Frey Vineyards is a third-generation family-owned and operated winery located at the pristine headwaters of the Russian River in Redwood Valley, in Mendocino County, CA.
Jonathan and Katrina Frey met while apprenticing with the famed organic gardener, Alan Chadwick, in Covelo, CA in the 1970s.
When they returned to the family farm, they gathered up Jonathan’s brother, Matthew, and the rest of the enthusiastic younger siblings and established extensive vegetable gardens, vineyards, and fruit tree plantings. These continue to be planted and nurtured to this day. I recently interviewed Katrina Frey about the winery.
Jonathan, Matthew, and Katrina founded the winery in 1980. Remembering that time, Katrina said, “We were the first organic winery in the US. Everyone thought we were crazy to make wines with no additives like sulfur dioxide. We were deeply influenced by our work with Allen Chadwick, and we knew we wanted to farm organically. At that time paraquat was the most commonly used herbicide in California vineyards. We were a product of the Vietnam era and all its horrors, so we found that appalling. Here were US farmers dumping it onto their own land!”
The Freys sourced certified organic grapes from neighbors while planting their own vineyards which began an intensive decade of making wine without the use of sulfites, a synthetic preservative added to most other wines. (Even wines made with organically grown grapes add sulfites.)
They corresponded with early organic grape growers in the EU and Phil LaRocca from LaRocca Vineyards in Chico, CA. Katrina recalled, “We were a small and dedicated group of people working to perfect the processing of organic wine. There was a lot of poor wine being made, and we had to get over that taste stigma.”
Frey Vineyards specializes in combining the best of modern and traditional winemaking methods to showcase distinctive varietal flavors. Through minimal manipulation in the cellar, their wines express the authentic character of the soil and climate – their terroir.
For over three decades they have been vanguards in crafting wine without added sulfites. Even wines made with organically grown grapes usually use sulfites and they can cause adverse allergic reactions in some people.
Katrina commented that “By studying wine chemistry, we got to a place of growing better grapes and producing better wine. Today our wines are winning gold medals in competition with conventionally produced wines.”
The benefits of four decades of organic stewardship are obvious in the abundance of quality farm products, healthy people, and diversity of wildlife that grace the vineyards.
In 1996 led by brother Luke’s efforts, Frey Vineyards became Biodynamic Certified. They were the first US winery to put Demeter and Biodynamic on the label.
Katrina said, “We were drawn to Rudolf Steiner’s concept of the whole farm organism – we wanted to include our farm animals in the farmscape – cows, goats, sheep, and we were focused on the biodiversity of our farm. In the Demeter standard, you need to set aside 10% towards biodiversity, and this takes many different strategies – for us it translates to 75% of our property is wild oak and madrone forest with a wide variety of native species. “
Frey’s organic and biodynamic farming methods encourage care for the soil, groundwater, and wildlife, promoting rich biodiversity in the vineyard.
The land is held as an unspoiled natural habitat with a diverse mix of native plants and animals. As stewards of the land, they emphasize producing organic and biodynamic wine of the highest quality while caring for the planet and palate alike.
As part of their biodynamic practices, they have introduced cows, goats, and sheep into their holistic land management.
For their daily pasture during winter and spring, the animals graze in between vineyard rows on biodynamic cover-crops. This foraging simulates a herd of animals in the wild. As the cows mow through the vineyard, they add nitrogen-laden manures to the soil. Back in the barnyard, these community members provide the manure needed for the homeopathic preparations of the biodynamic compost.
Unfortunately, this truly idyllic and pristine biodynamic farm was in the path of the horrific wildfires in October 2016. The vineyard sustained a direct hit.
While they are still digging out, they are building a new state-of-the-art winemaking facility just 2 miles down the road. This will allow them to expand their production and improve their quality with temperature-controlled rooms and fire-proof buildings.
The new facility will have a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment program based on a bio-filtro system that removes up to 99% of the water contaminants with the help of the digestive power of worms and microbes. Katrina explained, “The proteins are digested by the worms, and in just 4 hours it comes out exceeding EPA standards.”
While still dealing with the loss of 14 out of 16 family homes on the property, they are planning a facility grand opening in May 2019.
Katrina commented, “It will include offices, a tasting room, and an organic garden. It will be a wonderful destination for wine lovers to be introduced to organic and biodynamic principles. We are going to have one big party next May!”
I asked Katrina about the future of organic wine, and she indicated, “Organic wine makes up only 2% of the overall wine market in the US, but it’s emerging as the fastest growing wine category. In 2016 the case volume grew by 10% which is 5 times the average for regular wine.”
There are indications that there will be more and more demand for organic wine.
Katrina said, “I also think that the glyphosate issue will come bearing down on the wine industry soon. Roundup is almost ubiquitous in conventionally farmed vineyards. Consumers are becoming more aware of glyphosate in their food. There have been a few independent analyses of wine that show there are residues in most bottles of wine. Alcohol doesn’t have an ingredient panel like other products. Lobbying over the years prevented a mandatory ingredient panel. There is a list of 80 chemicals used in the conventional wine industry including nutrients, colors, stabilizers, and acids.”
She continued, “In many ways, wine has an undeserved reputation as a natural beverage, but it’s not the case. With the millennials’ demand for transparency, people will wake up to the fact that most wine is contaminated. That’s why in 1980 we became the first certified organic winery in the US, and we continue to convert acres to organic today.”
Three generations continue to live and work on this biodynamic farm literally rising from the ashes, making the world a safer and more delicious place.
The next time you get a chance, raise a toast to their phoenix with a glass of Frey wine!