It has been said that Marilyn Monroe used to visit what is known today as Frank Family Vineyards in Napa Valley to get her fill of bubbles. That was back when German-born Hanns Kornell was making sparkling wines at his eponymous Champagne Cellars winery. Today at Frank Family Vineyards, winemaker Todd Graff continues the tradition by producing quality bubbles through the traditional French méthode champenoise that Kornell introduced to the Valley in the late 1950s. And thankfully, there’s enough fizz, because the Frank Family is celebrating 25 years this year.
It started in 1993, when Rich Frank, then president of Disney Studios, purchased Kornell’s cellars, despite his winemaking friends’ urge to keep his day job in Hollywood. He made a low bid on the property and with a bit of good luck and some business savvy, he became a winery owner overnight. But Napa wasn’t new to Frank. He already had a home in the valley — a place where he used to retreat to from his busy Hollywood lifestyle. And he had an established affinity for wine through his world travels.
“Right after moving into the house, my phone started ringing off the hook from wineries wanting our fruit, and I quickly realized we had something very special,” Rich says.
Though once home to only sparkling wines, Frank Family Vineyards honors the history of its special place on Larkmead Lane in Calistoga by continuing to handcraft five sparkling wines, in addition to producing superb still wines. It’s the third oldest winery built in Napa Valley, and in many ways, it still feels like it once was.
Housed in Napa Valley’s historic Larkmead Winery, which was constructed in 1884, the iconic Larkmead building is now considered an archetype of California’s wine country — appearing on the National Register of Historical Places and listed as a Point of Historical Interest in the state of California. Prior to Kornell’s Champagne Cellars, it was owned by Lillie “Firebelle” Hitchcock Coit, of the famous San Francisco’s Coit Tower.
Guests can enjoy a trip to yesteryear by enjoying the historical building, in addition to a gazebo and a bell, both which remain remnants from the train station Lillie built for herself. Like its earlier days, the building is filled with high-stacked barrels and a rich bouquet of aging wines, creating an ambiance of days past with the promise of future vintages.
During its 25 years in Napa Valley, Frank Family Vineyards has come to offer a diverse set of three collections of wines — from sparkling to port and everything in between — in addition to a limited number of reserve and sparkling wines, which are only available at Frank Family Vineyards winery at select restaurants.
The Franks also moved the famously friendly tasting room that they refer to as the “little white shack” to the yellow 1930s Craftsman house on the property.
“Still, people remember this historic tasting room,” says Rich’s wife, Leslie. “And this shack stood at an angle, no air conditioning, the bathroom door wouldn’t close…” continues Rich.
For many years, tastings were offered in this quaint little room known as much for its no-frills approach and friendly staff as it was for the elegant wines poured inside. Visitors flocked to the winery and returned year after year, often with more friends in tow. Over the decades, the conviviality has remained strong over the years.
Today, the Frank Family tasting room is one of the most popular destinations in the valley, offering tastings in multiple well-designed rooms, including a stunning covered patio with spectacular views. With illustrious and highly public careers behind them, reputation is something that Rich and Leslie Frank take seriously, as their names on the bottle mean everything.
“We want everyone who walks through our tasting room doors to feel welcome and to taste the best wine of their lives,” says Leslie.
In many ways, the Franks extend their family to the entire valley. “We are all dependent on each other,” says Rich. “We’re all farmers, and instead of potatoes we end up with a bottle of wine.”
With 380 acres of the finest vineyard land in Napa Valley and one of the biggest word-of-mouth followings, Frank Family Vineyards has become a household name for lovers of premium Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. And that’s certainly reason to raise a glass and celebrate.