Go Inside Napa’s Oldest, Continuously Operating Sparkling Wine Producer

Shoshi Parks Go Inside Napa’s Oldest, Continuously Operating Sparkling Wine Producer

3 minute Read

Frank Family Vineyards isn’t the most recognizable of Napa Valley’s sparkling wine producers. Mumm, Schramsberg, and Domaine Chandon are all better known. Nor is it the longest, continuously operating winery in the valley — that honor goes to Beringer Vineyards, founded in 1875.

No, Frank Family Vineyards isn’t the oldest or the best known; but since it began producing sparkling wines in 1958, it has earned a distinction of its own as the longest, continuously operating bubbly maker in all of Napa.

Its history mirrors that of 20th-century America. These grounds tell the story of those who sidestepped Prohibition, a political prisoner who fled Nazi Germany, and the boom and bust of Napa’s wine market. Now, it’s under the careful stewardship of those who inherit such a legacy.

Credit: Elliot Klein

The original stone winery opened in 1884 and expanded in 1892. It still stands and is filled with massive wooden fermenting casks. Behind it, a newer facility gleams with stainless steel equipment and endless rows of barrels filled with wines awaiting their bottling dates.

Frank Family Vineyards is far from just a sparkling producer — each year, 75,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Sangiovese are also made here — but it puts a great deal of care into its Blanc de Blancs, Brut Rosé and Brut Rouge. Each bottle undergoes a three-year fermenting process followed by hand “riddling,” daily rotations for a month that force leftover yeast sediment into the neck to be easily disgorged. The Reserve Brut, Lady Edythe, ferments for six years before riddling begins.

“That minimum of three years of yeast, that really adds a lot of character,” Todd Graff, Frank Family’s winemaker, says. “It adds more depth and more layers versus a sparkling wine that’s maybe only 12 months on the yeast, which will be fruity and flowery.”

Frank Family’s history is in its sparkling wines. In 1993, Rich Frank purchased the winery and its antique bottling equipment from previous owner Hanns Kornell, a German immigrant who had been making sparkling wines on the property since 1958 under the name Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars.

A German immigrant, Kornell was a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp, where he had been imprisoned for a year for opposing the Nazi regime. As a winemaker, his specialty was in the dry, German-style sparkler, sehr trocken. He tinkered with new technologies and production methods in Napa for 30-plus years.

“He was trying to invent new types of automated riddling racks with springs that would shake [the bottles],” Graff says. “He had riddling racks everywhere, every nook and cranny had a riddling rack.”

Credit: Elliot Klein

The original 50,000-gallon space, built in 1884 by S.P. Conner, was first purchased by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the eccentric San Francisco heiress and benefactor of the city’s famous Coit Tower landmark. She sold the estate, then named Larkmead Winery, to Felix Salmina in 1895. He grew its production up until 1920, when Prohibition began. As quickly as Napa had emerged as an internationally recognized producer of high-quality wines, its wineries withered on the vine. Some of the valley’s best-known original winemakers, including the sole sparkling vintner at the time, Schramsberg, stopped production and closed their doors.

Larkmead, though, held on. It survived through 13 long years of teetotaling by selling grapes and producing sacramental wine for religious ceremonies. Salmina jumped back into wine production when Prohibition ended and, by 1937, his Zinfandel and Cabernet were winning awards.

Kornell’s Champagne Cellars was still going strong when Schramsberg started its sparkling production in 1965. Domaine Chandon bottled its first California cuvée in 1975. Mumm sold its first Napa vintage in 1983.

Sadly, by the late 1980s, Kornell was struggling. He had taken out a $4.5 million loan to upgrade his facility, and he was unable to recover as the wine market fluctuated. In 1991, Kornell filed for bankruptcy. The following year, Rich Frank bid on the estate; 25 years later, he’s still in the wine business.

Graff thoughtfully honors the legacy of this land. Unlike some Napa sparkling vintners, Frank Family grows most of its own fruit and crushes it on site before beginning the lengthy fermenting process. “The French and the Champenoise have been our role models, at least mine,” Graff says. “We can’t call it Champagne, but we still do the process exactly the same way.”

While Frank Family may not be as well known nationally for its sparkling wines, the company has a history unlike any other winery in Napa. “We’ve been doing it a long time,” Graff says. And they don’t plan to stop any time soon.

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