By Sofia Englund

An hour’s drive north of San Francisco, in the luxuriant Napa and Sonoma valleys, you’ll find the home of America’s premier viticulture region: The Wine Country. Here, the winter’s emerald green hills, dotted with century-old gnarly oaks, turn the color of a lion’s mane under the summer sun, and swaths of vineyards carpet hillsides as far as the eye can see. Where the vineyards end, majestic redwood forests follow serpentine rivers to the tempestuous seashores of the Pacific.


In this striking terrain, it is not surprising to encounter people who have come to transform their lives midstream into their own very personal vision of the good life. Richard “Rich” Frank, owner of Frank Family Vineyards, is one of them.

A Hollywood veteran, Frank has an impressive resume which includes prestigious positions such as “Vice Chairman and Executive Board Member of the American Film Institute,” “Chairman of Walt Disney Television and Telecommunications” (where he headed Disney’s syndication arm Buena Vista), “President of The Walt Disney Studios” (a position he held for nearly a decade), “President of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences” (the body that governs the Emmy Awards) and “President of the Paramount Television Group.”

Frank, a journalism graduate and former adman at BBDO, arrived in Los Angeles from Madison Avenue in the early 1970s. He then landed his first job working as a sales manager at Channel 5 (KTLA), an independent television station owned by actor and “singing cowboy” Gene Autry. At Paramount, and later at Disney, Frank joined forces with future media moguls Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, and during the following 20 years he would bring phenomenal success to movie and television properties such as Cheers, Taxi, Family Ties, Shogun, Winds of War, Entertainment Tonight, Golden Girls, Home Improvement, Ellen, Regis and Kathy Lee, Dead Poet’s Society, Good Morning Vietnam, Pretty Woman, Father of the Bride, Aladdin and The Lion King.

During his years as a studio executive, Frank began spending weekends in the Napa Valley — a place he could easily retreat to from his busy schedule in LA. In 1990 he bought a 1930s Tudor style house on a Rutherford hillside. The house came with 15 acres of grapevines, and while he initially sold all the grapes to neighboring vineyards, Frank soon realized the true value of this fertile Rutherford soil. A longtime wine aficionado, Frank decided to have a try at the wine making business and when the renowned Kornell Champagne Cellars in nearby Calistoga went on sale, he placed a bid. Less than 24 hours later, Frank was the owner of the historic winery.

Exclusive selection to Sweden
In its first year of operation, Frank’s winery produced a couple hundred cases of wine (sampling grapes from different vineyards, including the one in Rutherford). Today, Frank Family Vineyards produces 150,000 cases per year, and since the end of last year they are shipping an exclusive selection to Sweden.

Exported via Kenneth Konet, president of Swedish American Development Co. LLC, Frank Family wines are being distributed in Sweden by OJK Beverage Group. Konet, who previously worked with Swedish import at Sandvik for 30 years, is a long-time friend of Tord Magnusson (husband of Princess Christina and Swedish business executive) who has helped introduce Frank Family wines in Sweden.

I arrive at the Frank Family Vineyards on a misty morning in early November. Harvest having ended little over a month before my visit, the grapevines on the adjacent fields are bare — only a few golden leaves remain. I am greeted by Ed Skupien, vice president of sales, and Todd Graff, winemaker and general manager of winery operations. Ed and Todd joined Frank Family Vineyards in early 2000 and are doyens in their respective fields, both having circled the globe sampling, producing and selling wines. Their joint efforts have contributed to a dramatic increase in sales and an impressive list of accolades for the winery: “Best Napa Winery” for five consecutive years, numerous gold awards and 90+ points from all the institutions and critics recognized by wine aficionados around the world.

We begin our tour of the premises near the original winery, an impressive stone building with a rich history. Established in 1884 as the Larkmead Vineyard by Lillie Hitchcock Coit (who gave San Francisco its landmark Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill), it is the third oldest winery in Napa. Hanns Kornell took over the building in 1958 and established what would become a multi-million dollar sparkling wine business. Because of his family's opposition to the Nazis, Kornell had been sent to the concentration camp at Dachau in 1938. After he was released a year later, on the condition that he leave Germany within 48 hours, he arrived in New York in 1939 with $2 in his pocket. He then hitchhiked to California and worked in several wineries before saving enough money to buy the Larkmead Vineyard.

By developing the exclusive “Champagne method,” Kornell helped create an interest in good sparkling wine. Sadly, he was unable to compete with the well-financed European Champagne companies when they began to set up California subsidiaries in the 1970s. Today, Rich Frank honors the legacy of his predecessor by displaying Kornell’s manually operated (and fully functioning) “Champagne method” machine at the winery.

Facelift of the old
Some 15 years after Frank purchased the historic Larkmead winery, Todd Graff directed the construction of a new state-of-the-art winery next to the original building. The old stone winery is now used chiefly for entertainment (Oprah Winfrey recently hosted a dinner here). The new facility, with its stainless steel tanks, may not have the same romantic ambiance as the stone winery, but the scent from the French oak barrels gives one a sense of the continuing craftsmanship and commitment to quality.

“We have everything we need to make great wine here,” explains Graff as we walk through the white, high-ceilinged halls of the winery. “When Ed and I first started, we produced about 12,000 cases per year; now we produce about 150,000 per year. We distribute to all 50 U.S. states and we have recently started to explore the European market. A lot of hard work, makes for a lot of good luck!”

A viticulture graduate from University of California-Davis (the premier viticulture program in the country), Graff has 30 years experience as a winemaker and takes pride in participating in all stages of wine production — “from the dirt to the glass.” At Frank Family, he has helped to establish the winery’s reputation as a world-class producer of Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay.

While hard work and luck may have played their parts in the winery’s success, the fruit of Graff’s expertise becomes apparent when we finish our tour in the tasting room. Located in a picturesque lemon chiffon colored house complete with porch and veranda, the room overlooks the lush Napa hillsides, giving it a perfect location for the enjoyment of fine wines. “We strive for consistency of style that will stand the test of time,” says Skupien as I take a sip of the winery’s award-winning Chardonnay: “The balance is the key and by carefully controlling all the steps of the production, Todd is able to create wines that stylistically have the same well-balanced characteristics, year after year.”

Award-winning taste is shared with Swedes
The 2013 Chardonnay (one of the wines that is being sent to Sweden) is indeed beautifully nuanced with a soft lingering finish — not too buttery, not too creamy and not too oaky. When I continue by tasting a Reserve Cabernet (also available in Sweden), I encounter the same elegant balance: a rich and expressive structure that exquisitely accompanies the taste of the fruits. As I sip Frank Family wines and look around the homelike, cozy tasting room, I notice the walls decorated with family pictures, posters from the many productions Frank has headed and photographs of him with luminaries in the entertainment industry (from Sean Connery and Harrison Ford to Helen Mirren and Spike Lee).

Later, when I meet Rich Frank himself, I ask him what accounts for the vineyard’s ever-increasing popularity. “Companies always reflect the owner’s attitude. I named the winery Frank Family Vineyards because I wanted it to be a small family operation. People should be able to come here and feel at home, to sample and to taste, to learn about the wines and have a really good time in a relaxed atmosphere. This has been our philosophy from the very start; this is what makes people remember us; this is what makes people recognize the label in a restaurant or a wholesale store, and this is what makes people tell their relatives and friends about us.”

And Frank Family Vineyards is a family company in the true sense of the word. Sons Darryl and Paul (high-ranking executives in the television and movie industries) are both involved in the family business. Frank and his wife Leslie (an Emmy-award winning television news anchor and reporter) proudly promote the family brand in the U.S. and abroad. Even the couples’ German Shepard Riley (who gladly accompanies us during the interview), seems to be an enthusiastic business partner as he greets guests with a wagging tail.

Dividing their time between Beverly Hills and Napa, the Franks enjoy spending time at the tasting room where Rich can often be seen shaking hands, serving wine and engaging in conversation with guests and employees. The couple actually met over a glass of Frank Family wine at the renowned French bistro Bouchon in Yountville. “It was a Saturday night and the restaurant was packed,” Frank recounts. “I’ve always enjoyed eating by the bar, so I asked Tony the maître d’ if he could squeeze me in. Tony said he happened to have a seat available that I would really like, and seated me next to Leslie and her girlfriend, upon which I asked: ‘If I order a bottle of Pinot would you girls share it with me?’ And the rest is, as they say, history.”

While the Hollywood executive-turned-vintner certainly is a master of the art of large scale marketing, when it comes to the family business, Frank seems perfectly content to rely on good values, hard work, loyalty and a commitment to quality, craftsmanship and personal relationships. Or simply “letting the wine speak for itself.” In business — and even in love — this seems to have been the winning formula. “Grapes are like a script. If you don’t have a good script, you can’t make a good movie; and if you don’t have good grapes, you can’t make good wine.”

As the season changes, the Franks look forward to a cruise in the Baltic Sea with a planned stop in Stockholm. And the Frank Family Vineyard continues to grow grapes that tell a story of Oscar-worthy wines.

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