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
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
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
“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 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
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.