Frank Family Vineyards

Family-Owned Wineries are Swimming Upstream in Napa and Sonoma

At times, it seems that California’s family wineries are being sold faster than the Arctic ice sheet is melting. Lisa Mattson of Jordan Winery wrote a blog post last year on the status of properties in both Napa and Sonoma since 1978, the year when Jordan was founded. There were 180 wineries in 1978; 65 have been sold to wine conglomerates. Of the 742 wineries established since 1978, 36% are now corporate-owned. Bloomberg estimates that half of U.S. wineries might be sold by 2022.

Vintners without children or a succession plan are in a tough spot when a large company starts waving their checkbook around. In many cases the vintners stay on as the corporation’s public face, but sooner or later the inevitable occurs: case production skyrockets, quality hits a plateau, and their distinctive style is absorbed into the corporate taste profile.

With that background, it’s refreshing to see operations such as Frank Family Vineyards. It was launched in 1993 on the site of the historic Larkmead winery, which dates to 1884.  Rich Frank (former President of Disney Studios) and his wife Leslie expanded their passion for wine into a full-time career, hiring talented winemaker Todd Graff to craft their releases from choice estate vineyards.

Their 2018 Carneros Chardonnay ($35) has a profound nose of lime blossom and freshly pressed citrus. When the wine enters your mouth, it tastes at first like Chablis (a high complement from someone of my generation). As it expands on the palate, it becomes the gift that keeps on giving: flavors of Meyer lemon and white peach are buttressed by a strong mineral underpinning. It gains in amplitude and richness as it warms, with a long and spicy finish.

The 2018 Pinot Noir from Carneros ($35) comes from two impeccable vineyard sources (Sangiacomo and Beckstoffer). The wine is medium-bodied and well-crafted, with balanced fruit tannins and flavors of black cherry, red raspberry and tea. Extremely versatile, it drinks like a high-quality Bourgogne Rouge from a top producer.

Frank Family 2016 Napa Cabernet ($55) starts out as a bit of an outlier. The wine grabs hold of the palate on entry, with adolescent tannins overwhelming the ripe black fruit. There’s a strong earthy component to the wine (some have described it as bay leaves or espresso) that emerges on the finish. An online review suggested it would be better on day two, and they were right: it had settled down considerably and come together, so decanting ahead of time is strongly advised.

Sourced from two Napa vineyards, the 2016 Frank Family Rutherford Reserve Cabernet ($95) offers whiffs of blackberry jam, vanilla and fresh herbs on the nose. It is perky and precocious on entry, bathing the palate with dark berries and spice; while the texture is luscious and appealing, it presents a classic example of “Rutherford dust.” The finish is exceptionally long, with flavors of black plum echoing for nearly a full minute.


Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He has written several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture as well as two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade. Impeachment, the sequel to The American Crusade, is due for release late in 2020.

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