Portrait of a pioneering California organic wine family
62,000 bottles a year, 90 acres of vineyard, grape contracts with 18 neighboring organic farms, sales in 44 states, Asia and Europe—and the family still has time for politics and agricultural innovation.

By Don Lotter
Posted September 28, 2004

Farm At a Glance

Frey Vineyards
Ukiah, CA

• 90 acres of vineyard on-site
• Buy additional fruit from 18 local organic vineyards in the area
• Varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc
• Biodynamically and organically grown
• Some dry-farmed and some irrigated

• Sulfite-free
• 11% certified Biodynamic
• Sold in 44 states, Asia and Europe

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 way?

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,” says Jonathan.

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 a problem.

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 winemaking.

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 extraction.

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.