Who They Were Before the First Pour
Entrepreneurs, media personalities, hi-tech executives, sports figures, philanthropists and a range of people who reached the pinnacle of their professions in previous careers, have eventually gravitated to the Napa Valley. “Something” attracted them to this magical place to become vintners – becoming entrenched in the community, finding a way to contribute to the community and enrich peoples’ lives through wine.
The Napa Valley is filled with people who reinvented themself, successful in previous careers, employing their expertise, creativity and passion to create something special for others through the magic of place, hospitality and wine.
Leslie and Rich Frank, Frank Family Vineyards
…Family Being the Emphasis
For more than 25 years, from Canada, to Seattle to Los Angeles, Leslie Miller Frank joined millions of families in their living rooms, reporting breaking news. Events ranged from celebrity trials and interviews on the red carpet to coverage of local, national and international events. Leslie was on the ground in the midst of Hurricane Katrina and reported first-hand the events of 9/11. As an Emmy award-winning journalist, Leslie brought news into the homes of America with objectivity, analysis, understanding and empathy.
During his several decades as the head of Paramount Studios and CEO of The Disney Company, Rich Frank helped bring laughter, pleasure and sometimes tears, into the lives of millions of Americans through the media of both the large and small screen. Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, The Little Mermaid, The Dead Poets Society and The Lion King are some of the TV shows and movies that were produced under Rich’s watch, helping to bring them to life for the viewing public.
Their careers behind them, today Leslie and Rich continue to enrich and influence lives on a daily basis, as vintners and proprietors of Frank Family Vineyards in the Napa Valley. They, and their staff, welcome visitors graciously, with friendship and warmth, into the beautiful and comfortable Frank Family Vineyards tasting room. Family is not just a buzz word to Leslie and Rich. Every staff member is part of the extended Frank family, and their goal is for you to experience their wines and passion, and feel you are a part of that family.
Falling in Love with Napa Valley
Both fell in love with Napa Valley in the 1990s. For Rich, It was not only a place of beauty (and great wine and food), but a place to escape from the everyday world, sit back, relax and decompress. In 1992, when the opportunity came about for Rich to purchase property, he jumped at it.
Leslie also found the Napa Valley to be a retreat, starting to visit in the 1990s, as a getaway from the fast-paced world of television news. They met by chance in Napa in 2006, not even knowing they were in different areas of the media industry (in fact, Leslie at the time worked for ABC, a Disney Company). The story of how Leslie and Rich met is in itself a fairytale, and could be the plot of a movie. After their initial meeting in 2006, they reconnected (again by chance) in 2008, ultimately marrying in 2012; the way they grew, complemented and worked together is magical – a magic that continues day-to-day.
The Next Level
Finally leaving her ABC position in 2013, throwing herself into the already well-established Frank Family Vineyards, Leslie quickly became an integral part of the business. Taking this award-winning winery to a new level, she has been instrumental in creating a place of hospitality, comfort and relaxation that today is a Napa Valley destination “must.”
Leslie is a people person. Her career and experiences have left an indelible mark on who she is. She can quickly differentiate between the frivolous and serious, and is extremely intuitive. When I asked her if there was anything specific during her career that had a life changing impact, she shared two experiences with me: Her coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and the unimaginable destruction, tragedy and personal connections that she witnessed firsthand, and then reported on.
The other event was by coincidence. Leslie arrived in New York, (returning) from Paris on September 10, 2001, only to wake up on the morning of 9/11, and subsequently being on the ground covering that world shattering event. These experiences made Leslie realize how thankful, grateful and generous people can be, even after having lost everything. In the face of total destruction and loss, people still could show generosity, care and humanity for others.
Rich is thoughtful, analytical with a quick smile and relaxed demeanor. His successful business career, exposure to so many different personalities and working with so many people, gives him a unique insight as to how people “click,” which goes hand in hand with Leslie’s effusiveness. Their abilities and personalities truly complement each other, creating a whole that is much more than the individual parts.
Rich related an instance when he saw a script, and intuitively knew this was going to be one of those unique, great productions. He told his director, “I don’t care who you hire for the parts….just DON’T mess it up.” The script: the Oscar-winning Dead Poets Society. He uses the same approach with his winemaking team. Give them something great to work with, and “just don’t mess it up.” Rich lets people do what they do best, without micromanaging them.
The Frank Family Winery Experience
Leslie and Rich love being with people, and describe themselves as being people persons. It’s not at all unusual to have either of them spend time in the tasting room, sipping, chatting and enjoying the company of their visitors, bringing something special into their lives: The Frank Family Winery experience.
For so many decades, both Leslie and Rich were an integral part of the American family through the medium of television and cinema. Today, they are more directly and personally involved in enriching peoples’ lives, one-on-one, through the hospitality and magic of their winery – and the Napa Valley, which is so ingrained in their beings. There is little that gives them more pleasure than sharing their award-winning wines, in their intimate tasting room on the parklike grounds of the winery – with their extended family.
Interesting Fun Facts
This is a historical Napa Valley site:
• The property was originally purchased in 1892 by Lillie Hitchcock Coit (of Coit Tower fame)
• The gazebo and bell are remnants from Ms. Coit’s private train station
• The original Larkmead winery structure dates from 1884 – and is still in use today
Frank Family sparkling wines are extra special
• Four different styles of sparkling wine are produced, all in the traditional “methode champenoise”
• Frank Family is the only Napa Valley winery that hand riddles every bottle of sparkling wine
Family, means family
• The property has hosted many family celebrations: Rich and Leslie were married there, both of Rich’s sons were married there.
• Rich’s two sons, successful in their television industry careers, continue to be Frank Family Winery Ambassadors
There are four vineyards
• The Benjamin Vineyard, named after the youngest grandchild
• The Lewis Vineyard, named after the oldest grandchild
• The S&J Vineyard, named after grandchildren Stella and Jeremy
• The Winston Hill Vineyard, named after their late springer spaniel, Winston
Wines consistently receive accolades
• Their 2012 Patriarch (an homage to Rich’s father), 96 point score by Wine Spectator Magazine
• Wine and Spirits Magazine named Frank Family Chardonnay #1 wine by the glass overall in America’s fine dining restaurants 2018.
• Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine named Frank Family Vineyard 2017 Winery of the Year-the only time a winery has received this accolade twice, the first time being in 2012
• Consistently has been voted “Best Napa Winery” in Bay Area A-list competition-all 8 years running
• Both Leslie and Rich are committed to being intricately involved in the community, both serving on different community boards and associations in Napa Valley
Leslie and Rich want to have guests, not customers, offering them a unique, enjoyable experience, saying: “Tasting delicious wines in an informative and hospitable setting is what we strive for.” And-do they deliver! Visit Frank Family Vineyards. Become part of a new family – have fun, relax, drink good wine and find your own special retreat.
Lauren Ackerman, Ackerman Family Vineyards & Ackerman Heritage House
She Came to Napa to Buy a Horse – and Enriched a Community
Lauren Ackerman will tell you she came to Napa in 1994 to buy a horse – and ended up purchasing a vineyard. The story itself is fun and fascinating – and the beginning of an amazing adventure. In the 24 years since, Lauren has had a major impact on the Napa Valley community through her wine, philanthropy, vision and preservation of history. But before “the first pour,” in her previous life, she was a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur.
With a degree in public relations and business from USC, and an MBA from Pepperdine University in strategic marketing, Lauren entered the world of high tech, her expertise being strategic marketing and brand building. She excelled in her field and in 1994 turned down an offer for “her dream job.” Instead, she and her husband purchased the vineyard (and horse) and Lauren found a new focus and direction in life.
Lauren immediately threw herself into the community, sitting on boards, becoming involved in charities, building up a vineyard and then, in 2003, overseeing the release of the first vintage of Ackerman Family wines. Ackerman wines quickly earned a reputation. Available in the tasting room or direct, they also appear on the wine lists of restaurants such as The French Laundry, Auberge du Soleil and La Toque in addition to several others.
Preservation is a key objective of Lauren’s. Following through on that theme, from the time the Ackermans purchased the vineyard, they farmed sustainably and organically, committed to preserve and respect the land. In 2009, Ackerman Vineyards became the first CCOF organically certified vineyard in Coombsville. However, the story of the vineyard and wines is only part of Lauren’s story and vision-and only a portion of her passion.
When the Planets Align
In 2010, Lauren’s life took a turn, when she drove by an old Victorian mansion in downtown Napa. Lauren animatedly tells about the day, early in 2010, when she was driving past an old, dilapidated Queen Anne Victorian home … “something” impelled her to pull over and stare at the home. A few months later, without any intention of purchasing the property, but just out of curiosity, Lauren called a Realtor® friend and asked to see the home. It was neglected, and in total disrepair … but she had a vision, and telling the story Lauren recounts that “the universe helped me get here.” Lauren put in an offer, escrow closed in August of 2010 – and Lauren began a five-year project to restore the 1888 Victorian home, originally known as The Gifford House, built by Sarah Hayman.
As Lauren guides you through the rooms, bringing them to life, she details every step of her adventure. You can feel her exuberance as she relives the entire experience. Lauren painstakingly researched every aspect of the home, and its previous owners, discovering that the original cost for the land was $10 in gold coins. The architect was Luther Turton, and it reportedly took only 90 days to build the mansion. Lauren became the sixth owner in this home’s 130-year history.
In order to properly restore this old lady, Lauren meticulously searched for the right people, tradesmen, furnishings and accessory items to make each and every room period perfect. In the summer of 2014, Lauren embarked on a journey to Oxford, England, to study the English Victorian era. It took four years of meticulous research for her to restore, duplicate, search for paintings and discover furnishing to make each and every room period perfect. The mansion today stands as a reflection of a bygone era – and a single jewel of history – the time period – and Napa Valley itself.
Take a Step Back in Time
In 2015, renamed The Ackerman Heritage House, this grand old lady opened her doors – and the estimated 6000 visitors who have since toured the rooms and experienced elegant wine tastings, can attest to the uniqueness and special aura this home presents.
Lauren will tell you that entering this home, you take a step back in time, experiencing Sarah Hayman’s spirit. This is more than a museum, it is a living piece of history. Everything (except for the gourmet cooks kitchen) reflects what would have gone on in the house during those early years. It truly is an 1888 Living Natural History Museum – replicating, room to room, events that were happening in the world at that time.
Lauren combines her passion for wine and history into a most unique experience – and those feeling her personal touch, cannot help but depart in awe, and changed.
Wine lovers are treated to a tasting of Ackerman wines in “The Aviary,” a 1910 original Carriage House. Or, with special arrangements, they may accommodate you for a tasting in the dining room or parlor of the Heritage House. On my visit, we sat around the kitchen table, drinking in the history, and passion, as Lauren regaled us with the story of her adventure, her love for not re-creating, but rebuilding a piece of the past. As Lauren says “This is my Field of Dreams Project.” She (re) built it, and “they” have come, and continue to do so.
Lauren Ackerman, entrepreneur and visionary, has created what may be the most unique experience in Napa Valley – and all because her husband brought her to Napa to buy a horse 24 years ago.
Before you do anything else on your trip to Napa-be certain to book a tour and tasting, at The Ackerman Heritage House.
Interesting Fun Facts
• Lauren is writing a book about the house and its storied history. This will be a fascinating read, and accurate historical reference.
• Named Napa’s coolest Wine Tasting Experience by Food and Wine Magazine 2018
• Lauren’s next project is to convert the attic area into a period-correct speakeasy
• Area top chefs prepare food and wine paired lunches or dinners
• One Sunday a month, an afternoon English Tea is offered
• Lauren is currently involved in various community events and charities. She sits on the board of SEE International and is one of five women vintners honored this year at the “V Foundation Winemaker Celebration” (annually focusing on a different type of cancer)
• Ackerman re-releases their library wines when they are 10 years old
“The house gives a sense of history of where Napa started, when there were less than 140 wineries. Combined with wine, it brings together what I love in life.” – Lauren Ackerman
Christi Coors Ficeli, Goosecross Cellars
Keeping The American Dream Alive
The Story of Goosecross Cellars, and Christi Coors Ficeli, goes back 150 years, when her great great grandfather, Adolph Coors (originally Kohrs) emigrated from Germany to the United States, arriving in New York. Eventually Adolph found his way to Golden, Colorado where he set down his family’s roots, purchasing a business which evolved into Adolph Coors Golden Brewery. In many cases you could add “and the rest is history,” but actually, this is only the beginning of the story of the American Coors family, and a preamble to Christi Coors Ficeli’s story.
As so many emigrant families envisioned during those early years when the United States was growing and was a land of dreams and opportunity, Adolph had a far reaching plan for his family. The brewery business grew, expanding into other areas. Ensuing generations looked to the future, determined to build a base to be carried on. Today, the fifth generation is involved in businesses as diverse as salad fast casual restaurants, hardwood and plywood importing, medical device and ceramics businesses, and even a winery – Goosecross Cellars, which was Christi’s vision for the future, in addition to her connection to the past.
There is no “given” in the Coors family that any family member will automatically enter the family business – just the opposite – they must prove themselves first. Once established, then at the appropriate time, they make a presentation before the family board, with a detailed business plan to show returns to the family in the future. Christi’s road to being a vintner and winery owner was no small task – but one that today gives her a great amount of pleasure and self-satisfaction.
Her Father’s Daughter
Growing up, Christi had a close relationship with her father, and as she relates “my dream was to become my father,” in terms of growing and running a business. Their conversations consistently revolved around all aspects of business, and early on Christi saw herself working for the brewery. After graduating in 1996 from Santa Clara University with a major in marketing and minors in management and family business, followed by an MBA from the University of Denver, Christi’s first job out of college was selling photocopiers for Xerox Corporation; two years later she felt ready to work for “the family business.” Dad had a different idea, telling Christi to go back and get more experience. Christi’s next job was a position with Gallo in sales and eventually in marketing. Two significant events happened during her 2-1/2 years at Gallo: She decided she hated marketing, but loved sales, people and creating. She also met her husband-to-be at Gallo, marrying in 2003.
When I asked Christi “why wine and not beer,” she told me, after (finally) working for Coors, and 14 years in the beer industry – she was ready to move on and do her own thing. Married, with two children, she wanted a different lifestyle, different geography and a challenge. The challenge: To run and build a business (like generations before her had), to be in control, and to make the decisions. She wanted the ability to be creative, to implement a plan without waiting for board approval and to be in a place where she could bring up her children and spend quality time with them. She loved the Napa Valley and had a passion for wine – it seems there was a road to be travelled.
That “A-Ha” Moment
It was on a trip to the Napa Valley in 2012 where Christi had what is generally referred to as an “A-Ha” moment; in this case however, it was more of an epiphany, a vision. Visiting what was then a sleepy 30-year-old winery, Christi saw the expanse of vineyards in front of her, stretching to the hills behind. She felt an instant connection. Always having loved wine, she knew she wanted to make wine – but wanted to create a place where people could come, connect, relax and have the same feeling she did at that moment. Getting a business plan together, presenting it to the board (“you want to buy a winery because you want a lifestyle change?”), Christi sold her business plan, and in 2013 purchased Goosecross Cellars.
Christi got to work – and the results have been dramatic. In 2014, Bill Nancarrow was brought on board as head winemaker and in 2015 the new hospitality center/winery was opened. But not just a hospitality center, a visual statement and experience!
Entering the tasting room is like walking into a living picture, where the outside is brought in, but you still have the feeling you are outside as well. This is the atmosphere Christi wanted to give visitors when she decided to purchase the property. Spread out before you is a giant window. When the weather is nice it fully opens … putting you into the vista of the vineyards and mountains, it is truly breathtaking. When you walk into the tasting room, you are met with a prelude of what awaits: A memorable tasting, in an elegant setting (whether indoor or out), with the grace of the surrounding vineyards being poured into your glass.
Living the Dream
Christi is a woman with boundless energy and enthusiasm. She is community oriented, sitting on the Board of Regents of Santa Clara University, as an honorary commander in the USAF Reserve, out of Travis Air Force base and on the executive committee on the board of the Napa Chamber. She is a people person, being intricately involved in all aspects of the winery, and of course, is dedicated to her two children, raising them in an area surrounded by beauty and in the type of lifestyle she imagined.
Christi is proud to have worked for and earned the opportunity to build a boutique family business – pursuing her dream. Asking Christi what she likes BEST about her business, she tells you it is the ability to be creative, make decisions and be able to impart something new and magical for everyone who walks through the door – and experiences their wine and winery.
Christi Coors Ficeli has successfully created her winery and is continuing the proud heritage of family and her American Dream. And, what of the sixth generation – her children? They will have the same opportunities Christi has had – and if they want to continue in or start their own family business, they will have to prove themselves first, and create their own concept for the future-while honoring their legacy.