On Tuesday, December 8 Frank Family’s Todd Graff will be honored for his work as a world-class winemaker at the North Bay Business Journal’s 8th Annual Wine Industry Awards. The Wine Industry Awards will virtually recognize Todd along with a dozen other individuals and companies who have made positive contributions to the wine, beer, and spirits industry in 2020. Read on for an in-depth Q&A with Todd on where he’s been and where the wine industry is going.
How did you get into the wine industry and what has been your career track since?
Born and raised in Petaluma, I was drawn to winemaking at a young age. I enrolled in an introductory wine course while attending Santa Rosa Jr. College before graduating from UC Davis with a degree in plant science and viticulture in 1984.
Upon graduation, I circled the globe working for world-class producers. I worked in the cellar at Joseph Phelps Vineyards before expanding my horizon at Weingut Klaus Schweicher in Mosel, Germany, Château Yon-Figeac in Saint-Émilion, France, and at Arrowfield Estate in Australia’s Hunter Valley.
I returned to Napa Valley in 1987 to work as an Assistant Winemaker at Stag’s Leap Winery. From 1990 to 1995, I was the Assistant Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Schramsberg Vineyards, where I honed my craft in making sparkling wines according to the méthode champenoise. During my tenure at Schramsberg, I also served as Technical Director and Winemaker at Caves Transmontanas in Portugal, a Schramsberg joint venture.
After twenty years of working as a winemaker in every corner of the world, I landed at Calistoga’s Frank Family Vineyards in 2003 and have never looked back.
How have you influenced the wine industry?
I have played an essential role in Frank Family’s steady growth over the past 18 vintages. It’s been a joy of mine to apply my expertise in making both still and sparkling wines to the Frank Family portfolio, contributing to our winery’s reputation as a world-class producer of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. I directed the construction of Frank Family’s new state-of-the-art winery in 2008, worked closely with Proprietor Rich Frank on the acquisition and redevelopment of our Benjamin Vineyard in Rutherford in 2012, and in 2014 helped Frank Family receive Napa Green certification for both land and winery. In both 2012 and 2017, Frank Family was recognized for our across-the-board success and received the “Winery of the Year” accolade from the Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine.
Our achievements are all possible because of the team we have built over the years. Some of our cellar team members have been with Frank Family for 20+ years and the same is true with our Wine Educators, many of whom started packing boxes after high school and now lead the Tasting Room. We’re very proud to see our work family grow and thrive.
What changes have you noticed in the wine industry in the past five years?
The wine industry has been experiencing a wave of changes in the past five years, many of which have presented challenges for wineries. The consolidation of distribution is one such challenge that has been a fact of life in the wine industry for decades and even more so recently due to big mergers in the wholesale market. To secure our route to market, Frank Family has expanded our national sales team to work closely with our distributors and help drive the business. The manpower of our small but mighty sales force around the country is our winery’s strength. Frank Family has become a nationally distributed and well-respected brand because of our forethought to invest in our excellent team and our outstanding marketing and distribution relationships.
How has the pandemic affected business?
Earlier this year, as wineries had to navigate closures, it was a challenging but also a transformative time for the wine industry. It forced us to get creative in connecting with our fans from across the country. Many of us were thrust into the practice of engaging online as a survival strategy during the pandemic. Our winery needed to move in a very different direction from anything we had done before and embark on a new way of connecting with members and guests. Within days of the Covid-19 shelter in place order, Frank Family was one of the first Napa wineries to introduce virtual wine tastings.
We broadcasted live on Zoom from the winery or from our Winston Hill Vineyard in Rutherford and shared an hour with a couple hundred of our most loyal friends. Each week, we dove into various topics such as sparkling winemaking, a Cabernet retrospective tasting with Coravin, and most recently, Thanksgiving cooking tips, featuring local chef and sommelier Christina Machamer. We’re very grateful for the opportunity to get to know our fan base better through our monthly virtual tastings and for being a source of joy and entertainment in their homes throughout the year. The feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly positive and we plan to continue the conversation online even now that the winery has reopened.
We reopened our property for outdoor, seated tastings in June. In doing so, we implemented many new safety protocols and revised our tasting experiences to ensure the safest guest experience possible. While many things have changed, it’s important to remember that first and foremost, wine is meant to be fun, even during these heavy times.
Which of your adjustments and initiatives do you think you’ll continue past the pandemic?
Even after Frank Family reopened with new safety protocols in June, our virtual experiences, which were originally introduced by necessity, are now here to stay. We recognize how meaningful connecting virtually with friends, family, and colleagues has been for all of us since the shut-down began. Frankly, we didn’t know how such small screens could make our world feel more expansive and we plan to continue the conversation online in the year to come.
How are the North Bay wildfires and power shutoffs affecting yours and your team’s outlook?
Winemaking always has its challenges. But our jobs are fun, and we love what we do. Sadly, the wildfires in recent years have taken some of that fun away. They also take an emotional toll on our team as it has become commonplace for us to be evacuated during the harvest season, our busiest time of the year. We were fortunate to install a generator two years ago which eliminates some of the worry that comes with power shutoffs. Regardless what nature throws at us, we’re ready for it and our outlook is always positive.