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November 2003
Back to Basics: Frey’s Organic Wine

The Satya Interview with Jonathan Frey
By Stephanie Miller


Jonathan Frey is co-founder of Frey Vineyards, a family-run organic winery. Established in the early 1980s in California's Mendocino County, Frey has been at the forefront of organic winemaking for over two decades. At first producing just a handful of classic wines, Frey Vineyards now offers dozens, ranging from Zinfandel to Gewürztraminer, and a selection of biodynamic wines—all of which are vegan. Jonathan Frey took time to tell Stephanie Miller the story of Frey Vineyards and talk about his experiences as an organic winemaker.

You started out as an organic winery over 20 years ago. What inspired you to use organic techniques?
The winery started in 1980, when it was first bonded by myself and [a few of my] siblings. In the mid-1960s, when I was a teenager, the Army Corps of Engineers was going to flood some of our property, so we planted grapes to increase the value of the fields, in case we had to be compensated due to eminent domain.

My parents had never grown grapes before—they didn’t know what to plant, so they talked to some Italian growers who’d been in our area for about 100 years. They recommended Cabernet Sauvignon—that was a new-fangled grape in Napa Valley at the time.

As far as organics are concerned, during the first year there were some grasshoppers in the vineyard, so my father looked into getting pesticides. He realized it was too expensive and probably quite toxic, so he didn’t go ahead with that. So until the late 1970s, it was organic pretty much by default. We also live in a climate that is pretty ideal to grow grapes organically; during the growing season we have a dry four or five months.

I left home in the early 1970s and went to UC Santa Cruz. They had a garden program, called the "Garden Project," run by an Englishman, Allen Chadwick. Around 1968, he cleared part of a barren hillside covered in poison oak and started his gardening project, which was based on his fairly vast knowledge of horticulture. I was majoring in astrophysics and was really broke, and I got free food from this garden. Years later, I moved back to Mendocino County and heard that Allen Chadwick had moved the Garden Project up here. I joined, and that was when I first learned about strictly speaking ‘organics,’ and what was behind it. Later, I came back and worked out a deal with my father to lease part of his land. We put in a little garden and started taking care of the vineyard.

What was the response from other winemakers to your starting an organic winery? Was it accepted?
There wasn’t really much of a response at first. We didn’t even put the "o" word on the label until about '82 or '83 because of negative connotations it might have had then—dirty hippies eating brown rice and wormy apples. In the world of wine it is also a quality thing. We just mentioned that the grapes were grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. We also had problems with the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] getting the okay to use the word on the label, because at that time there was no federally recognized definition of that term.

It’s been a rather slow, gradual process. First we made wine from just some of the grapes on our property, then started to use all of them. Then we started buying from other growers in the area; most were quite small—many didn’t have any formal certification, but it wasn’t needed then. We sold our wine to health food type outlets at first. Many people didn’t see wine as a health food because it’s an alcoholic beverage; gradually over the years, about the mid-1980s, interest started to pick up and we started expanding.

Your Estate Bottled wines are now biodynamic. How did the shift to this form of agriculture take place?
At the Garden Project I studied organics and biodynamics, the method called "French Intensive Biodynamic" that was taught by Allen Chadwick. French Intensive evolved in the outskirts of Paris in the 1800s, a technical way of extending your growing season through all kinds of interesting gardening tricks. By growing things under glass—coldframes—with the abundant horse manure that was on the streets of Paris, you could have a supply of fresh market vegetables year-round.

Here, we always used biodynamic preparations in the background. In the mid-1990s my brother Luke spearheaded the move to get our home ranch biodynamically certified, which was formal in 1996.

Why do you not add sulfites to your wines?
In the first few years I made wine ‘by the book;’ I had no formal education. In 1983 we were starting to get feedback from the marketplace, we’d get questions like, “If you’re making wine from 100 percent organic grapes, why are you adding sulfites?” Sulfites are a naturally occurring compound: sulfur dioxide, created by burning sulfur rock. But it is an extremely pungent gas and can be dangerous. You have to watch it when you work with it in the wine cellar.

So I did a little research and found that sulfites hadn't been used for all that long in winemaking; they'd come into wide use only in the last century or so. Earlier than that, people made quite acceptable wines and didn't use sulfites. I figured, what the heck, if customers are asking about sulfites, we'll try to make as pure a product as possible and not use them. I talked with Tony and Phil Coturri who had a little winery, they were trying to make a real super-natural style of wine—they don't use any metal tanks or anything, only wooden fermentation containers. They don't add sulfites or filter their wine, and use only wild yeast. Their wines actually were quite impressive.

For the first couple of years, we had pretty excellent luck. But then we had a few problems, things crop up if you don't use sulfites. It's kind of an ongoing research program to iron out the wrinkles [in] the winemaking process. Making an unsulfited wine would best be compared to making beer, for example. Beer-making is a fragile alcohol process, more fragile than wine, and they don't add sulfites. If you leave the beer open, it gets flat and [loses its] character. That's mainly why sulfites are added to wine, it acts as an anti-oxidant—not to kill microorganisms. It's like if you slice an apple, it turns brown right in front of your eyes; if you spray a little sulfite and water solution, it'll stay white because that binds the oxygen.

In 1987, the sulfite food-additive controversy started. Sulfites weren't allowed in organic food with the first California organic food act because it was a synthetic compound.

So for all those reasons I stopped using sulfites. We now feel it's completely possible to make a good wine without using sulfites—you just have to take a lot more care in the winemaking. That's the sort of back-to-basics approach of it.

Are your wines, especially the whites, staying stable and how long have you cellared them?
We've found that the cork is probably one of the largest obstacles to long-lived unsulfited wines. Certainly a wine that doesn't have preservatives is going to be more fragile than a wine that has additives. Many of our reds are quite drinkable after 15 or more years. The whites tend to go over the hill more quickly—we advise that those be drunk within about three years of bottling, they aren't really made to last for long times. But whites that are made in a stronger style, they seem to hold up over the years, if you have a good cork or a good closure. As you know, a lot of people are looking at screw-caps.

I was just going to ask about that.
We've done a few tests with screw-caps; they seem to work very well and are gaining some consumer acceptance. We might try them out, certainly with some of our whites. But of course, the cork is the major thing. It's kind of an older, low-tech closure for any kind of beverage [but they're expected with wines].

A significant portion of Satya’s readership are vegetarian or vegan and ask questions about whether wines have been fined, and if so, with what kind of products. Do you fine your wines?
We don't use any fining agents in our reds. We fine our whites—not all of them—to get the protein out. We use bentonite clay, a standard fining agent for white wine; also commonly used to fine beers and juices and things like that. People eat it too, as a cleansing diet. It's been used for hundreds of years.

A lot of wineries add substances such as egg whites, which pull out a little of the tannic bitterness that is left over from the fermentation, from the skins and seeds and so on. We don’t use that because we don’t feel we need it. Since our wines don't have sulfites added, they tend to fine themselves, they lose some of that harshness more quickly.

I know that you are certified in California as organic. Have you gone through the new USDA certification?
That's done under the auspices of our local certification agency, the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). They, in turn, have to be certified by the USDA. So the farm inspector comes every year to do the CCOF inspection, then the CCOF gets audited by the USDA. There are controversies over what role the USDA will play, but I think right now they're content with certifying folks who built up the certification system over many years from the grassroots level, without any help from the government—indeed, quite the contrary in some cases.

You've been doing organic farming for over 20 years, what do you see in the short- and long-term future for Frey?
Well, that's a good question. I'm not sure; we'll just keep playing it by ear, which is what we've done from the start. We're coming out with a few new products, such as a port and some sweet wines. And of course, we're always doing research to further refine non-sulfite winemaking.

We're also wondering what's going to happen with GMOs [genetically modified organisms] as far as wine grapes go. At the moment, in Mendocino County, we have a county-wide initiative to ban all GMOs until the people manufacturing these products get their act together and offer something that is of benefit to the consumer rather than just the shareholders. We—and many others involved in organics—feel that people really need to understand more about the whole process. Certainly, genetically modified knowledge is extremely important, it holds potential to solve a lot of human problems, in terms of illness and so on. But as far as the products that have been offered to the public, there's really much to be desired. So we're interested in seeing how this plays out.

As for the world of organics, I would say at some point in the future, the entire world is going to have to be organic—or something comparable—there's no two ways about it. Who knows where humans are going? Ultimately, over the long-term, you've got to work with nature. We're going to have to be in nature, that's where we come from.

To learn more about Frey Vineyards and wines, visit or call (800) 760-3739.



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