By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photos by Morgan Dawson Photography
I could barely believe the photograph, sent from a friend. The bottle in the picture said Dr. Konstantin Frank 1966 Johannisberg Riesling, but it did not make sense that a restaurant was selling such a bottle in December of 2009.
My mind raced. How did the restaurant get this wine? How did they know it was still worth drinking? How could it possibly be worth drinking at 43 years old? If it was real, could I get one? And what would it smell and taste like?
A small stash of Dr. Frank 1966 Riesling had been unearthed deep in the prodigious cellar of Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa, Florida. In the 1970s, Bern Laxer built a wine collection for his restaurant that was unrivaled in its diversity. Bottles came from the most storied regions, such as Bordeaux, as well as the less-heralded places like New York's Finger Lakes and even the backwoods of the wine world, such as Michigan. Some unknown day in that fruitful decade, Bern acquired several bottles of the Dr. Frank wine during his travels. The bottles went to rest in ideal storage conditions, not to be touched for more than 30 years.
The current sommeliers at the restaurant knew it was a special group of bottles, but they might not have known that it was the first commercial vintage at the historic Finger Lakes producer. The oldest bottles of Finger Lakes wine that appear on any restaurant wine list are typically found at the Village Tavern in Hammondsport on Keuka Lake. Those bottles date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s.
This was like discovering the Finger Lakes version of Lucy.
Outside the Dr. Frank facility, where a few odd bottles reside in the cellar, no known bottles exist of this wine - or any preceding the 1980s. I contacted the Bern's sommeliers to find out whether they might part with a bottle. They told me that they had sold a bottle to a dinner party in early December, where it was met with high praise, as impossible as that sounds.
"People undervalue the importance of proper storage," Bern's sommelier Eric Renaud told me. "When a wine is stored in the proper conditions, it can retain its youthful character for much longer than most people realize. We've poured wines that are 20 years old at the restaurant and our clients think the wine is the current release."
Renaud explained that this was the last of the Dr. Frank collection and the restaurant would agree to sell me the bottle. He said that no one knew it existed because they don't publish their full wine list. "If we boast about rare bottles, there's a run on them," he said. "And besides, we enjoy the opportunity to bring a rare and special bottle to the table for a client who might have a special appreciation for it. We find great joy in those moments."
Friends occasionally ask why I cherish well aged bottles, even when they tend to be past their prime. The answer is that wine is a story, and a mature wine has so much to say.
The bottle arrived in western New York last Wednesday, and considering its age I found the fill level to be right where I would expect it to be. The old label was classically beautiful. I asked current Dr. Frank president Frederick Frank why they abandoned the old label. He explained that it didn't display the family name prominently enough. The back label was also fascinating, written in an English that was at the very least odd, if not a bit broken. I wondered if Konstantin himself had penned the text, which reads as follows:
The delicious, fruity wine in this bottle represents a break through in the wine industry in the eastern United States. The grapes for making this "Natur Spaetlese" wine have been harvested many days after the general picking of grapes was ended. Without amelioration or any other additions or ingredients. Only this over-ripeness is responsible that these wines developed their natural finest actual bouquet and the most noblest individuality. After years of painstaking research in our vineyards overlooking beautiful Keuka Lake, one of the picturesque Finger Lakes of New York State, we have finally achieved the impossible and proven that our "Natur Spaetlese" wines made continuous since 1957 exclusively from the European grape varieties of genuine wine grape can be the peers of some of the "GREAT GROWTHS" of Germany, France, and many another part of Europe.
Saturday morning, before our New York Cork Report Wines of the Year tasting at Heart & Hands Wine Company on Cayuga Lake, I brought the bottle to see if it still had life. The cork came out largely in one piece. It looked like a spent shell, as Tom Mansell noted, with the top end covered in black mold but the bottom end solid and rather clean.
The most captivating part of this wine was the color.
On a recent visit to the Village Tavern, we ordered a bottle of 1993 Dr. Frank Riesling. It was beautiful but well on its way to oxidation and the color was a soft orange. The wine we were about to taste was 27 years older than the '93, which had already begun to turn. With time, oxygen turns Riesling brown or orange.
This bottle of 1966 Riesling had remarkably remained a pale yellow. It had every appearance of a wine that was bottled last year.
Upon seeing the color I immediately amended my prediction that it would be only as good as vinegar for salad dressing. The yellow hue announced that it was still going strong. I poured short glasses for the small group in the room and we buried our noses into the wine.
The aromatics were gorgeous and mature. Baked apple, creamy almond and petrol. Over several hours the petrol edge softened a bit, allowing more of a green apple aroma to come forward. We were dazzled.
We were considerably less dazzled when we put the wine in our mouths. Its acidity was sharp and off balance, but the flavors neatly matched the nose and an ending note of that creamy almond helped mellow the sensation. Still, we wondered why Dr. Konstantin Frank hadn't left more residual sugar in the wine.
But our criticism of the taste of the wine quickly dissipated. We were simply thrilled to experience this wine. It didn't prove that 1960s Finger Lakes Rieslings were world-class, but it demonstrated that Konstantin had the right idea in planting Riesling on the slopes above the various lakes. It told a simple, wonderful story: The winemaking in 1966 was perhaps less precise than we'd expect today, but it was happening in the right place. The wine was like a window into the past, a chance to experience the challenges and triumph of an awakening region. As for Rielsing, this was the right grape in the right spot.
I asked Fred Frank for more information on that wine. How exactly was it made? What did it cost on release? How much did they make? Those questions will remain a mystery. Fred replied that he could not find much, but he wanted to add, "We have held several vertical Dr. Frank Riesling tastings and results have indicated the wonderful ageability of our Rieslings. The combination of the old vines, cool climate resulting in higher acidities and lower pH values and the rocky soils contribute to a great aging profile."
Years from now someone else will discover an old Finger Lakes Riesling with less doubt and more confidence that we held for the '66. Perhaps they'll dig up a bottle from 2008 knowing that it has the staying power and quality to show beautifully even several decades later. This 1966 Dr. Frank is an unlikely forbear, having traveled to Florida and back before finally getting a chance to tell its story.