I remember first seeing Frey organic
wines in the early 80s at the old Davis Food Co-op store,
the first organic wines to come out on the market. According
to Wine Spectator magazine the Freys, along with their friends
the Fetzers, “pioneered the organic viticulture movement
back in the 1970s.” Twenty four years after they brought
their first wines to market in 1980, the Frey family wine business
is still going strong, selling 62,000 cases a year all over
the US and a number of countries.
The Freys are much more than just a wine production family,
although the production of 62,000 cases of wine from the ground
up is enough to take 110% of the time of any family. Just
one example of their broad activities was their co-leadership
of the Mendocino County campaign to ban GM crops, which successfully
passed this spring, a huge accomplishment, making the county
the first in the US to do so.
In 1961 Paul and Beba Frey, both originally from Brooklyn,
New York, went west with their young family and bought a farm
in the inland part of Mendocino County near the town of Ukiah,
100 miles north of San Francisco. They went on to plant the
land to vineyards and have 12 kids. Most of those twelve now
work for the family business, plus a number of the next generation.
The farm is in the northernmost reaches of the Russian River
watershed and is surrounded by thousands of acres of rugged
hills forested with Douglas fir, oak, madrone, and the easternmost
of the coast redwoods. The Frey vineyards are part of the
Redwood Valley American Viticultural Area. The area has the
desirable combination of cool evening ocean breezes and good
summer sun and warm temperatures.
In the first decade of farming the Freys sold their grapes
to wineries. Beba remembers delivering their grapes to the
Parducci winery and the senior Parducci directing them to
dump the grapes in a location apart from where all of the
other growers were dumping theirs. “It was because our
grapes were dry-farmed and from a good area, he wanted ours
for his premium wines,” says Beba.
In the mid-1970s, son Jonathan Frey and his wife Katrina
trained under the organic gardening guru, Alan Chadwick at
his Covelo, California site. Later they tried organic truck
crop production on the Frey farm, but this was difficult,
being so far from urban areas.
In 1978, when the Freys were regularly selling their grapes
to a winery near Santa Cruz, the winery reneged late in the
season on an agreement to buy the harvest. That kicked the
Freys into action and they started winemaking. To the chagrin
of the Santa Cruz winery, their wine from the Frey Cabernet
grapes from previous years’ harvests won three gold
medals that year. But it was too late, the Freys were off
to winemaking on their own.
The organic approach that Jonathan and Katrina brought to
the farm was not only for the growing of grapes but the making
of wines using organic methods as well, which includes not
adding sulfites, an approach to winemaking that demands skill
and yields a more natural wine. “We went to the Coturri
winery in Sonoma where the Coturri family was making natural
wines. Tony and Phil Coturri helped us get started making
wines without sulfites,” says Jonathan. With the leadership
of California organic winemakers like the Freys, no added
sulfite has become the US standard for organic winemaking
Jonathan downplays the skill needed to make wine without
sulfites. “It becomes more like beer making. Beer is
a fermented product that can spoil easily because it doesn’t
have any sulfites.” Two of the most important things
the Freys did to prevent spoilage was to start steam cleaning
all of their equipment and to buy a state of the art (in the
80s) bottling machine from Germany, which uses nitrogen gas
to exclude air. They’ve done such a good job of excluding
air from their winemaking process that they now have to make
sure that a certain amount of oxygen gets into the wines in
order to get good maturation.
Ninety acres of vineyard are the production backbone, which
produce grapes for a third of the wines the Freys make. The
rest of the grapes they buy from 18 certified organic local
farmers, 15 of those for 20 years now. The Frey vineyard grapes
are two thirds red varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel,
Merlot, Syrah, Petit Syrah, and Pinot Noir, and the rest white
grapes – Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
The vineyards for the most part are no longer completely
dry farmed, except for some of the old, deep-rooted vines.
Some water is needed to keep the vines from shutting down
and the grapes from turning to raisins, and to get the clusters
to hang well into the fall. Long hang times help develop the
rich flavors for superior wines. This level of water gives
yields of about four tons per acre.
During the 1990s, led by Luke Frey, the Freys converted to
Biodynamic methods and are now certified by Demeter, as well
as by CCOF/NOP. “Biodynamic farming is more than just
compost preparations and soil and crop care,” says Luke,
“the inner self is an integral part of Biodynamics.
Everything we are as humans, everything inside our selves,
is reflected in the outside world. With Biodynamic farming,
the developmental needs of people are addressed. The heart
is involved in the work, not just the intellect.”
Staying with the Freys and seeing how they interact with
each other and how family- and community-oriented they are
showed me that Luke’s statements are not just empty
rhetoric. I had stayed with the Freys as a graduate student
doing my vineyard research and they always treated me like
I was a long-time neighbor and friend. Teenagers seem to be
the predominant cohort at this stage of the extended family,
and the relaxed atmosphere and easily engaged conversations
with the youngsters make for an enjoyable visit.
Luke told me that the recent spate of commercial California
vineyard conversions to Biodynamics, spurred by the conversion
of a number of big name French vineyards, will pose some challenges
to the Biodynamic community. Can vineyards with investors,
business plans and bottom lines remain true to the Biodynamic
Derek Dahlen is taking over much of the operation of the
vineyards from Luke this year. Derrick recently received a
Master’s degree from New College of California with
a focus on Biodynamic agriculture, studying under well-known
Biodynamic practitioner Andrew Lorand. Dahland said that they
apply all of the Biodynamic preparations in the Frey vineyards:
the 500 horn manure and 501 horn silica as sprays at the beginning
of the spring and fall growing seasons. The 502 through 507
compost preparations, in which chamomile, dandelion, stinging
nettle, oak bark, yarrow, and valerian are used. Each of the
herbs is prepared with a specific animal part, such as cow
skull or stag’s bladder, and each of these is associated
with a planet.
“Rudolf Steiner (the German originator of Biodynamic
farming methods in the 1920s), saw the farmer as kind of like
the conductor of an orchestra,” says Jonathan. According
to Jonathan, the Biodynamic approach is flexible and open
ended for adaptation to local conditions, and that there are
Biodynamicists who are developing preparations based on native
North American plant species, which may be something they
try someday. “Steiner was clear about this, that Biodynamic
methods could be adapted to the local environment,”
As far as pest and disease in the vineyards, there aren’t
a lot of problems, according to both Dahland and Jonathan
Frey. Powdery mildew was a little worse this year because
of the wet spring and is generally treated with sulfur dust.
Leaf hoppers can get fairly high, but they tend to feed on
the lower leaves, which dry up and fall off, which is not
Oats are the preferred cover crop, and are harvested for
grain and well as for compost-making. The vineyards had gotten
to the point where the legume-grass mixes were putting to
much nitrogen into the soil, so the oats work well. A walk-behind
sickle bar mower is used for harvesting the oats. Soil tests
of the vineyards show better than 3% organic matter average,
a better than average level for California. One vineyard has
the middles planted to annual crops – squash and sunflower.
Frey wines are sold in some 44 states – California,
New York, New Jersey, and Florida are the biggest buyers.
The rather arcane liquor laws in the US make it necessary
to have a separate distributor for each state. Most states
demand the winery buy a license for as much as $300. Then
there are taxes and paperwork. Twenty-two states allow mail
order sales via the Internet, but for other states it’s
a felony to do so. All this makes it very difficult for small
wineries. Five percent of the Frey business is via the Internet,
the rest is wholesale.
Japan is the biggest importer of Frey wines, and in fact,
at one time it was some kind of fad for the young women in
Japan to drink organic red wine from California. During that
time Japan accounted for 12% of total sales.
Sales in Europe are more difficult, as the Europeans can
be funny about non-sulfited wines, especially the French,
according to Katrina, who directs sales for Frey. The French
are actually accustomed to the taste of sulfites in wine.
EU organic regulations allow sulfites to be added in organic
The Freys sell certified Biodynamic wines, which make up
about 11% of Frey sales, as well as organically certified
wines. The dual certification of their vineyards, by both
the NOP accredited California Certified Organic Farmers and
by Demeter allows this. The winemaking is not yet certified
by Demeter, as the Biodynamic winemaking standards are apparently
not yet finalized.
Frey Biodynamic wines do not carry the NOP organic label,
nor do they use the term “organic wine”, as Demeter,
the Biodynamic certifier, did not seek accreditation by USDA
NOP. Therefore if one wants to label as Biodynamic, the NOP
organic label can’t be used.
Another project the Freys are involved in is making essential
oils and hydrosols. A hydrosol is the water-based product
left over after essential oils have been distilled off, like
rose water. Douglas fir, a conifer native to the area, is
their specialty. Douglas fir is unique in that it is not true
fir – its genus is Pseudotsuga, a pseudo-fir with its
own evolutionary lineage, and therefore unique essential oil
compounds. Lavender and rose are also grown on the farm for
Future projects for the Freys include building a tasting
room and, this year, a line of late harvest wines and a port.
Late harvest wines are sweeter, dessert-type wines. The port
is from Frey zinfandel grapes and the added brandy is distilled
in a certified organic distillery from Frey chenin blanc grapes.
(Port is traditionally made by stopping the fermentation by
adding brandy when the wine still has high sugar content.)
While I am sitting outside one of the Frey houses the pet
crow, a frisky, rather audacious teenager, lands on my shoulder,
wanting more of the chicken I had given him. With no food
in sight, he pulls at my hair, then goes over to the dogs
and starts pulling at the tail of one, an animal several dozen
times bigger than he is. The dog simply wags its tail and
the crow flies off to visit the next Frey house, a pond and
a vineyard away.