BY MARISA MCCANN | PHOTOS COURTESY OF FRANK FAMILY VINEYARDS
Frank Family Vineyards has exploded in popularity since its founding by former Disney Studios President, Rich Frank nearly three decades ago. But while their tagline has fittingly become “Great Wine Happens Every Day,” their success didn’t happen overnight.
What started as a weekend retreat for Frank became a fruitful winemaking venture, thanks hugely in part to the commitment and dedication of their longtime Winemaker and General Manager, Todd Graff. Petaluma-born and globally trained, Graff has been at the helm of this world-class winery since 2003 and will produce his 20th vintage for them this harvest.
WINEMAKING AND WANDERLUST
An alumnus of U.C. Davis’ class of 1984, Graff immediately launched his winemaking career as a cellar intern for Joseph Phelps Vineyards, where he learned the fundamentals and worked alongside fellow interns from some of the world’s top winegrowing regions. The friendships he made there took him around the globe chasing an endless harvest. “After two harvests at Phelps, I loaded up my bags and got a job in Australia’s Hunter Valley, where I followed the sun for a year pulling hoses in the cellar before moving on to Mosel, Germany, and then Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, France,” said Graff. Finally, he made his way back to Napa Valley, broke but full of invaluable life experience.
In 1987, Stag’s Leap Head Winemaker took a sabbatical, and Graff happily filled in as the Assistant Winemaker, receiving a healthy dose of decision-making early in his career. “I was feeling the travel bug again, though, and longed to get lost in a good way,” said Graff. “So, when I found out Schramsberg was looking for a sparkling winemaker for a joint venture in Portugal, I raised my hand, and somehow they picked me.” Graff worked the next five years as a “flying winemaker,” spending half his time in California and the other half in Portugal, where he consulted and led multiple sparkling wine projects. But the time came when he realized he needed to settle down, stop traveling, and get serious. When he was offered an opportunity to work with the Franks helping build their up-and-coming Cabernet Sauvignon program, he felt his calling. “If you’re going to be in Napa, Cabernet is the game to play,” said Graff, “so I left the sparkling wine world and came to Frank Family Vineyards.”
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
Frank Family was essentially a blank slate when Graff was appointed Winemaker in the early 2000s. “The opportunity was great, but it certainly wasn’t the same winery it is today,” stated Graff. His first vintage was only a few thousand cases, small enough to fit into several small barrels. Two decades later, Graff oversees the production of a robust wine program that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, méthode champenoise sparkling wine, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, as well as small lots of Sangiovese, Petite Sirah, and even dessert wines.
Across Frank Family’s far-reaching portfolio, every bottle is consistent in style – defined by purity of fruit and balance of flavor. “The good thing about having a knucklehead like me at the winery for 20 years is that there’s a consistency in our wines,” joked Graff. Kidding aside, Graff’s influence has achieved an elegant and balanced style with which Frank Family has become synonymous. “There isn’t one aspect of Frank Family that isn’t touched by Todd’s passion and precision,” said Co-founder Leslie Frank. “His commitment to crafting remarkable wines of balance is the thread of continuity in our style from vintage to vintage.”
In addition to defining the house style and making no compromises in his pursuit to maintain it, Graff established Frank Family’s vineyard-focused, winery-exclusive collection of wines during his tenure. By leveraging fruit from Frank Family’s exceptional estate vineyards and relationships with long-term grape growers, such as renowned Beckstoffer and Sangiacomo Vineyards, Graff has truly put Frank Family on the wine map. Their flagship Winston Hill Bordeaux-style blend and highly allocated, 98-point Patriarch Cabernet Sauvignon have been critic and consumer darlings for years now, but the winery has also built much of its reputation on Graff’s refined style of Chardonnay, which was recently nominated as the “Best White Wine” in the 2022 Napa Valley Register’s ‘Napa Valley’s Finest Awards.’
POURING IT FORWARD
Most recently voted ‘Best Local Winemaker’ in Napa Valley Life Magazine’s 2022 Readers Choice Awards, one may be surprised to learn that with all the talent and accolades Graff has amassed, he is a down-to-earth team player. Indeed his sense of collaboration is perhaps one of his most valuable assets as a winemaker and General Manager.
“I look at my job as a team game – we win as a team and lose as a team,” said Graff referring to his small but mighty crew made up by Assistant Winemaker, Corey Garner, who has been at Frank Family for six years, and Cellar Master, Armando Padilla, who has been at the winery even longer than Todd. The three have worked closely together for many years, and Todd hopes to bestow the legend-turned legacy that is Frank Family Vineyards onto them in time. “I’m not going anywhere; I’ll be in Napa for life, but who knows, ten years from now, I would love to be an emeritus winemaker and just come in for some blending trials and tastings and then leave for lunch at the Rutherford Grill or go fly fishing,” teased Graff. Regardless of where Todd may be, he will have risen to marquee status by lifting others.
A TOAST TO TODD’S 20TH
With such distinctive style, passion, and expertise designating his 20 years at Frank Family, the winery celebrated in Todd’s honor with an exclusive wine-paired dinner earlier this October. Hosted by Todd at their Calistoga-based winery, the evening featured some of his favorite vintages from his two-decade tenure, including his inaugural vintage of Winston Hill Cabernet Sauvignon in a 9-liter format and a ten-year-old, late disgorged sparking wine called Lady Edythe, a nod to Todd’s time at Schramsberg. The wines were served alongside an exquisite five-course dinner curated by Napa Valley preeminent chef Christina Machamer. The momentous event was a prelude to the celebrations Frank Family has planned for 2023, which marks the winery’s 30th anniversary. A commemorative wine, an elaborate event series, and the unveiling of a brand-new Howard Backen-designed hospitality space all await in the new year.