This past month, as I was walking in the vineyards, I stopped to enjoy the fruits from the blackberries in the hedgerow. Each month I want to share about a different plant that is an integral part of our home biodynamic ranch ecology at Frey Vineyards. While we cultivate grapes, we also have a vast biodiversity reserve spanning over hundreds of acres. Between the wild lands and the cultivated grape vines, we have transitional hedgerow zones bordering all the vineyards. And while we didn't plant them there, we have a tremendous amount of blackberries in the hedgerow zones in between the different vineyards.
These hedgerows are a crucial part of the Biodynamic Certification because honoring wild spaces is a large part of what ensures sustainable futures for our farmlands. We will be choosing plants that are found all over Frey Vineyards, to help give a sense of the diversity in the ecosystem that we tend to on the Frey home ranch. When you uncork a bottle of biodynamic Frey wine, you are also partaking in the diverse ecological network of all the wild lands surrounding our vineyards. We grow grapes, but we also foster the growth of countless other species with our biodynamic farming methods.
Looking at the hedgerow plants gives an unique perspective into the natural wealth we have in our regenerative farming. While the blackberries in the hedgerow usually peak in August, the cooler temperatures meant that I was still able to harvest blackberries on my birthday, September 1st! So, to start off our biodynamic featured plant series, September's herbal highlight from the hedgerow is the wildly advantageous blackberry.
A member of the rose family, the genus Rubus actually contains many hybrid species that have adapted to all kinds of ecosystems. In Mendocino County, we even have a native black cap raspberry, “Rubus Occidentalis” which thrives deep in the wild woods of the land. While non-native blackberries are generally considered an invasive species, they may just be our favorite rebel hedgerow plant. Because blackberries provide food for humans and all the other animals, and because they are hard to remove once established, there are an abundance of blackberries in most so-called wild spaces throughout Northern California.
Their tangled brambles provide excellent habitat for birds, bunnies, and other small animals in the vineyards. Their leaves offer a nutritious meal for visiting deer and our own herd of grazing goats. The roots of blackberries can be harvested and used in medicinal herbal preparations as well. And of course, there are few other volunteer plants with such consistent, delicious, and abundant low-hanging fruit for all to enjoy. Just as the blackberries reach their peak in the home vineyards at the end of the summer, the grapes begin to come into their fullest sweetness as the cool of fall sets in.
On September 12th, we started the crush for the 2023 Harvest! We harvested the first fruits from our Sauvignon Blanc vineyards here in Redwood Valley, California. Our family and staff gathered as the truck, loaded with grape bins, rolled up to the winery. Katrina Frey also celebrated her birthday today, so we had lots of reasons to celebrate. The festive energy brought smiles to everyone's faces as the first grapes went into the winery cellar for juicing. Over the course of the many moons to come, these grapes will turn from organic juices into the organic WINES that you love.
Daphne, who works in the Frey Vineyards office, brought handouts of a blessing of the grapes for each of us to recite together as the first fruits arrived.
"Spirits of Sun, Earth, Water, and Air
Ye have made this world so fair
Singing bird and flowering tree
Ye have blessed all things that be.
For this place be blessing, too,
In all we think and speak and do.
Beauty here with courage keep,
Banish fear. For falling, weep.
Spirits loving, good and wise,
Love and joy bring to our lives.
Thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us;
Thanks to the rivers and streams and their water;
Thanks to the grapes and the grain fields that feed us;
Thanks to the herbs which protect us from illness;
Thanks to the wind and the rain for their cleansing;
Thanks to the bushes and trees and their fruiting;
Thanks to the moon and the stars in the darkness;
Thanks to the sun who looks ever earthward.
We thank the Great Spirit for all Goodness."
We each partook of a glass of freshly pressed juice to seal the blessing and taste the first sweetness of the harvest season. Crush 2023 is particularly exciting because we've been waiting longer than usual for the sugars to develop. Now, the grapes will be streaming in steadily for the next several months, giving us our 2023 vintages for you to enjoy in the near future!
Across all our home vineyards, the grapes are going through something called “Veraison.” It’s the time when the development of the fruit really starts to peak, as the sugars send their sweet flows through the vines to help the grape mature. In medieval times, this experience was celebrated in France, and as modern Californians, we’re looking to share about this ecological phenomenon in the viticulture world here on our winery blog.
From an agricultural point of view, this mark of grape growth lets the winery manager, Derek Dahlen, know that crush is just around the corner. Because nature has a timing all of its own, the maturation of the grapes changes annually. This past year, we experienced a longer-than-usual winter and cold spring. As snowfall occurred well into April in the vineyards, the grapes have taken more time than usual to mature. Most years, harvest would have begun by August. Instead, we’ve enjoyed a period of relative calm. We expect the grapes to start coming in later in September, once the fruits have all developed into their fullest sweetnesses.
From an aesthetic perspective, Veraison shows us a visual narrative about the life cycle of the wine grape. The red wine grapes in particular transition from small green orbs, full of potential, to deep reds and purples, juicy and ripe. The contrast shows up as clusters of artworks, combining the promise of the new fruits with the realization of the full grapes. Veraison combines these two stages in a gorgeous juxtaposition, the becoming and the fruition together, all rolled into one cluster. Our biodynamic home vineyards are full of these visibly stunning fruits.
I've always loved living on the Frey ranch where many of us are weaving in and out of the vineyards on a daily basis. Whether we're just taking in the fresh air, or in my case, walking the goats to graze and fertilize the vines, living so close to the grapes we grow provides us with a kind of natural rhythm to our year. Just as the last flush of blackberries are being enjoyed and the weather begins to change from summer's fullness of heat to a preview of fall's cooler times, the grapes too reach their final phase of growth, preparing for the harvest season ahead.
For over forty years, my family has been tending to this land, supporting a flourishing relationship with the vines here. Just as we tend to the grapes, the grapes, in their own way, contribute to our connection with the natural world around us. I can see why Veraison historically became a cause for celebration for those inextricably intertwined with grapes, marking another successful year together. In gratitude to the grape, enjoy these beautiful images of Veraison in full glory taken by photographer Yvonne Bard of Ranchomatic.
If you'd like to see firsthand what Veraison looks like at the Frey Ranch, you can visit our YouTube channel.
This Spring we've got baby goats, baby cows, baby lambs, baby chicks, baby bunnies, and a baby kitten in the mix at the Frey farm. Our neighbors have some adorable baby pigs too that I have visited several times. It makes sense that this time of year when fresh, wild greens are at their lushest, it’s also when new life is coming forth to eat and forage. Everybody is happy frolicking through the green pastures and meadows. Every Spring when the grapes bud with new growth, we take the animals out of the vineyards and bring them to their summer foraging spots. I also enjoy preparing my garden beds throughout the Spring and giving the excess weeds, grasses, prunings, volunteers, and other edible plants, to the animals.
We keep the goats grazing along trails throughout the wilder parts of the property, to maintain road access. And every place where the animals are allowed to graze (and pee and poo) soil fertility increases. Instead of leaving animals in the same place all the time, we rotate them through different areas. This maximizes natural cycles of grazing while minimizing impact. Anytime you leave animals in the same spot all the time, that space becomes a kind of dead zone because of the hyperaccumulation of waste products and foot traffic, along with compacted soil. Most industrial animals are unfortunately raised in such conditions.
But there are many farms attempting to make holistic rotation methods the norm. Some use "holistic management" practices by grazing large herd animals, then follow up with a poultry flock that distributes and breaks down the poo from the herd when foraging for bugs, and finally to give the land a rest so the added nutrition can be integrated for a year.
We're still experimenting with rotation patterns, and as northern California becomes dry from June onward, we're looking at ways to create as synergistic an experience for the land and animals as possible. The goat herd, which I tend to, will happily eat the wildest greens (blackberries and tree leaves are favorites) well into the Fall when acorns (perhaps their favorite foods) become available. After the grapes are harvested, the goats will return to the vineyards where they enjoy grape "seconds" as well as various leaves from the hedgerows we have planted.
A freshly laid chicken egg!
Goats and lambs in the vineyard.
Pinnacle of adorability
Recently our Oberhasli goat, named Peanut, had her first birth to triplets! Two baby does and a buckling arrived on Tuesday to much jubilation from the farm crew. While twins are most common for goats who have two nipples to nurse two babies, triplets are not unheard of. In my many years of goat tending, I have had a few sets of triplets and a few singletons too.
Throughout the birthing day we came to check on mama Peanut to make sure she was progressing well. There's a ligament where the tail attaches that becomes like jelly when the mama is ready to give birth. Her udder "bagged up" with colostrum in preparation to nourish her young offspring. Additionally, Peanut began breathing more heavily than usual and sequestered herself off to one side of the pen; goats are typically very social animals and prefer each other's company to solitude. Just after dark we started a small fire to help us stay warm throughout the evening. In between checks on mama we made tea and enjoyed the night sky. Warm brews in hand, Peanut began to push around 8pm. She made steady progress and the first baby Grogu arrived (so named for the Star Wars Mandalorian series character that is the same alien species as Yoda, replete with ears jutting out at adorable angles).
Peanut had been very pregnant and very wide, so I was not the least bit surprised when baby Mitzvah arrived. Her name means good deed, which she accomplished by being born a baby girl goat. The babies’ father, Little Jimmy Dickens, had only thrown boy goats so far this season. After some celebration and reveling in the miracle of birth, we started to move Peanut and her babies to a new pen where they could relax for the evening. In transit, it became obvious that Peanut had not completed her initiation into motherhood, for a third baby arrived. The girls were all but identical in their beige coats, and so we named the final baby Matzah, of Jewish flatbread fame – mostly because the girls could be referred to as Mitzy and Matzy and that playful name pairing well reflected their adorable personalities. The birthing team made sure the babies were properly licked all over by their mother Peanut to stimulate their tiny bodies to awaken to this world, take to their feet, and attempt their first nursing. Around 11pm we assisted some first feedings so that the babies could thrive through their first cold night in the world. There were a few more late-night check-ups to make sure everybody was adjusting to life outside the womb. A few weeks later now, everyone is enjoying mother's milk and prancing about.
Peanut's mother Apricot had also spent a session with Little Jimmy Dickens in the summer, but didn't take that time. So she is having a romantic interlude at our neighbor's place where she’ll hopefully come into heat and be able to enjoy motherhood by next Spring.
This smaller and shorter herd of goats will be mowers on the fire protection team, strategically eating the undergrowth on the Frey ranch. Meanwhile, our herd of larger goats born last Spring began their first browsing of grass between the vineyard rows. For the past several weeks Aspen, Cally, and Chispa were munching acorns in the South vineyards and nibbling everything else they find on their daily walks around the ranch.
Mama Peaches and her newborn triplits!
Future member of fire protection team.
Bleating for mama's milk.
I never set out to be a goat herder. When I first moved to the Frey Ranch over a dozen years ago there was a herd of goats that needed caring as their owner was about to go out into the world. I even shared the same due date with the pregnant goat mamas; the day after I delivered my son at home I walked out to the barn and saw a goat in labor. “I recognize that look,” I remember distinctly stating as I cradled my newborn in my arms to watch Rosemary, the Nubian goat mother, deliver twins. In a special way that first goat herd and I were linked by our shared journey into motherhood.
Fast forward many years to early 2020 when I was finally able to return to living on the Frey Ranch. After several years contending with displacement by fire, I made my way back to this land that I love. Before I had even moved my stuff out here, a friend asked if I knew anybody that might want to take care of her Alpine dairy goats while she travelled. My son enthusiastically replied that we wanted to take on the goats. By and by, I returned to my pre-fire rhythm of walking through the vineyards with a herd of goats in my wake. For the past several months the goats have been on the fire break team, helping to munch down pathways in the woods. As soon as the grapes are harvested this fall, we’ll be back in the vineyards, grazing between the rows with this new herd. In addition to the goat crew, there’s a mixed flock of a dozen sheep. They’re a blend of Merinos, Navajo Churros, and Cheviots. Additionally, we have a Jersey cow named Nutmeg and her daughter, a Scottish Highlander and Angus mix.
A few months after I had landed another friend offered a few dwarf goats that she had been looking to rehome. Apricot and her grown daughter Peanut came to live with us, too. Then, out of some caprine serendipity, my neighbor happened to acquire a dwarf buck named “Little Jimmy Dickens” around the same time I came into the two dwarf goat mamas. Little Jimmy got dropped off for a play date and romanced the dwarf ladies for several weeks. I’ve never met such a polite and well mannered buck before, and appreciated both Jimmy’s calm demeanor and gentle way of attending to the small dwarf herd during his visit. The mamas are due this November and I’m sure that we could all use some extra sweetness in the form of baby goats next month. Sometimes you seek out your vocation, and sometimes goats come scampering into your life, time and time again.
Frey Vineyards is well known as the first organic winery in the country. However, we’re also the first biodynamic winery in the country. In addition to turning organic grapes into wine, biodynamic practices foster a holistic approach to farming that cares for the land. Over the years we have maintained healthy herds of cows, sheep, and goats on the home winery property. These animals graze in the vineyards, providing essential nutrients for the soil while dining on the cover crops we plant between the rows of grapes. Animal manures create vital compost which we then use to nourish our home gardens.
In 2017, wildfires changed so much for the community of Redwood Valley where our winery is located. We lost most of our homes on the ranch, and it has taken a few years and a lot of resilience to see us through to where we are now. This year several families have moved back to the land in new homes that have been built. As we are returning to our new/old places, we’re beginning to set down roots once more. Earlier this Spring I had the extreme pleasure of taking in a herd of goats. I walked the goats through the vineyards for the last few months before the grapes began to bud out. For almost dozen years before the fire, I tended to goats here at Frey vineyards. And, now I’m revisiting my former life full circle. The goats have given birth and we have three kids leaping about! Eventually the mamas will head back to their home, but the babies mark a beginning for a new herd of goat husbandry and midwifery at Frey Vineyards. They go on walks in the wildlands, helping maintain trails during the summer months. As soon as crush begins in the Fall, we’ll be back in the vineyards to clean up the grapes left behind.
Additionally, I had a friend from the coast reach out about taking in a few goats as her herd has expanded rapidly. Her goats have been dedicated “mowers” and we’re excited to put them to good use helping to repair the ecosystem. They come from a firefighting family and are ready to be part of the fire prevention crew, munching their way through areas needing clearing. In general goats tend to be very happy eating a diverse forage. They like to eat a little of this and a little of that. However, some goats can be trained to graze down an area, and these goats have previous experience taking down a fenced area. Using goats to assist in the maintenance of fire breaks is a strategy that is currently being implemented across the globe!
All in all, we have eight goats on the farm right now. They’re a mix of different dairy breeds, and they have very particular personalities. I’m learning the ropes with a new group of individuals. And they’re getting to meet our local flora and fauna. They’re quite fond of eating the invasive blackberries. I’m in the process of trying to remove broom from the home ranch, which has taken a strong hold since the fires. I’m hoping that the goats will be able to assist with my project of rehabilitating the wild by forging paths so that I can remove the broom. The hope is that the native species will be able to move back in once this invasive plant has been subdued.
Winter on the Frey Ranch has been filled with rain this year. Mendocino County seems to be experiencing a Real Winter after many years of drought; the greens in all hues are vibrantly coloring the landscape of the ranch as the fields, pastures, and hedgerows have taken in water to a full saturation point. Gratefully, the weather has been coming in stormy spurts that allow a proper level of percolation between rainy downpours, and nature's irrigation program has been nearing perfection!
In the barnyard, extra rains mean extra worms, and the chickens have been happily foraging each day for the juiciest selections the earth promises to yield. The sheep, goats, and cows all seem to be tolerating the pouring heavens, although I believe that they are more interested in the prospects of delicious fodder in the months to come than the actual rain right now.
I was mucking the goat pen the other day: a process which involves gathering the pee and poo-soaked straw into wheelbarrows and bringing the earthy offerings to a pile nearby where compost can commence. We try our best to keep the pens cozy, but the added weather has been better for compost than for barn hospitality I'm afraid. Because our animals get to graze in the vineyard rows at this time of year, they have lots of time to frolic and stretch out their limbs in the great outdoors. Being able to run about on the gravel roads and rocky outcroppings allows them to maintain better foot/hoof health, and they love finding rare treats on their forays. Madrone leaves have been a particular favorite as of late. It's a true thing of beauty to be out in the vineyards, watching the goats find edible bites here and there, browsing between wild greens and cover crop legume sprouts.
Speaking of the goats, our herd has expanded for the winter. Some dear friends have brought their small herd of pack goats to play with ours for the winter months while they vacation in warmer climes. For those that haven't heard of pack goats, the concept is not unlike using horses, burros, or donkeys to carry the load for walking expeditions. The goats are usually given a modest pack to carry along on hikes; they dine on whatever is fresh and available, so there is no need to bring along food for them. In fact, the ladies offer up fresh milk to the humans, making them ideal companions on the trail. Because our friends’ pack goats like to spend their summers in the Trinity Alps of California's northern wilderness, and are used to lots of exercise, they have been fitting right into our daily walking adventures on the land. Both of their female goats and two of our goats are pregnant and due to kid this spring, when the sun has returned to longer, warmer days.
Until then, we're finding the best dry days to muck out the barn and savor extra-long walks among the dormant grape vines. Away in a manger, life smells of summer-cured alfalfa and grass hay. There might even be a tomten tucked up in the rafters, singing songs of sunnier days to the ruminating barnyard.
As the season turns to Fall, we have a lovely abundance of fruits and vegetables coming through the garden. For the cold months to come we’re making applesauce, sun dried tomatoes, frozen pears, and even some acorns – all part of the Autumn harvest ritual. The grapes are in full swing, and once they've been harvested from the home ranch, the domestic animals from the farm get to forage in the vineyards once again. Grass is great, but goats have a definite sweet tooth when it comes to munching leftover grapes on the vine!
Grapevine in fall colors after light rain.
Along with the bounty of fresh, ripe produce, the herbs which will grace our dishes for the year to come are in full profusion at present, and it's a lovely and lively time to harvest our spice mixes before the rains and cold take their toll.
We are hoping for a flourish of good, long soaks. We had our first major rain already, and we're all wondering what the weather will bring for the near future! Each morning a cool coastal overcast blankets the sky, so we can harvest comfortably on the early side before the heat sinks in. Little sprouts are popping up in the fields, and the land is thirsty for consecutive downpours. Even that little taste of the wet weather got us all excited about the down time of a farmer's lifestyle: while rains let loose all around outside, we get to curl up with some herbal tea by the stove and read books, plan out next year's garden, and rejoice in the past year's foods in the form of homegrown sourdough wheat breads and warming squash soups.
Canada geese take flight at Frey Vineyards.
At the end of summer one of our cows gave birth to a beautiful heifer calf. The newborn playfully explores the barnyard, getting into mischief that only such a huge baby can! The milking pails are filled to brimming each morning with the new mama in milk, and so we've been working with new cow cheeses in the kitchen. Also, our farm interns just made their first batch of goat milk soap, and are letting it cure in the outdoor kitchen.
Spiderweb in oak tree at edge of vineyard.
Goats grazing in Frey organic vineyard.
Spring on the Frey farm has come early this year. The sun shine and rainfall has made a lush and lively winter. Baby lambs frolick in the meadows. Pregnant goat moms are heavy with kids as they take their daily walks to browse and fertilize the vineyards. Our duck and chicken friends have recovered from the cold weather with lots of deep orange egg yolks from their free-ranging escapades. The days on the farm are spent managing the farm animals, lettiing them eat the rich green grasses.
My husband and I tend the herd of goats. We milk and walk the goats each day, and bring them special treats like raspberry and blackberry leaves to prepare them herbally for the kidding season ahead. I try to notice which of the does is "bagging up" in the udder, which indicate she’s pregnant. During this month I'll make several trips to the barn to check if anybody is showing other signs of babies on the way. Fresh straw is spread out, and we partition off parts of the barn as the “delivery rooms.” This year, three goats are expecting: Sophia, Cardamom, and Lhasa. I like to be the midwife, helping along any births, and giving the mother a post-partum tonic of molasses, wheat bran, and ivy (a recipe that I got from Juliette Barclay Levi's fantastic work "The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable").
As the sun warms everything up and the days get longer, we’ve been making Biodynamic preparations. They are made at the farm with ingredients from the farm, and stored in ceramic vessels. We apply the "500" preparation in the spring to bring renewed strength and nourishment to the soil. My father-in-law, Luke Frey, has been studying these Biodynamic formulas for over a decade. The preparations foster vitality in the soil and to the farm as a whole. Biodynamics were brought forth by Rudolph Steiner in 1924, and treat the farm as one large self-sustaining organism. We add these "preps" to hand-swirled water vortices, acting as homeopathic medicinal blessings of fertility and creativity for the farmer, the farm, and the planet. Biodynamics goes beyond organic, connecting the soul to the soil. Click here for more information about Biodynamic agriculture.
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