Introduction: Frey Vineyards, Ltd is the nation’s first organic and Biodynamic winery, founded in 1980. Located in northern CA in Redwood Valley, Mendocino County, the winery produces 200,000 cases of USDA certified organic wine, made with no added sulfites. The company owns one thousand acres; 350 of these acres hold organic wine-grapes and the rest are set aside woodlands for biodiversity and water protection. The wine is distributed throughout the US. For more about the company and the wines visit www.freywine.com
The story begins with a strange orange glow in the sky that awakened me at one AM on the morning of Oct 9th, 2017. Stepping outside into a howling wind, I watched in horror as a huge wildfire burned on the distant ridge. The wind was blowing away from us, so I was very concerned about our neighbors below the ridge in Potter Valley, never dreaming that at the same time the Redwood Complex Fire was racing around the bottom of the ridge and heading straight to Frey Vineyards and engulfing the only paved road out.
A half hour later, Frey Vineyards was consumed by flames. During that half hour the sixty-five family members and friends, ages one to ninety-three, who were sleeping there that night managed to safely self-evacuate up a dirt mountain road, across seven stream beds to the little town of Willits. Soon after that all the cell service in the area went down, and the roads back to the winery were barricaded, which added greatly to the confusion and the worry.
Tragically, nine people perished in the fire. Redwood Valley only has three thousand residents and 340 houses were leveled. Frey’s historic redwood office buildings, the bottling line and the newly remodeled tasting room, four shops and barns were destroyed, as well as six acres of vineyards and our beloved herd of goats. Also scorched were the majestic oaks leading to the winery and over fifty acres of wooded mountain lands. Of the fourteen family houses on the property, only two survived. Between family members and employees who lived in the devastated neighborhood, Frey Vineyards suddenly had 18 homeless employees, who between them had eleven minor children. The winery quickly made a decision to continue the full-time payroll, anticipating the extreme needs of the employees and their families who had lost houses and knowing how many demands were going to be made on all employees; to finish the grape harvest, reconstruct records, reestablish the crushing and bottling stations, and set up temporary offices. We were very fortunate to have our records stored in the Cloud, so we were able to get our accounting back on track rapidly.
October is our busiest month of the year, harvesting grapes and selling wine across the nation for the upcoming holiday season. We were only two thirds into our harvest season, with tons of grapes still hanging in our own vineyards, as well as in the fields of our certified organic farmer partners. They were frantic about picking their grapes, but all roads to the winery were blocked. Then in a beautiful gesture of solidarity, the other three large wineries in Mendocino County with certified organic processing permits, offered to make space for our wines. Our winemaker raced from facility to facility, overseeing the crushing to assure the wines were being processed to our high National Organic Program (NOP) standards, with no added synthetics such as sulfites. We are so grateful to Barra of Mendocino, Fetzer and Parducci wineries for this invaluable help.
What survived the fire, were the tanks filled with 2016 not yet bottled wines and our 8800 square foot metal warehouse, filled with all our bottled inventory. The fire rushed through so rapidly that the huge stainless steel fermenting tanks holding the just harvested 2017 white wines and early red wines were never damaged. By the end of two weeks, when we were finally allowed back onto the property, shipping could resume. Our awesomely loyal Frey wine fans stocked up, enabling us to finish up the year with 6 percent growth, in spite of the enormous disruption.
Unfortunately, the estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes that were still in the vineyards during the fire, are now revealing serious smoke taint. They will not be bottled, but it leaves Frey Vineyards short of these important varietals for a year. Anticipating this, a Frey team traveled to Argentina in March during their southern hemisphere harvest time and made some organic wines at the Domaine Bosquet winery, a certified organic winery in Mendoza. Those wines are now on cargo ships making their way to California and will help mitigate the shortages.
Luckily, the winery was well insured, although with the scope of this disaster, our losses have exceeded our coverage. It is a very complex claim and we have hired a forensic CPA as an advocate. The silver lining for the winery is the two prior years spent in developing plans for a new production facility, two miles down the road. With insurance monies we will soon pour a slab and order the 42,000 square foot metal building.
There is still a staggering workload, but employees at least for now, are safely housed. A riot of spring wild flowers carpets the carbon rich charred black soil. Honeybees are buzzing amongst them and oak trees that appeared dead are pushing out leaves on blackened branches. The grapevines are pruned, and the vineyard crew is busy repairing burnt fencing to protect what we have every hope will be a celebratory 2018 harvest.
In closing, Frey Vineyards is grateful for the wonderful support of The Community Foundation of Mendocino County extended to our employees and to residents of Redwood Valley.
For readers interested in donating to Redwood Valley Fire recovery go to – http://www.communityfound.org/grants-scholarships/disaster-fund-for-mendocino-county/
Article by Katrina Frey, CEO, 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 200,000 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 served on the Demeter USA Board for eight years. She has spoken about organic wine making and marketing at the Natural Products Expo East and Expo West, and IFOAM international 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 agricultural crops.Katrina lives on the Frey Vineyards property, with her husband Jonathan. She tends honeybees, gardens and runs after her five grandchildren.