to Basics: Frey’s Organic Wine
The Satya Interview with Jonathan
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
to be in nature, that's where we come from.
To learn more about Frey Vineyards and wines, visit www.freywine.com
or call (800) 760-3739.