the long lean Finger Lakes themselves have allowed the region to become one of the premiere wine regions in the world, visit Dr. Frank’s Winery and ask for the rest of the story.
And be sure to taste some wine while you’re there and experience for yourself just why Dr. Frank was so determined to prove everyone wrong.