Jonathan Frey will never forget the sound of the firestorm as it crested a nearby ridge, drawing closer to the family winery.
“It was like a freight train,” he recalls.
High winds fed the inferno like gasoline as Jonathan and his wife, Katrina, scrambled to collect their most cherished things. “We knew we had to get out when embers started raining down from the sky,” says Jonathan.
They drove dusty backroads and crossed multiple creeks as part of a convoy of about 60 other vehicles that also evacuated the vineyard-dotted hamlet of Redwood Valley in Mendocino County. It was a slow, eerie drive to the town of Willits, where the town’s City Hall had been transformed into a disaster relief center.
There was nothing to do but wait. Without cell service for 48 hours, they didn’t know if anything was left of their home and third-generation business, Frey Vineyards, the country’s first organic winery.
Stewards of the Land
Jonathan, the oldest of 12 siblings, had helped plant the family’s first grapes in the late 1960s, but a formal winemaking operation didn’t start until 1980, when he and Katrina bought the property, situated idyllically at the headwaters of the Russian River, from his parents.
“We had both studied horticulture and became inspired to farm organically, and were interested in composting and getting carbon dioxide back in the soil,” says Jonathan.
From the very beginning, the couple has acted as stewards of the land with an equal dedication to producing wines that are healthier for both the earth and the consumer. Bucking conventional winemaking techniques, they have never included any additives (such as sulfites, a preservative) in their wines.
“The organic wine market segment has grown quite a bit, and we’ve also grown,” says Jonathan. (Today, there are more than 2,000 organic wine producers globally.) In addition to the home ranch, Frey Vineyard encompasses 300 acres of vineyards scattered throughout Redwood Valley and Potter Valley. The winery produces 200,000 cases of organic wine annually, and that number should only rise—the family recently broke ground on a second winery located just down the road from the home winery.
On track to open late August 2018, the new winery will house crushing and production facilities, with offices and a tasting room to come in November. The property will be a veritable Eden, too: “We are planning the extensive native and Mediterranean gardens which will surround it, with broad terraces leading down to the vineyards and the pond,” says Katrina.
Facing the Devastation
Back in that makeshift relief center in Willits, the future seemed far less certain. What remained of more than 35 years of a family’s toil and dream? With the fires fully contained, Jonathan and Katrina returned home to the unknown.
“It was shocking to see that kind of devastation for the first time,” says Jonathan. “Homes in the neighborhood were completely leveled, and the surrounding hills were completely blackened.” It was the worst burn in the area in 60 years.
“Redwood Valley is a little hamlet with only about 3,000 residents, and 300 homes burned to the ground, so it has hugely impacted our community,” says Katrina.
The Freys lost multiple structures to the fire, including family dwellings (20 family members work at the winery and many lived there), offices, the tasting room and part of their winemaking facility, but most of the wine (stored outside in large stainless steel tanks) was unscathed. Only a fraction of the home vineyard was affected, and all the remote acreage was spared.
“We feel fortunate,” says Jonathan. “Most of our land didn’t have any actual burning in the vineyards.”
While Jonathan and Katrina have adopted “a wait and see attitude” as it relates to the recovery timeline, they are encouraged by the early signs of renewal. “We’re seeing a bunch of lush, green growth after the recent rains,” says Jonathan. “It makes an interesting contrast—the bright green on the black. Now the green is starting to take over.”
He also points out that ash acts as a natural fertilizer, and is optimistic that it will aid in the regeneration process.
For now, the waiting game continues as site clean-up is gradually conducted by a collective force of the Army Corps of Engineers, Sonoma County, and FEMA. In the meantime, area wineries—Barra, Fetzer and Parducci—have offered up their (organic-certified) winemaking facilities to the Frey family so production won’t be dramatically interrupted. The couple says the support speaks volumes about their tight-knit community and its rallying spirit. Although a small minority of local wineries were affected by the fire, the entire community has mobilized in support.
“Not too many wineries in Mendocino County were affected, so most are open and waiting with open arms,” says Katrina.
To help with disaster relief in Mendocino County and Redwood Valley, the Frey family encourages donations to The Disaster Fund for Mendocino County.