Rich Frank doesn't do anything in life without making a production of it. His name is behind such television productions and movies as "Ellen," "Cheers," "Pretty Woman" and "Good Morning Vietnam." But today his name is proudly behind the production of Frank Family Vineyards, a historic property near Calistoga in Napa Valley.
Local zoning restrictions prohibit him from putting up signs to identify the property once occupied by Larkmead Winery. Too bad, because we can envision a movie marquee with "Great wine/Good prices/Starring Cabernet Sauvignon."
For a short time, Frank was content to own a weekend retreat in Rutherford to escape the mayhem of Los Angeles. Then, in 1992 he got a midnight call from a friend who told him Kornell Champagne was for sale in a bankruptcy proceeding. On a whim, he offered the bank half of the asking price -- and got himself a winery with vineyards and a National Historic landmark dating back to 1884.
Frank wasn't short of cash nor was he short of enthusiasm. An avid collector of classic cars and a hulking figure with a tireless joie de vivre, Frank didn't want to be ashamed of mediocre wines. He wisely found competent help in winemaker Todd Graff, who worked previously at Stag's Leap Winery, Schramsberg Vineyards and Sonoma Creek Winery.
Graff's training in sparkling wine helped him introduce some great sparkling wines to the Frank portfolio. But the best wines are the reds -- it is what Napa Valley is deservedly famous for. Today, Frank is content to enjoy his wines and participate in the blending panel each year.
There were challenges and setbacks. Frank had to tangle with local zoning authorities to remodel the historic barn, which can be used only occasionally for gatherings. Then there was a fire in 2000 that destroyed 85,000 cases of wine, including expensive wines stored there by renown producers like Pride Mountain and Rombauer. But Frank isn't a guy who backs down from a challenge, so the winery was rebuilt and improved.
His zest for life is contagious, which was clearly felt on a recent visit to the winery. Frank had hired a catering crew who specializes in making an awesome paella and steamed mussels for a crowd. Behind the winery, Frank and his wife, Leslie Miller, and Riley, the friendly family dog, regaled a media party in stories about Hollywood and Napa Valley. He remains involved in Hollywood with his son, Paul -- both are executive producers of television hits "Royal Pains" and "Wilfred."
The winery is known for its small-lot wines, many of which are hard to find. Small productions enable Frank to sell out his wines and not worry about sitting on huge inventories. The producer's sparkling wine, for instance, is a home run. So is the sangiovese and petit sirah, but they are harder to find.
Frank recently outbid a number of eager wineries to get an additional 70 acres of vineyards that will allow him to expand his production and meet a growing demand for his wines.
It's no longer unusual to find Hollywood tycoons making wine -- among others, Drew Barrymore, Johnny Depp, Francis Ford Coppola, Madonna, Fess Parker, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Unfortunately, few others can afford it.
Frank Family Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay 2011 ($55). Barrel fermented in new oak for 10 months, this chardonnay shows off an opulent, tasty texture with stone-fruit flavors and pineapple notes.
Frank Family Vineyard Zinfandel 2011 ($35). The wine manages to be fruity without being overly ripe -- a challenge for zinfandel. We liked the raspberry flavors and notes of spice, cloves and black pepper.
Frank Family Vineyard Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($85). From Rutherford bench, arguably the best region in Napa Valley for this grape variety, this wine has a masculine personality with loads of tannins, dark berries and complexity. Yet it is balanced and sports hints of black pepper, pencil, bell pepper and mineral. It appeals to the umani taste in all of us.
Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($44). One of California's most historic wineries produces consistently good cabernet sauvignon from excellent vineyards in Rutherford, Mt. Veeder and Atlas Peak. This one is no less in quality. It shows off an opulent nose of dark berry, spice, oak and clove. There is an abundance of rich dark cherry fruit and long finish.
Louis M. Martini Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($30). You would be hard pressed to find a cabernet sauvignon of this caliber for $30. Alexander Valley is one of the best regions in Sonoma County for cabernet sauvignon. This one shows off herbal aromas with a dash of licorice. Richly structured, it has black cherry flavors and fine tannins.
Luce Della Vite Luce 2009 ($93). The price will scare off a lot of consumers, but have no fear that the wine lives up to the expectations. A blend of sangiovese and merlot, it has excellent structure and concentration. There are layers of aromas, ranging from plum to nutmeg and licorice. The palate is generous in round cherry and plum flavors.