At Frey Vineyards, we began working with spontaneous fermentations in 1996 when we released the first certified Biodynamic wine in North America. We are now big fans of how spontaneous fermentations uniquely bring out the terroir of a site and allow the wine drinker to have a tasting experience that mirrors climate, vintage and vineyard.
Frey Biodynamic Cabernet after a light rain.
What is spontaneous fermentation? During the grape crush, yeast is usually added to the grape juice to “kick start” the fermentation. For our line of organic wines, we use certified organic yeast. For our line of Biodynamic wines we rely on spontaneous fermentation – no kick-starter yeast is added. Instead natural yeasts that already live on the grape skins get the fermenting going. Yeast ferments the grape juice by eating up the sugar, which gets converted into alcohol. Later, the yeast sinks to the bottom of the tanks.
The goal of Biodynamic winemaking standards is to promote the production of wines that are in sync with the core principles of Biodynamic farming: reliance on site available inputs, sustainability and diversity. Spontaneous fermentations are required to ensure that each wine is the result of the local yeast populations of the vineyard where the grapes are grown. This allows the wines to express the complexity of the vineyard biology and it allows the wine drinker to experience the nuances between different vineyards and vintages.
At Frey Vineyards, we are relative newcomers to this age-old practice. People have been making wine through wild fermentations for thousands of years. Grapes are one of the few fruits that have enough natural sugar to ferment spontaneously. Grape fermentations also served as the original starters for other fermentations, from sourdough bread to beer. While people knew that wine would result when grapes were crushed and left to sit, they didn’t need to understand the life cycles of yeast or the extent and complexity of their populations.
Louis Pasteur first isolated and identified yeast in the 1800’s. By that time people had already refined and industrialized the process of fermentation. The wine business was huge, with global production, trade and distribution. While Pasteur’s discovery didn’t change the way wine was produced overnight, it led the way to the standardization of wines. Once yeasts were identified, people began to study them and isolate them and eventually to control which yeasts carried out fermentations.
There are several genera of yeast in the world and spontaneous fermentations involve numerous strains of wild yeasts that are localized in the vineyard. Grapes fresh off the vine are teeming with wild yeasts. In spontaneous fermentations each of the yeasts does a little bit of the fermenting, with the more fragile, less alcohol-tolerant strains starting the fermentation and the more robust ones finishing off in higher alcohol environments. Each strain of yeast is best suited to certain conditions and each produces specific byproducts that affect the flavor and aroma of the wine. The result is a wine that is more complex and that is a unique expression of the site where it was grown.
Winemakers in the past had to get by with whatever populations of yeast were found in their vineyards and wineries. Once people understood what yeast were and how they grow and reproduce they were able to isolate and grow certain strains by taking yeast from active fermentations, isolating them and growing them on a substrate (some kind of sugar). Yeasts were selected for certain characteristics, such as flavor profile, alcohol, temperature, pH and sulfite tolerance. People could overpower native yeast populations with introduced strains. They could pasteurize juice that was rotten, then effectively ferment it. Such approaches allow more uniformity in the winemaking process. For mass produced, large-scale industrial winemaking this approach works well because the results are predictable in spite of fluctuations in climate and growing region. This advance also results in a loss of complexity and flavors because the fermentation environment is essentially a monoculture.
At Frey Vineyards, we are big fans of natural processes and diversity and it has been exciting and rewarding to produce Biodynamic wines through spontaneous fermentations. We have noticed that our wild fermented wines have an increased complexity of aroma and flavor and we love the surprises that come from each year. We hope you join us in this return to age-old methods by trying some of our Biodynamic, wild fermented wines. From the vineyard to the table, they are delicious examples of the natural chemistry of grapes and wild yeasts.
Glass of Biodynamic Chardonnay
When I heard the words “Sacred Agriculture,” the first thing that popped into my head was that I was raised by a mother who believed in fairies. I’d like to tell you how those fairies led me to Biodynamics and eventually to the beautiful land in Mendocino County in Northern California that was to become Frey Vineyards. My mother discovered her fairies in the woods and brooks of Vermont, but managed to find them again in the perennial garden she created in the backyard of our little house in Holland, MI.
I would spend hours nose down in the lilies of the valley under the lilac bush daydreaming about the hidden intricate world of the fairies and sometimes spotting evidence; a broken stem or little flower caps strewn upon the ground were signs of a night of wild revels.
But eventually I grew up, went to a Quaker College, became a Vietnam War activist and a hippie and moved to California, and generally got distracted from the fairies. Still, I managed to spend parts of each summer working with my grandfather in his perennial garden. He would chat with his garden and ask it what it wanted him to do next. I came to see the dozens of beds as a responsive and living being. By now I was seriously considering a career in the nursery business, so when I heard about a Biodynamic Agriculture conference at High Mowing Waldorf School in New Hampshire, I decided to check it out. I was thunderstruck with the beauty of a display of sensitive crystallization images.
Sensitive crystallization provides the viewer with a visual preview of the unique fingerprint possessed by a given substance.
The deep, hidden, exquisite intricate order thrust me back into the land of fairy and I vowed to learn more about Biodynamics.
Returning to California, I apprenticed with Alan Chadwick. Fellow apprentices were Jonathan Frey, who was to become my husband, and Chris Tebbutt of Filigreen Farm in nearby Anderson Valley
Alan Chadwick raspberry pruning demonstration.
Chadwick saw man’s central occupation as a gardener and farmer, always giving back to the land selflessly and being rewarded with the glorious abundance of nature. He taught us the French Intensive Biodynamic method, lectured on Rudolf Steiner, introduced me to the Revolutionibus, the rhythms of the cosmos, the Archangels and the elemental beings. My fairies were back.
After a year and a half of apprenticeship, Jonathan and I got married and moved to the Frey Ranch in Mendocino County and started to lay the groundwork for Frey Vineyards. Today we have grown from 100 to 1000 acres.
Frey Vineyards in Redwood Valley, California
We farm 140 of the 1000 acres with the vineyards meeting the edges of the forest. At Frey Vineyards we delight in the biodiversity of our land, whether it be the native wildlife in our forestland, the cover crops replenishing our soil, or the multi-talented four generations of the Frey Family who live here. Each of them has their unique experience of SACRED AGRICULTURE.
Clockwise from top left: Luke Frey; Johnny Frey; Karla, Rob & Leora Gitlin; Matthew Frey.
Luke Frey, my brother-in-law, has made it his job to produce all of our Biodynamic preparations and to care for our farm animals with great devotion. He is a master prep maker, studying with Hugh Courtney at the Josephine Porter Institute and completing Dennis Klokec’s Consciousness Studies Program.
We have a lot of hard-core gardeners on the ranch. My son Johnny, seen here double digging our garlic bed, is a devotee of Yogananda, who saw God in all mankind and taught man to seek for meaningful work and then perform it in a sprit of gratitude and service.
Karla Frey’s garden anchors her to the Jewish cycles of celebrations. The Sukkat festival reminds us that God will provide for man’s needs and man in turn must be grateful.
Brother-in-law Matthew married Sandra from Bolivia and has embraced the Inca philosophy of no separation between man and nature. Matthew’s garden is his sense of connection. He says, “If I’m late at planting it, it calls me. I save my seeds and somehow they know me the next year. Every time I add a garden vegetable to my meal, it becomes a part of me and keeps my body and mind and spirit balanced.”
As you can see, we have a beautiful rainbow of philosophies about SACRED AGRICULTURE. At the same time Frey Vineyards is a big business selling 92,000 cases of wine across North America, Europe and Asia. So how do we communicate our agricultural practices to our customers?
Stay tuned for the second part of Katrina’s article on Sacred Agriculture in our Spring Newsletter.
Demand for organic food is ever growing, as confirmed by another poll. This is always good news as organic food production is better for everyone's health, and for the planet, in so many ways.
As summarized from ThePacker.com: "...A majority of Americans pick organically produced foods over conventionally produced when given the choice, according to a new poll... Among the reasons for choosing organic, survey participants cited supporting local growers and health concerns..."
Winemaker and vegetarian Paul Frey and his sons planting organic watermelons in vineyard.
We just completed our second wheat harvest, all of it grown between rows of our organic vineyards. This cereal harvest is a part of our ongoing experimentation with growing local organic food with the wine grapes.
Ripe organic wheat ready for harvest between the vines.
This year brought some changes to the wheat program, as Frey Vineyards bought out the other members of the group that originally purchased the mini-combine, while they upgraded their own machine for wheat harvesting in Mendocino County. Check out their website at Mendocino Grain Project. Having our own combine now gives us more flexibility for timing the harvest and experimenting with different crops.
Matthew Frey running the combine in the Frey Potter Valley vineyard.
A repair on the combine allowed us to harvest the wheat more efficiently. It now reaps a much larger percentage of the crop and the grains are coming out cleaner. The grinding stone also got a facelift, as Matthew Frey installed a new motor with variable speed, allowing us to fine-tune the grinding process.
Derek and Matthew harvesting organic wheat from between rows of organic winegrapes.
The crop in our Redwood Valley vineyards weighed in at over one thousand pounds. At our Potter Valley vineyard, which has very fertile soils, we pulled in over 3,000 pounds! Time to get baking! We hope to offer samples of the flour to our wine club members. You can join here! We will also be serving bread from our homegrown wheat at our upcoming midsummer party, Saturday, August 6th. Come and taste the wonder of fresh ground grains!
Young organic sunflowers at Frey Vineyards.
At Frey Vineyards this year we are experimenting with growing sunflowers to press for high quality organic oils. Sunflower oil is great for cooking and as a body oil. The plants also provide excellent food for our ranch bees as the flowers mature. Sunflower oil is the most important source of food oil in the world, and we are excited to start producing it here.
We chose the Russian cultivar Peredovik sunflower (Helianthus annus). While most sunflowers have an oil content of 25-35%, the peredovic can yield up to 50% oil from its small black seeds. The Peredovic sunflower also has a very short growing season of about 12 weeks which allows plenty of time to maturity despite our wet and soggy spring this year. We will harvest in the fall and press the seeds in our cold-press seed press. This year we expect about 25 gallons and hope to expand in the future.
The sunflower project fits nicely into our ever-expanding quest for more local sources of basic food products. We can harvest them with our small combine, which is also used for harvesting wheat that is interplanted in our vineyards. The spent press cake of the sunflower is a high quality feed for livestock and the stalks will make a great addition to our compost piles.
We will keep you posted about our progress!
After 30 years of organic grape growing we are continually interested in diversifying our farm or bringing back lost traditions. A century ago, Mendocino County grew all of its grain, and we’re experimenting with bringing local grain production back! Much of the prime grain lands of the county have been converted to vineyards, but we are now demonstrating that grapes and grains can be grown together.
Organic wheat growing in Frey organic vineyard.
Frey Vineyards is collaborating with the Mendocino Grain Project and a handful of local vineyards and small farms to bring the tradition of grain growing back to Mendocino County. Together with the Grain Project we have purchased a small combine that can fit between vineyard rows to harvest grains and dry beans. In the fall of 2009 we inter-planted a variety of wheat, oats, barley and rye in every third row of selected organic vineyards. The combine ran through our vineyards in late July and we reaped several bushels of fresh grains. This year didn’t bring huge yields, but we identified the most productive sections of our vineyards and will fine-tune planting and cultivation practices to increase productivity in the years to come. This is an exciting project that is moving us closer to our goal of increasing local food production and rethinking what vineyards are capable of.
Doug Mosel of Mendocino Grain Project driving the mini-combine.
Wheat between the vines.
Attention future brides and grooms! As we seek to bring eco-consciousness into all aspects of our lives, your wedding celebrations can take on a whole new dimension. Frey Organic Wines was recently featured in the new book Green Wedding: Planning Your Eco-Friendly Celebration. The book, written by New York Times style correspondent Mireya Navarro, lists our certified Organic Wines as a perfect fit for eco friendly nuptials!
It is a beautiful book full of nice photos, inspirational examples and practical solutions to common challenges in wedding planning. Also included are ideas for locations, alternative gifting options, tree-free invitations, local decorations, seasonal cuisine, socially responsible honeymooning and green lifestyle choices for the new couple.
The book is available at mireyanavarro.com. The book cover is shown below.