Frey Vineyards rebuilds after Mendocino County wildfire
January 9, 2018
Mendocino County suffered devastating losses of life and property during the Redwood Valley wildfire in October, but one of the pioneers of organic and Biodynamic wine is serendipitously positioned to bounce back quickly after taking a bit hit during that blaze.
Started in 1980, Frey Vineyards lost its bottling facility, offices and tasting room at 14000 Tomki Road in the middle of Redwood Valley. But all its owners and workers survived, as did the wine and most all the grapes and vines. And a new winery is under construction.
Tragically, nine people ultimately died from the Redwood Valley fire, among the 44 lives claimed from the October fires in four North Bay counties. The 36,523-acre Mendocino County fire destroyed 545 houses and other structures in Redwood and Potter valleys. Among those buildings was small-scale Bordeaux-variety producer Backbone Vineyard & Winery, which burned down along with five years of its wine.
None of the 64 Frey family members, covering four generations, or employees living on the property was injured, but owners and workers were among those left without homes, according to Katrina Frey, executive director of the family-owned company. Of 10 Frey family homes on the property, only two remain. And 18 part- and fulltime Frey Vineyards workers also lost their homes. Half the 47 employees are family members.
“We had a lot of silver linings,” Frey said. She married founding winemaker Jonathan Frey, eldest of 12 children of 93-year-old matriarch Beba Frey, who also fled the flames.
For example, escaping the flames on the main property were the crushpad for grapes, 154 wine tanks and a metal warehouse with 10,000 cases of bottled wine. The fire passed by the insulated stainless-steel tanks too quickly to damage the wine, Frey said. In the vineyards, the fires damaged only some rows of vines and their grapes on the edges. Large vintners in the county stepped up to help process incoming grapes.
“(Losing) the bottling line is difficult for us, because we typically bottle two to three days a week,” Frey said. October through New Year’s Day is a critical time for the wine business to fill orders that supply holiday gatherings. Frey typically sends out club shipments in November, but that couldn’t happen this year. “We knew we could call in mobile lines, but our labels burned up, along with the corks and capsules.”
It took about a month to get a year’s worth of labels reprinted and to secure new closures, but then Frey Vineyards had wine flowing into bottles again, she said. Two mobile bottlers have been coming to the property for the past two months, and the output of bottled wine got back on schedule. A replacement bottling line is targeted to be operational at the property by February.
As news of Frey Vineyards fire damage spread, the wine club gained 100 members, growing to 750, Frey said. Club shipments were able to start going out by early December.
VINTNERS TO THE RESCUE
etting finished wine from previous years into bottles is one thing, but the North Bay wildfires came during harvest of the new vintage. While almost all the 2017 crop had been picked in Napa and Sonoma counties the first night of the firestorm, Oct. 8, about half the crop was still on the vine for Frey Vineyards and its growers in cooler, slower-ripening Mendocino County. What had already arrived at Frey rode out the fire in the tanks.
Frey farms about 350 acres of grapes, first planted in the 1960s. That includes 50 acres on the Tomki Road home ranch and 300 acres scattered across Redwood and Potter valleys. Frey buys the rest of the grapes from certified organic growers in Mendocino County.
Fire experts and growers noted that vineyards typically are good firebreaks because of buffer areas on the perimeter, irrigation and weed management. But the wind-whipped firestorm damaged roughly 5 percent of Frey’s vine acreage, Katrina Frey said.
That left upwards of 700 tons of grapes from Frey and its growers needing a place to be crushed and made into wine. Problem was, certified organic wine must be made by a certified vintner, so Frey couldn’t have its grapes delivered just anywhere.
Frey and other Mendocino County growers were certified by California Certified Organic Farmers in 1980, the same year Frey started producing wine. In the late 1990s, Frey became the first winery in the U.S. to be Biodynamic-certified, by Demeter USA.
Thankfully for Frey, Mendocino’s organic vintner community stepped up to help. Within three days of the fire, Barra of Mendocino offered to take in Frey’s grapes. Then Fetzer Vineyards’ large Hopland winery and Parducci Wine Cellars near Ukiah did likewise. Winemaker Paul Frey is overseeing production at those locations.
“It wasn’t easy for them to find space,” Katrina Frey said. “They bent over backwards to find it.”
GREAT TIMING FOR NEW WINERY
The wildfire has been devastating to the small Redwood Valley community, but it came at a fortunate time for Frey Vineyards, she said. A new winery is underway at a vineyard property off West Road in the valley. The site is already graded and prepared for construction, and final permits are being secured for the concrete slab to be poured early this year. It is on track to open in August, in time for the next harvest.
“Thank goodness it was all set before the fire,” Frey said. “Because to think of the myriad decisions we went through in the last year and a half, it would have taken us longer than that to plan for it (if we were starting now).”
The new facility is designed to allow winery production to grow by 10 percent then to expand beyond that later.
“Right now the biggest bottleneck for Frey Vineyards to expand is availability to certified organic grapes,” she said. Local certified producers have locked up much of the supply of such grapes in Mendocino and Lake counties.
LACO Associates, an architecture firm with offices in Santa Rosa, Ukiah and Eureka, designed Frey’s new winery. R&M Backhoe Service of Ukiah is the general contractor.