A Look Back: Frank Family’s History

More than just a place

In 1892, San Francisco legend Lillie “Firebelle” Hitchcock Coit (of Coit Tower fame) purchased the land around Larkmead Lane and Railroad in 1892. She planted vines and sold them for the high price at the time of $14 a ton. Outside our winery today is a gazebo and a bell, remnants from the train station Lillie built for herself. Lillie eventually fled the country and the property was sold. The winery she purchased (the stone building on our property and pictured on our Napa Valley-tier wine bottles) was built in 1884. Originally, this building was for storage; folks could leave their wine within its thick walls for safe storage while they hopped on the nearby train, and could collect their bottles upon their return. The building was refinished with native sandstone from Diamond Mountain (when caves were carved out of the mountainside for winemaking, they used the leftover stone for this building) in 1906. The walls of this building are two feet thick with this Diamond Mountain stone. The aptly named Stone Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (listed on February 1, 1982) and is a Point of Historical Interest in the state of California. Sometime after 1906, the building was sold to the Salmina brothers and abandoned at Prohibition.

Lillie Hitchcock Coit, otherwise known as “Firebelle.”

The Solari Story

In 1928, Andre Tchelistcheff, the “dean of American winemakers,” claimed Larkmead, Inglenook, Beringer Brothers, and Beaulieu were four of the best wineries in the industry. Twenty years later, the winemaking Solari family purchased the entire Larkmead property from Napa County in 1948 and grew grapes for winemakers. John Solari owned what is now Larkmead Vineyards as well as what is now our Stone Building. In the 1950’s, Solari was diagnosed with cancer and sold the winery to Hanns Kornell, but kept the vineyards for his family. Two years later, the cancer had disappeared, and unable to purchase the winery back from Kornell, Solari began construction of his own winery on his vineyard property, now Larkmead Vineyards.

The Kornell era

Photo taken in 1979.

Hanns Kornell, a German-born Frenchman, studied at the renowned Geisenheim Enological Institute and pursued winemaking in the Champagne region of France. During World War II, he escaped Europe and arrived in New York in 1939. After working in the American wine industry for several years, he opened Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars for business in 1958. All of his “California Champagnes” were made in the traditional French methode champenoise, despite the fact that most domestic sparklers of the era were made via the much cheaper, more efficient tank method. His best wine was an homage to his German roots; called Sehr Trocken (very dry) made from Riesling. Kornell’s winery ultimately failed and fell into bankruptcy in 1991. Kornell passed away at the age of 83 in 1994.

The interior of what used to be Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars- now Frank Family Vineyards stone building.

A new day

Rich Frank purchased a home in Rutherford on what would become our Winston Hill vineyard in 1988. At the time, he was the President of Walt Disney Studios and wanted a getaway home in the Napa Valley. There were high quality grapes on the property and in 1990 Rich told some of his friends and neighbors he was thinking about getting into the wine business. Two years later, Rich received a midnight phone call at his home in Los Angeles; a phone call that would change everything. The historic stone building that had housed Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars was for sale! Rich jumped at the opportunity and less than 24 hours later, was a winery owner. In July of 1993, our doors opened and we started selling wine out of a small white shack on our property.

Today

Frank Family Vineyards is now consistently recognized for its excellence in winemaking and hospitality. The acclaimed interior designer Erin Martin finished remodeling our tasting room during the summer of 2017; and the new design boasts various rooms with refined ambiance but with the same down-to-earth spirit our visitors love. Whether tasters are seated on our inviting outdoor patio, or standing at one of our casual bars, our tasting room is the perfect environment for learning the depth and breadth of our wine portfolio, gaining insight into our family story, or simply enjoying the scenery and each other’s company.

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