Yoki Frey and Carolyn Brown trimming olive trees in the vineyard.
Over the years we’ve shared lots of details on the ins and outs of growing grapes and the seasonal flow of work in the vineyards. This drought year is moving things ahead in the vineyard in full force. Pruning is wrapping up this week and cultivation and frost protection are ongoing. But this time around I’d like to share about more than just grapes.
Long before Frey Vineyards was the busy enterprise that it is today, many dwellers of the Frey Ranch were deeply involved in gardens and farming of their own. When my grandparents Paul and Beba bought the ranch in 1962 they were following an impulse to be more self-sufficient and have plenty of fresh air for their large and growing gang of kids. The home ranch used to be a sheep farm, as was much of Mendocino County.
The grapes sort of arrived by default. In the late 1960s local agencies were searching for a site for a large reservoir and there was speculation that it might be built in the little valley here at the bottom of Tomki Road, at the headwaters of the Russian River. That never came to pass but the grapes were planted to increase property value in the event that the land would be acquired by imminent domain. The project did move forward a little southeast, and today Lake Mendocino (low as ever!) covers what used to be several homesteads in Coyote Valley.
Here on the ranch the first vines were planted in the early 70s. At the same time there was a lot of work towards getting gardens and orchards going. Paul, Beba and the kids raised hogs and chickens, peacocks and many fruit trees were planted. Starting in the 1970s the Frey siblings and their partners grew many amazing gardens. My earliest memories revolve around the stone foundation of the greenhouse my dad built, just a stone’s throw from the winery; the garden was rich and fertile with mulberries, filberts, pears and apples. My mom’s garden is still there, although only the foundation of the greenhouse remains. I was given my very own garden bed to plant what I chose: peas, cockscomb amaranth, cucumber and daisies. My mom Katrina and her best friend had a small perennial nursery, following in the footsteps of my great grandfather Johnny who ran a nursery in Vermont.
Jonathan Frei, my uncle, started some of the earliest plantings of crops besides grapes, establishing Peach Tree Lane, the first olive orchard, and has experimented with medicinal herbs, blueberries and a plethora of native and drought tolerant shrubs and trees. My younger brother Johnny Frey Jr latter added even more olive trees along the vineyards. My other Uncle Luke Frey and his family also have cultivated beautiful biodynamic gardens and fruit trees.
Over the years as the family has branched and grown, several beautiful gardens and orchards have arisen, and the ranch is a great place to share produce. Now, with the wine business and vineyards humming along and relatively stable, the enterprise is working with a little diversity to break up the monotony and monoculture of grape growing.
The help of Carolyn Brown, deeply experienced garden teacher, beekeeper and plant lover has been wonderful. Carolyn has installed an orchard in the riparian zone of a seasonal stream at the Road I ranch where figs, plums, peaches and nuts are thriving at 4 years old; olives line the fence and entry road. She’s also designed and will install beautiful native and edible landscaping around the new winery.
And while we continue vineyard care and development, each new planting is accompanied by an area for other crops, native and habitat plantings. Winemaker Paul has mastered the art of using baby vine irrigation for summer crops of winter squash, melons and veggies and we’re excited about the prospect of future plantings of cork oak, hazelnut, walnut and prune plum, hedge rows and sunflowers.
Grapes are wonderful after all, but humankind cannot survive on wine and raisins alone. Happy Spring Everyone!
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.
Bluebird hatchlings at a Frey organic vineyard, Redwood Valley, California.
In the spring of 2020 we placed 33 birdhouses in our vineyards to help bluebirds and other species that are in need of good nesting sites. A total of 102 chicks were raised and fully fledged! The birdhouses were made mostly with recycled wood from the construction of our new winery. The organic vineyards in the spring and early summer provide lots of open space for the breeding pairs to hunt for insects. The reduced number of insects is also good for the grapevines.
The depletion of woodlands in the U.S. has made life difficult for many bird species, especially for birds that nest only in tree holes. Native birds also have to compete with larger and more aggressive invasive species for prime nesting sites. For example, the larger non-native European starling will kick out birds from a site to take it over for their own brood. The entrance hole for the birdhouses we made are just wide enough for native species to squeeze through, but too tight for starlings.
We put up the birdhouses in trees next to the vineyards and on metal stakes at the end of vineyard rows. Each birdhouse was inspected weekly. It’s important to monitor the nests and to clean out the straw and detritus after chicks have fully fledged so another breeding pair can move in, even within the same breeding season. We observed 4 birdhouses that were used twice. The birds prefer the boxes to be totally empty, no leftover nesting material inside when scouting for a site. Also, parents often abandon a nest before finishing it, and on occasion even a finished nest with eggs might be abandoned. Each birdhouse had a number written on it and a spreadsheet app was used to help keep track of so many nests!
Ten of the 33 birdhouses we set up were not used at all by any birds. Maybe these nests didn’t have enough sunlight in the morning, or they were too close to other nests. Several online sources say it’s best to separate birdhouses by 300 or 400 feet, as members of the same species are territorial. But it’s possible two different species will get along fine when nesting next to each other as each might exploit different ecological niches over the same plot of land.
For the remaining 23 birdhouses, 102 chicks fully fledged! Four species took advantage of the boxes, mostly bluebirds and tree swallows. In total there were 51 western bluebird chicks, 31 tree swallows, 11 titmice, and 9 ash-throated flycatchers. We hope to add even more birdhouses for next spring!
Birdhouses are easy to make and maintain, and we encourage you to make your own to help out your local bird population. A great resource can be found at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.
Birdhouses made from wood recycled from Frey Vineyards' new winery construction.
The birdhouses hung at the ends of vineyard rows were very popular with Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. The wobbly but secure high metal stakes are good protection against racoons, snakes and other predators.
Each birdhouse has a door for easy monitoring. Bluebird and Tree Swallows will not abandon the nest following a quick inspection. They will divebomb the intruder instead!
A bluebird enters a birdhouse next to organic vineyards.
A pair of tree swallows surveys the vineyard.
A bluebird dad delivers an insect to its ever-hungry brood.
Beautiful ash-throated flycatcher eggs.
Bluebird younglings ready to fly the nest!
Snack delivery by an ash-throated flycatcher.
Some years August offers a lull in vineyard work, some down time for the vineyard crew before harvest. This year the late summer planting segued right into harvest. We worked through the heat of summer on vineyard layout, staking and installing new irrigation systems to welcome the plants in august 2020. The vines are thriving in the late summer heat.
Harvest began earlier than usual due to the dry winter and hotter than average summer. We began harvest with Chardonnay grapes which came in lighter than the last few years, but not for lack of quality. We then moved on to the remaining white varietals including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Muscat.
At this point we have finished white grapes and the early reds and are moving forward into the later season red varietals. The 2020 Pinot Noir vintage is now fermenting in tanks and is showing great potential for a stand-out vintage. We look forward to sharing these wines with you in the coming year.
An old apple tree and newly planted Frey organic Pinot Noir vineyard, Redwood Valley, California.
After three years of planning and preparation, the vineyard crew was busy this summer rehabilitating a historic Redwood Valley vineyard, Colony Ranch. This land had been farmed previously by the Lolonis and Graziano families and was part of the Finnish Colony established by early immigrants to Redwood Valley in the 1800s.
After many conversations and much thinking, we decided to plant 20 acres of Pinot Noir on this prime vineyard land. We chose a blend of 4 clones of Pinot Noir for their variety of flavor profiles and fruit quality.Three of the clones were classic European Pinot clones: Pommard, Mariafeld and Wadenswil. These have been planted in California since the 1970’s. The remaining quarter of the vineyard is planted to the 828 clone, an up and coming Pinot clone gaining popularity in California over the past two decades. The blend of these four clones will yield a well balanced, nuanced field blend to make great wine
Pinot Noir is one of the longest cultivated Vitis Vinifera European winegrape varietals and has more clonal variation than any other wine grape variety, coming from selections chosen by farmers over time. It is a versatile red wine grape that is grown in many regions in the world. It is one of the few red grape varietals that will ripen in cool regions such as Germany and Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. In the Redwood Valley and Potter Valley appellations where we grow and source our Pinot Noir we get a fuller bodied, fruit forward wine with notes of blueberry, dark blue plum and spice.
Our hot summer climate allows Pinot Noir to ripen to sugar levels that cooler climates can’t attain most years. At the same time our cool nights and large day and night temperature swings maintain good acidity and intense ripe fruit flavors to make wonderful, balanced wines.
Milk cartons protect the young vine from hungry rabbits for the first year. The uppermost leaves have been eaten on this one.
As we look ahead longing for cool rains here in California my mind turns to the cozy season ahead and fresh, homemade sourdough bread.
Simply stated, sourdough starter is a stable culture of yeast and lactic acid bacteria in a flour and water mixture. Yeast strains present in sourdough starters are usually species in the genus Saccharomyces or Candida. The bacterial component is most often a strain of Lactobacillus, and there are many different strains. The beauty of making your own starter is that the specific strains of yeast and bacteria in your kitchen and their proportion to each other will be unique and yield one of a kind flavor.
You can use any kind of flour you like. I started with all-purpose wheat flour but have slowly transitioned my starter over to a gluten-free baking mix flour. The possibilities of which flour you use are limited only by your tastes and imagination.
Starting and maintaining a starter can seem daunting, but it is really quite simple. All you need to get going is a handful of grapes, and a cup each of flour and non-chlorinated water. While grapes aren’t necessary for getting a sourdough starter established, the yeast naturally present on grape skins will help kickstart the fermentation and get you off in the right direction.
Here are the steps:
1) Mix 1 cup flour and 1 cup water together in a glass jar. A quart canning jar works well. I prefer wide mouth for ease of feeding.
2) Rinse the grapes but do not scrub them, we want the yeast on their skins to enter the mixture. Roughly chop the grapes and mix into the water and flour slurry.
3) The next day, pour off and discard a cup of the mixture, (discard as few grapes as possible) and replace with ½ cup fresh flour and ½ cup water. This is called “feeding.”
4) Repeat step 3 daily. If liquid pools on top of your starter, simply mix it in.
5) After about a week your starter should smell tart, sour or tangy and have visible air bubbles.
6) Once established it will not require daily feeding and can be kept in the fridge resting for a few weeks. It’s a good idea to feed it every week or so for the first 6 months and after a long period of rest it may require a few feedings to become lively again. Your starter will grow stronger over time and can last a lifetime.
With all raw home fermentations I like to go by the old adage, “the nose knows.” Trust your own sensory analysis; does it smell, taste and look good? If it has a smell that is just downright yucky, or if you see active mold growing, discard and begin again. I’ve never had this experience with sourdough and if you do not neglect your starter, you should not have any problems.
Once you are ready to attempt a loaf look online for one of hundreds of recipes. When I first experimented with sourdough bread many years ago I read several recipes that dictated how long I should let the dough sit, how many hours to the let the bread rise and so forth. I followed the directions faithfully and got a few nice loaves, but then things fell flat. What was missing was my own observation. Now, instead of using prescribed time periods for the various steps, I use my eyes, nose and hands to guide me. It has become a much more intuitive process. I hope you have fun and enjoy the process.
Try your bread with your favorite cheese and favorite Frey wine. It should pair just fine with any of our wines!
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.
Ginger Peach Cobbler
Peach season is upon us! A family member dropped off a box of them last week, fresh from our vineyard peach trees. This led me to think of how the aromas of peaches are often detected in wines. So I set out to include a wine reduction in this recipe, a Pinot Grigio syrup, to bring out even more complex and wonderful flavors in wine and bring them into this peach dish. If you make this, we’d love to hear about it!
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup Frey Pinot Grigio dry white wine
1.5 cup coconut sugar
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
1 quart fresh sliced peaches, unpeeled
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 dash of salt
Zest from 1 lemon
1/2 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350°
Pinot Grigio Syrup
Mix together in a sauce pan the Frey Organic Pinot Grigio (or another dry white wine), 1/2 cup coconut sugar, and the grated ginger. Mix and bring to a boil. Simmer until it thickens and reduced by half, more or less. Set aside to cool.
Prepare the Peaches
I do not peel them. Instead I remove the peach fuzz by rubbing them on a clean dish towel. Slice thinly and set aside. (I prefer to leave on the skins to preserve the nutritional value in skins.)
Prepare the Batter
In a separate bowl mix together the flour, 1 cup coconut sugar, baking powder, dash of salt, milk, cooled Pinot Grigio syrup, lemon zest. I like making my own fresh lemon zest with a peeler, then chopping it fine.
Slice up the butter and scatter across the baking dish (DO NOT rub it in), then place in the preheated oven until the butter melts. Take out of oven and pour in the batter, distributing it as evenly as possible as you pour. But DO NOT STIR the batter. Distribute the sliced peaches over the batter. DO NOT STIR the peaches either!
Bake for approximately 45 minutes to an hour, or until browned and bubbly around the edges, and the center is quite firm.
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.
Frey Vineyards requires you to be 21 years or older to enter. Please enter your Date of Birth in the fields below in order to continue: