Farming for the Future at Frey Vineyards
From the Archives column (first published in June 2020)
May of 2020 presents a lush green face at the Frey Vineyards ranch in Mendocino County in northern California. It is two and a half years since the devastating wildfires of October 2017 (read Katrina’s 2018 article – Out of the Ashes). One still sees the burned silhouettes of stately Ponderosa Pine at the top of the ridges but progressing up the slopes are shrubby masses of tan oak, madrones and oaks that are stump sprouting from their strong pre-fire crowns. Frey Vineyards owns one thousand acres of land.
We farm one third of this and preserve the rest of the mountainous land to protect our watershed and provide habitat for native plants and animals. About 500 acres of the wild lands burned during the fire.
The new winemaking facility two miles down the road is leaping up as well. We hope to crush there this fall and welcome the public at the first of next year. The fires of 2017 destroyed Frey’s offices, bottling line, tasting room and sheds. In the new facility these will all be combined into one 42,000 square foot metal building powered by the sun. Expanded tank capacity will allow us to grow from processing 3000 Tons of grapes to 4000 Tons in the autumn of 2020.
An innovative BioFiltro wastewater treatment plant is installed and ready to process all of the wastewater of the winery. Putting earthworms to work, the system catalyzes the digestive power of worms and microbes to rapidly remove up to 99% of wastewater contaminants within four hours. The recycled water can then be immediately reused in the vineyards. Worm castings are a welcome by-product for incorporating into compost piles to improve crop yield, soil health, and carbon sequestration.
Funds for the new winery have come from fire insurance, as well as strong wine sales. As the demand for organic food rises in the US, consumers are also drinking more USDA organic no sulfites added wine. Frey’s sales rose 8 percent in 2019, in spite of an overall sluggish wine economy. It is difficult to predict future wine sales for 2020 in light of the global pandemic, but in the short run, organic wine sales are rising as people are choosing to eat and drink pure products for their health and the health of the planet. We are seeing a spike in our direct-to-consumer sales, as people shelter in place, with the help of a glass of organic wine!
The Frey vineyard team is working long spring hours in the annual race to prune, frost protect during the cold nights, tie the vines to the trellises, and finish plowing before the hot and dry summer sets in. Frey Vineyards continues to be excited about the promise of regenerative agricultural practices to help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon into the soil.
Frey Vineyards farms 350 acres of certified organic grapes. This represents one third of our production. We buy the rest of our grapes from forty different local organic growers. All together it adds up to one thousand acres of certified organic land in Mendocino County. We do not fertilize our vineyards beyond working with soil fertility. A small amount of compost is added every few years, made from materials here on the ranch. Cover crop seeds are planted every fall between the dormant grape vines and grow watered by the winter rains. Leguminous cover crops such as fava beans, vetch and field peas add nitrogen to the soil while the roots of rye grass add tilth to the soil. We have noted that grape vines need to work a little harder to get what they need from a soil that is not too high in nitrogen. This translates into better flavors and wine quality.
Soil is the basis for terroir, the French word that means the taste that embodies the unique quality of a given piece of land. Soil health and the mysteries of the biology beneath the soil are still being studied. Science is demonstrating that most soils do not need the costly additions along with the heavy carbon footprint of importing minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, but rather need soil biological life to improve the nutrient flow. Here at Frey Vineyards, we are committed to working with the soil food web to harness and improve fertility.
Frey Vineyards is a Demeter certified Biodynamic® farm, practicing agricultural methods that emphasize a whole farm system, biodiversity and soil improvement. Farm animals are incorporated into our land.
Cows graze on the edges of the vineyard, and sheep are allowed into the vineyard to feast on cover crops when the grapes are dormant. We recently added a small herd of grazing goats to help combat the proliferation of the invasive French broom shrub, Genista monspessulana, after the fires. It is forming impenetrable stands that are crowding out native plans and wildlife in our forestlands. Our hope is that the goats will reduce some of the mass, but we will also have to manually rip it out.
Another new project this year is the addition of birdhouses into the vineyards to function as a natural control over harmful insects. Designed to attract Western bluebirds, our 35 houses, achieved a 75% occupancy rate with bluebirds, violet green tree swallows and ash-throated flycatchers moving in and raising families. These species will eat the grape leaf hoppers whose population grows as the grapes begin to ripen. This fall we will install barn owl boxes in the hope that they will help to control the gopher population.
Farming is always challenging considering weather and market conditions, both beyond the farmer’s control. What we can count on is the knowledge that sound organic farming practices will build soil health and nourish future generations.
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All photos courtesy of Frey Vineyards
Article by Katrina Frey, Executive Director, Frey Vineyards Ltd. in Redwood Valley, CA. Since founding the pioneering organic and Biodyanmic® winery in 1980 with her husband, Jonathan, and brother-in-law, Matthew, she has worn many hats: grape picker, wine bottler and sales director. The winery has grown from producing 2000 cases to 220,000 cases of organic and Biodynamic® non-sulfited wines.
After graduating from Earlham College in Richmond, IN in 1973, Katrina moved to Covelo,CA where she studied Biodynamic farming under Alan Chadwick, the influential English horticulturist. Katrina was president of the board for Demeter Association USA, and past vice president of the CCOF Mendo/Lake Chapter. She has spoken about USDA organic wine at Expo West, Expo East and IFOAM conferences.
In March 2004, Mendocino County made history by passing a citizen’s initiative to ban the propagation of genetically engineered crops and animals. Katrina was a member of the strategy team and fundraising chair. She continues to work on issues surrounding GMO’s and organic crops.
With the Frey team, she is busy building a new state of the art winery after the wildfires of October 2017 destroyed much of the winery. Katrina is also enjoying tending the five honeybee swarms that arrived at Frey Vineyards this spring.