May 31st It was five AM, the night after the full moon. Still brilliant, the moon was about to set in the west, just before dawn.
I was awakened with a blast of sound, “Hoo, hoo, hoo dat” answered by a more distant “Hoo, hoo, hoo dat.” Convinced that a huge owl was just outside our trailer, I crept out into the pearly landscape. I stood in the meadow and got my bearings, then realized the owls must be at least 150 yards away in the burnt forest by the pond. The skeletal ponderosa pines still tower and the great horned owls were perched on them, calling back and forth. These owls, also called cat owls because of their perky ears, are the apex predators, able to pounce on prey as large as rabbits, possums and porcupines. I imagined that their hunting must be eased after the fire, with no needled or leafy branches to block their view.
The calling went on for another ten minutes and then I guessed they found their prey, then each other, and bedded down for the dawning day.
We had a mild spring, which makes life pleasant for farmers and grapevines. Cover crops grew thick and luscious; the cool weather allowed them to build a lot of biomass before flowering. As they are incorporated into the soil they add rich organic matter. Mild weather is also good for the flowering of the vines. Grape flowers are very delicate and extreme weather in either direction can affect the vines’ ability to set a good crop of fruit. Grape flowers are also very fragrant, an ambrosia of delight! Sweet, almost tropical scents of grape flowers have been wafting through the fields. Most varieties now have set clusters but the Cabernet is taking its time and looks to be setting a good crop.
The rains this season were late and far apart which made for good vineyard working conditions throughout the winter and early spring, with fields not too wet and muddy. Frost season was also mild this year, so workers got enough rest to work through the days. This allowed the vineyard crew to get a head start on cultivation and weed control and to stay on schedule despite extra work on fencing, irrigation and frost systems that needed repair after the fires last fall. A new frost pump was installed at the Easterbrook vineyard and as summer heats up work is underway to replace destroyed drip and filters.
Until bud break this spring it was hard to tell exactly how many vines had burned last fall. Now that leaves and shoots are out we finalized our dead-vine count at around 7 acres. Vines that didn’t die are doing fine with expected vigor and timing. We will be working on replacing dead vines as the season progresses.
Ground is being prepared for new plantings of Cabernet and Chardonnay at our Road D vineyard. There are many steps to be completed before the young vines can be put into the ground. Soil is ripped and disked, then smoothed. Next, the irrigation system is laid out for both summer watering (to help the young vines) and spring frost protection. The grid of the vineyard is laid out by hand using cables marked with spacers, then stakes are set. Wires are installed to hang the drip hose and train the young vines as they reach their established height. Finally, the watering system is completed and the vines can be planted. After they are established it will be 3 years before any grapes are harvested. During their productive life they need much less watering.
Chardonnay for this planting will be grown from cuttings made this winter. Cuttings are a form of vegetative propagation, a technique used by humankind to cultivate grapes for thousands of years. While the vines are dormant, healthy wood that grew the previous season is selected and cut to about 18”. The pieces are chosen based on girth, vigor of the parent plant and bud spacing. Two buds are left at the tip of each cutting and the rest are removed, which encourages the cutting to root at the bottom. These cuttings are bundled and buried in moist sand.
These vines will be on their “own roots” as opposed to being grafted onto a rootstock. Own-rooted vineyards are uncommon due to the risk of damage by pheloxera, a soil-borne louse that can kill grapevines when populations in the soil are out of balance. We don’t worry about this in our organic soils as we have plenty of healthy soil microbiology that will compete with phyloxera and keep it from causing damage. We will begin planting soon. The cuttings were stored in a cool dark place for the last several months and are now pushing roots and shoots, eager to get planted.
As springtime rolls into summertime, we are busy! We are looking forward to a summer of good ripening weather and a harvest without the challenges of smoky grapes and disruption form natural disasters. Keep your fingers crossed for us. Cheers from the crew!
Here are some more photos from Spring, 2018.
Bird resting on organic Chardonnay vine.
Thermometer used during late-night vineyard frost patrol.
This oak tree makes a good perch for birds that hunt insects in the vineyards.
The arrival of spring has brought fresh cover crops between the rows of our organic vineyards, and is enjoyed by local wildlife on occasion. Each photo can be downloaded in higher resolution for use as your computer's desktop or wallpaper. We hope you enjoy!
Last month a bear was spotted almost daily for a few weeks as it grazed fresh grass in our organic vineyards. Normally they shun the lowlands of our valley with its dogs and people, preferring the high forests nearby. But in the aftermath of the Redwood Valley Fire last November, which wiped out whole communities near our vineyards, this old American black bear (they also come in cinnamon brown) was keen to explore newly opened territory, and perhaps driven by hunger as well. It has since moved on.
Click on a photo for a larger, screensaver image.
Here at Frey Vineyards we are longtime eclipse-chasers. Our penchant for gazing upward was instilled at an early age by Paul Frey Sr. Two of his twelve children, Jonathan and Paul Frey, studied physics and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz and went on to become winemakers for the winery. Jonathan and his wife Katrina traveled with brother Nathan Frey to Baja in 1990 to see their first total solar eclipse. At high noon, as the sky began to darken, they stood on a hillside looking down at a Mexican family farm. Chickens flew up to their roosts in the trees and the cows turned around and headed to their beds in the barn and the glory of the eclipse began.
Katrina and Jonathan’s most recent eclipse trip was on a Sky and Telescope cruise to Indonesia to see the 2016 solar eclipse over the Indian Ocean. On board they met Polly White and Michael Zeiler of The Great American Eclipse, who were getting fellow travelers excited about the August 21st, 2017 eclipse that will streak coast to coast across North America. One day on the deck of the ship, Polly and Katrina hatched a plan to craft an exclusive wine to honor this extraordinary event.
What started out as just one wine quickly become three when the opportunity arose to debut Frey Vineyard’s first-ever organic non-sulfited sparkling wine. On a previous eclipse journey to Mongolia in 2008 Katrina and Jonathan met fellow eclipse-chaser Dr. Lobster. We called upon him for inspiration for the back label texts. Frey label designer Nicole Paisley Martensen culled vintage engravings from old astronomy books, and furthered her research with excellent resources from eclipse authority Fred Espenak.
We are proud to bring you Umbra Organic Zinfandel, Umbra Organic Chardonnay, and Totality, our first organic sparkling wine. We’re looking forward to toasting the cosmos on August 21st!
“Umbra” is the dark inner shadow of the moon.
“Totality” is the period of a solar eclipse when the moon completely covers the sun.
For more information on the best places to view the August 21st, 2017 eclipse and to order eclipse-viewing glasses that make it safe for viewing the partial phases of this grand spectacle, log on to The Great American Eclipse.
Charbono is a grape with a labyrinthine past. Some say it originated in Northwest Italy as the grape Bonarda, and that it closely resembles the varietal Dolcetto in flavor and growing profile. More likely it came from the Savoie region of Eastern France where it is known as Charbonneau, or Doux Noir (“soft black”). In the early 19th Century it was the most widely grown red wine grape in France. It also shows up in the historical record as an Etruscan grape, planted nearly 3,000 years ago. Luckily, it was exported to South America where it continues to thrive in pockets of Argentina, before it was all but wiped out in the Old World by phylloxera in the mid-1800's.
Frey 2011 Organic Charbono
Yet for having such a long track record, it is now considered a rare bird, and there is very little of it planted in California today, hovering around 80 acres. Charbono arrived in Calistoga in the 1880’s at Inglenook Winery, where it remained in production straight through Prohibition as a sacramental wine. It is very late ripening, which can require extra hang time in the vineyard, and puts it in danger of early fall rains that can produce mildew within the tight clusters. The fruit is paricularly slow to reach adequate sugar levels and is often picked at 22-23 brix. However, the longer hang time does allow for the development of mature flavors, even as sugars stay low.
In the U.S., Charbono is considered one of the first cult wines, in part because of its exotic heritage, and also due to its unique flavor profile. Charbono displays a wide range of flavors that can often include kola nut, vanilla bean, cassis, violets, and tar all in one. Although a huge proponent of the unusual grape, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard declares Charbono to be “terminally rustic” because of its bold and uncompromising flavors. In the glass, it is traditionally a deep, inky, purple color and was used most often as a blending grape until it caught on more recently as a single-source varietal.
Our 2011 Organic Charbono comes from 3rd generation grape grower Eddie Graziano in Calpella in Mendocino County. The grapes are from two different blocks, one with old vines planted by Eddie’s grandfather, and the other with 12-15 year-old vines. Our Charbono has aromas of wild berry and oak barrel. On the palate, it is gentle and broad without being heavy. Supple damson plum merges with lengthy opulent tannins. Because of the higher acidity and lower alcohol it can cellar longer than some of our lighter-bodied reds. This would be a fantastic pairing with mustard seed-encrusted roast venison or purée of chestnut soup. This limited release is available in our wine shop.
Sitarani Palomar, co-host of "An Organic Conversation" made this delicious soup for us served with an arugula salad with beluga lentils at a recent organic food event.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 large yellow onion, sliced
¼ cup + ¼ cup Frey Vineyards Biodynamic Chardonnay
5 threads of saffron
2 ½ pounds heirloom tomatoes
2 cups vegetable stock or water
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Core and quarter the tomatoes and set aside.
Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when warmed, add the garlic, sautéing until golden, but not browned. Add the sliced onions, sea salt, and black pepper, and sauté until onions begin to soften. Add ¼ cup of white wine and saffron, and simmer until the wine cooks off, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat add tomatoes, and then divide the ingredients between high-sided sheet trays or casserole dishes. Place in oven and roast for 1 hour.
Remove roasted tomatoes, garlic and onion from the oven and deglaze with the remaining ¼ cup of wine, stirring to dissolve as much of the browned ingredients as possible. Transfer all vegetables and juices to a high-speed blender with vegetable stock or water. Purée until smooth, and pour back into the larger saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until desired consistency is reached and flavors have melded. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
Pairs perfectly with Frey Vineyards 2014 Biodynamic Chardonnay at lunch for its balanced acidity and complementary depth from light oak flavor. Alternatively, enjoy with the velvety richness of Frey Vineyards 2014 Organic Merlot for a satisfying dinner. Serves 4.
The 2015 North Coast winegrape harvest began earlier than ever. At Frey Vineyards we began crushing grapes on August 24th. The early ripening varieties including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc all matured rapidly and came in quick. Yields of these varieties were also lower than average, leading to worry that the entire 2015 crop would be shorter than expected. Most California wineries can rely on bulk finished wine to compensate for light crop yields. At Frey Vineyards we are limited in our ability to source bulk wines since additive-free wines are not available on the open market.
Organic Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
As we transitioned into harvesting mid-season reds some fields helped make up the difference, with good crops on Merlot, Petite Sirah and some Zinfandel. It became clear early on that the overall quality of the 2015 vintage had potential to be exceptional. With no problem achieving adequate sugars for proper fermentation, late red varieties were allowed ample hang time to become physiologically mature. Not only were the sugars high enough but the grape seeds tasted nutty and the skins shed their bitterness. Meanwhile, seasonable autumn weather preserved optimal acidity for overall balanced fruit flavors.
An inch of rain in early September knocked the dust down and gave the vines a drink to help stall what would otherwise have been a rushed harvest. The rains then held off for another month avoiding any issues with rot and maintaining easy access into the vineyards for harvest equipment.
While we were working to wrap up the earliest harvest on record, my wife Eliza and I also welcomed our second child, Iris Ann Dahlen, into the world. Born on October 12th, in the heat of the last week of harvest, we all felt a sense of relief as the 2015 crush was nearing the end. The final load of grapes, on October 17th, came out of the 50 year-old Easterbrook Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard on our home ranch in Redwood Valley, and it was as perfect as its ever been.
Post-harvest organic vineyards in the mist.
Cover crop seeding and fall compost spreading soon followed and went smoothly. We finished in time to take advantage of early November rains. The rains gave the cover crop seed good germination and helped incorporate the compost into the soils. These practices help to feed the soil microorganisms that are the foundation of organic agriculture.
As we put the vines to rest for another winter we can reflect on the previous year. So many things went so well, yet there is always room for improvement. Every trip around the sun we learn from our previous mistakes and inevitably new challenges arise. The only universal constant is change and it is our task to adapt to whatever changes may arise.
Healthy soils, hearty vines, honest wines, happy people! Long live organic wines and family farms!
In our quest at the winery for a carbon neutral impact on our climate, we are always looking for new ways to green our packaging and eliminate waste. In 2013, we began a campaign to modify our wine labels to use 100% post-consumer waste, FSC-certified papers. Now in 2015 we are beta testing a new style of wine bottle closure that is the world’s first closure with a zero carbon footprint. The Select Bio closures from Nomacorc are made with renewable plant-based biopolymers derived from sugarcane. This innovative technology prevents cork taint and oxidation, the closures are produced with 100% renewable energy, and they are 100% recyclable.
Nomacorc's Select Bio closures made from non-GMO sugarcane.
The sugarcane used in the Nomacorc line is grown on non-GMO plantations in Brazil. The sugarcane fields are dry-farmed and replace degraded pastureland, helping to recover soil erosion and increase the carbon content within the depleted soil. Residues from production are closed-looped: they are recycled as fertilization or turned into “bagasse,” a sugarcane bi-product used to produce energy.
Another exciting feature for us is that the Select Bio closures are Demeter® certified. Select Bio closures conform to Demeter’s functional specifications for Biodynamic wines, including the stipulations that a Biodynamic® product must not come into contact with packaging containing chlorine, herbicides, or pesticides.
Our current corks are made from compressed cork shavings fused with a food-based polymer. We have experienced many years of success with them, but we’re always looking for ways to improve our practices with the least amount of environmental impact. There is a general assumption in the wine industry that 3-5% of all wine bottles using a natural cork show some signs of spoilage. The most common reason for spoilage is from oxygen ingress that can occur through the space between the bottle neck and the cork, or through the cork itself. In the case of unsulfited wines like ours, oxygen is a particular culprit in affecting the delicate nature of the wine, so finding the proper closure is imperative. We will be running trials with the Select Bio closures over the next year to ensure that this is the right choice for us.