Willy Frank, chairman of Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars and a champion of the New York Finger Lakes wine industry, suffered a stroke and died in his sleep Tuesday night in Naples, Fla. He was 80.
Frank was the son of Dr. Konstantin Frank, the Finger Lakes pioneer who established the first winery in the area to focus exclusively on vinifera grapes, proving that fine wine varieties such as Riesling and Pinot Noir could flourish in New York. But it was Willy who turned the winery into a successful business that now produces 40,000 cases a year and sells its wines in 30 states—more widely distributed than any other New York farm winery.
"Willy was an icon," said Mark Wagner, owner and winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars. "He was the kind of guy you expected to live forever."
Willibald Konstantin Frank was born in 1925 in Ukraine, earned his MBA in Germany and immigrated to New York with his parents in 1952. He worked as a camera-equipment salesman in New York City, but after his father established the winery in 1962, Willy frequently drove the 250 miles to Keuka Lake to help out. During his lunch hour in Manhattan, he often carried a basket full of wines to top retailers and restaurants, pitching his father's products at a time when New York City was skeptical of New York wines.
Frank began helping out more at the winery as his father's health declined at the end of the 1970s. The wines were promising, but the business was floundering. His father was a viticulturist and ran his winery like an agricultural laboratory. "He never considered this a business," Willy told the Associated Press in 1995. "I said, 'Papa, even the Catholic Church is a business--if there is no income, there is no church.'" In 1980, Frank founded his own winery next door, sparkling wine producer Chateau Frank.
He took over Vinifera Wine Cellars in 1984, shortly before his father's death, and immediately began streamlining production--cutting the number of varietals from 60 to 12--and improving standards in the winery and cellars. "When he took over, we weren't sold outside New York," said son Frederick Frank, president of the winery. "He helped legitimize Finger Lakes wines, increasing their credibility and helping us distribute them outside our state's borders."
Frank was always outspoken--and always selling his wines. Wagner recalled that Finger Lakes winemakers took several trips to Europe that were supposed to be vacations, but Frank spent his time pitching his wines to the local vignerons. "Willy would drive you crazy on one hand because he was always selling," Wagner said. "On the other hand, he was a lot of fun, and he knew the wine industry in and out."
Frank is survived by his wife of 49 years, Margrit; his son, Frederick; his daughter, Barbara; and five grandchildren. A funeral will be held March 13 at St. Gabriel's Church in Hammondsport, N.Y. Donations can be made to St. Gabriel's or to the Glenn Curtiss Museum's Finger Lakes wine exhibit.