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Finger Lakes Wine and the Legacy of Dr. Konstantin Frank (American Palate) Paperback – June 22, 2015
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About the Author
Tom Russ is a professor at the College of Southern Maryland and the author of six books. He spent his summers growing up in the Finger Lakes region of New York and owns a home in Hammondsport, New York. Wine and food have long been among his passionate interests. The growth of the vinifera wines and the local food movement in the Finger Lakes is a natural area of interest, and the story of Dr. Konstantin Frank was a logical extension of that interest.
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Why hasn’t the life story of Dr. Konstantin Frank been made into a major motion picture?
Frank's bio is full of all the right stuff — wealth and privelege, war, emigration, privation, demagoguery, and (belatedly) the acknowledgment of his great contribution to the Finger Lakes wine industry.
Born into a wealthy German-Ukranian family, Frank fought in a White Army brigade against the Bolsheviks, earned a doctorate at the Odessa Agricultural College, managed a huge vineyard and agricultural experiment station, fled the Russian Army near the end of World War II, and found a way to emigrate to the U.S. Desperate for an employer who could use his considerable talents, and living with his family in a squalid tenement in lower Manhattan, Frank's future looked bleak. A friend suggested the Geneva NY Agricultural Experiment Station as a possible employer.
The "Genevans” were not encouraging. They rebuffed his appeal for a position. But Frank would have none of it. Using scarce cash, he got on the bus and traveled to Geneva -- without an appointment. There was no job suitable to his talents, but somehow (with the help of a German speaking employee) he talked himself into a low-level grant-funded job.
Tom Russ tells the story of Dr. Frank expeditiously in his short 148 page book, most often without irritating detours. For those who know the Dr. Konstantin Frank story, there are not a lot of surprises, but the book does fill in many of the gaps in the story. It also forces the reader to reconsider some of the conventional wisdom.
For instance, Frank's battle against hybrid grapes (and for vinifera) has sometimes been portrayed as a battle of good (vinifera) versus evil (native grapes and hybrids). But, it’s pretty clear the establishment at the time was not exactly evil. The Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station was mainly interested in improving yields and serving existing wine growers. Americans were simply not very sophisticated wine drinkers. Vinifera wine was expensive and off the radar screen for most consumers. In short, Dr. Frank was simply ahead of his time.
Frank’s first job led to a meeting with Charles Fournier, the president of Gold Seal Vineyards, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fournier and Frank pioneered the cultivation of cold climate vinifera, Frank went on to found his eponymous operation (which was more agriculture experiment station than winery) and his son Willy appeared in the nick of time to save the winery from ruin. The Frank family has been very lucky in this respect. Family friction has immolated many a winery.
Readers who are unfamiliar with the story will be pleased by this book. Those who know more will likely want more than Russ provides. His picture of Dr. Frank the man is pretty two-dimensional. We don’t know why he was a popular figure at wine tastings, what his sense of humor was like, why he was so very very sensitive to criticism. We have no idea what he and Charles Fournier talked about on their long road trips together. We don’t even know what kind of wine Frank liked or how much he drank. Frank’s inner life remains a complete mystery; the author doesn’t try to reach those deeper thoughts and feelings.
Perhaps it is impossible to know Frank in a larger sense. He was aloof, absent-minded, no doubt hardened by the drama and tragedy of his life. Then too, Russ is a professor, not a professional biographer. But the Doris Kearns Goodwins and Hollywood screenplay writers of the world should know that Dr. Frank was an heroic figure in the wine world, almost mythic, with an amazing life story. They may find another tale to tell.