Dr. Konstantin Frank
Willy Frank
Willy K. Frank at Louisville's Gasthaus.
With 140 wineries within its boundaries and annual wine production second only to California in the United States, New York State ranks as a major wine producer. But most of us in the rest of the world rarely see New York wines and tend to stereotype the Empire State's products - particularly those of the beautiful and historic Finger Lakes region - as mediocre, grape-jelly flavored wines of the old-fashioned country-wine school.

As with most myths, there's some truth behind the stereotype: Upstate New York's fierce winters and short growing season are a far cry from the gentle Mediterranean climate enjoyed by the world's better-known wine regions, and simple economics led the state's early growers to focus on wines made from native grapes, fruits other than grapes and, eventually, the lightly regarded French-hybrid varieties that can stand harsh winters.

It wasn't until modern times that a few pioneers challenged the conventional wisdom and proved that fine, even world-class wines can be made in the Finger Lakes.

The first of those pioneers, Dr. Konstantin Frank, came to New York from Europe as a refugee from Ukraine after World War II. Skilled in viticulture and enology but awkward in English, he took a low-level job at the Geneva Research Station, a state grape-research facility in the Finger Lakes, and almost immediately started urging the state's wine industry to try its luck with vitis vinifera, the classic European wine-grape varieties that most people believed could not survive in the Eastern U.S. He gradually acquired a following and, as time went by, vinifera plantings and wines of real quality began to emerge from scattered wineries in New York and throughout the East.

Dr. Frank died in 1985, but with his son Willy and grandson Fred at the helm, the Dr. Konstantin Frank winery and Chateau Frank sparkling-wine cellars are widely recognized among New York's leading fine-wine producers.

"Papa was a maverick, and he started the vinifera revolution," said Willy Frank, who was in Louisville this week and, at the invitation of Martin Platt, who teaches wine-appreciation classes at the University of Louisville, showed off a selection of his wines at a dinner at Gasthaus, an excellent German restaurant here.

Here's a report on the wines he poured:

Chateau Frank 1995 Brut Finger Lakes Champagne
Crisp, full and dry; creamy mouthfeel and good balance. This is a quality sparkling wine, made from traditional Champagne grapes by the traditional Champagne process. It outrages the French that Frank calls this non-French wine "Champagne," and Frank knows it. He shrugs, noting that the international treaty limiting the name to wines made in Champagne, France, does not apply in the U.S.; and, he notes, he reserves the name, with respect, for wines made in the Champagne manner. Another Frank bubbly containing Riesling, for instance, is properly titled "sparkling wine."

Dr. Konstantin Frank 1998 Finger Lakes Rkatsiteli
Made from a Russian grape rarely seen in the U.S. (although the California winery Concannon made one years ago), this one's appealing: A clear pale straw color, it shows light floral and perfumed fruit aromas framed by smoke and spice; clean and crisp on the palate, citric lemon-lime flavors are long and tart.

Salmon Run 1998 New York Johannisberg Riesling
Dr. Konstantin Frank's second label, this one sells for well under $10 and has won numerous awards. Pale brass in color, its aromas initially focus on fresh apples and slate. Crisp and fresh, it drinks very dry when served quite cold, making it almost impossible to believe that it contains 2.5 percent residual sugar. Light fresh-fruit sweetness and musky melon aromas appear as the wine warms in the glass, but steely acidity remains in a long finish.

Dr. Konstantin Frank 1996 New York Cabernet Sauvignon, Old Vines
Clear garnet with a candied currant scent leading into tart cherry-berry fruit, juicy and tart. A quaffer, hardly a threat to Napa or Bordeaux; but in contrast with the weedy "greenness" of many eastern red vinifera, this one's fruity and clean-flavored.

Chateau Frank Celébrè New York Sparkling Wine Rosé
Clear salmon in color with a frothy mousse, this Pinot Meunier-based sparkler shows light apple aromas and a crisp, tart flavor that lingers.

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All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.

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