From showbiz to chardonnay, catching lightning in a bottle

Watching 90,000 bottles of premium wines burn for three days can definitely pop a fellow’s cork, especially when a goodly portion of the fire’s fuel is your vineyard’s entire stock.

But nearly two decades of helming TV and movie operations at Paramount and Disney — plus riding out the dot.com rise and fall — readied Rich Frank for the sort of draining experience that hit his Frank Family Vineyards. The $40 million warehouse fire wiped out not only all his stock, but thousands of bottles his company had been storing for other vineyards.

“I sat there and watched it burn,” Frank says. “It helps to have that entertainment mindset: It’s all going to happen, it’s going to happen tomorrow and it’s going to be great.”

Two years after the fire, his vineyard is almost back to normal, with work nearly done on a 100,000-square-foot replacement warehouse (replete with sprinklers), though it still won’t have any sparkling wines this year.

Frank, one of four Par execs who took over then-struggling Disney in 1985, says he departed as Disney Studios chief in 1995 after Frank Wells’ death and a rising feud between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg that stuck the ever-gentlemanly Frank in a very unpleasant middle.

“It just ceased being fun,” he says, though he remains a Disney stockholder and Eisner backer.

He spent a frustrating year running the parent company of cabler E!, then left entertainment for grapes. More recently, he has added other grape-growing properties to the Larkmead Vineyard and champagne cellar he bought in 1993 with Koerner Rombauer.

Now, Frank sells every one of 10,000 cases of wine the vineyard produces, from a $28 chardonnay to a $65 reserve Cabernet, through the Calistoga winery’s tasting room and upscale restaurants such as Los Angeles’ Patina and Water Grill.

He also remains chairman of Food.com, the online site he started in 1998 with backing from Tribune Co., Clear Channel, Kraft, McDonald’s, Blockbuster and Gemstar/TV Guide. The site is still living off funding those companies put up two years ago, while trying new ways to stretch its brand.

And though Frank is resolutely out of entertainment, his family isn’t. Son Darryl is co-prexy of DreamWorks’ TV operation. His other son, Paul, left Sony to become veepee of media for NapaStyle, the media company founded by chef Michael Chiarello that now has a PBS cooking show and other ventures.

But even out of the business, Frank says he sees similarities between making entertainment and making wine.

“Grapes are like a script; if you don’t have good grapes, you can’t have a good wine,” Frank says. “Both processes take a year. Both are selling something no one’s seen before.”

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