Rising out of the Ashes
story & photos by Ree Slocum
As with most people who were comfortably sleeping in their Redwood Valley homes during the early morning hours of October 9th last year, the extensive family of Freys were startled awake by phone calls, knocks on doors, truck and car horns blaring, shouts, and screams that launched them into action. Katrina Frey, Executive Director of Frey Vineyards, recalled, “We [Jonathan and Katrina] ended up having 20 minutes to get out. I found myself grabbing things closest to the door. Fortunately I grabbed my suitcase from a recent trip that had my favorite clothes and some family jewelry!”
The winery, tasting room, cellar, and offices with computers and files were destroyed. Fortunately, the important winery files and notes were stored in the cloud. Because they were irrigated, only about ten percent of the estate vineyards were lost. Most of the homes on neighboring properties burned to the ground. Two of the ten Frey homes survived along with the Big House, where the twelve Frey siblings grew up. The warehouse that stores cases of their award winning, organic and biodynamic wines was also spared.
The Frey family lived and worked closely together on their land, along with some employees and renters. Each home was independent, separated by wooded acres with dirt roads, winding trails, wild animals, and a seasonal stream. Nearly all of the buildings in their part of Redwood Valley were lost. “We have 18 part-time to full-time employees whose homes have burned down. Our full-time bookkeeper used to live right next door, and our cellar record keeper lived in the [nearby] subdivision. Our full-time truck and tractor drivers, cellar workers—every one of them lived close by and have moved two or three times since the fire. Most people have a place for the winter,” said Katrina. Some of the employees owned their own homes and will rebuild. Others were renters and don’t have that option.
“[Our employees] have been really heroic, ... showing up to work, not to mention how hard everybody’s willing to work to help reconstruct everything,” she told me.
Immediately after the fire, Jonathan and Katrina Frey, along with other family members, began the long and complex processes of dealing with insurance companies, finding temporary housing, setting up office spaces, finishing the grape harvest on satellite vineyards, getting the grapes to a crushing facility, and bottling the current unblemished wine. Within three days of the fire, Martha and Charlie Barra, owners of Barra of Mendocino Winery, offered their lovely rental home to Jonathan, Katrina, their daughter and family. Five days later the larger Frey family had the security of knowing there were tanks they could use to crush their harvested grapes at the very busy Barra, Fetzer, and Parducci wineries. “All of these offers were very heart warming,” Katrina said.
The giving didn’t stop there. Since many of the grand oak trees perished in the fire, the Oak Granary Project organized the first of many community acorn planting events on the Frey Ranch.
Amongst the ashes, there’s been a lot of work taking place at the Frey Home Ranch. Building plans are in the works for a new bottling facility that will be attached to the surviving warehouse, but in the meantime, their 2016 Chardonnay was bottled with a mobile bottling unit. Luke Frey, who crafts the biodynamic preparations for the winery, lost all of his stored Earth medicaments in the fire. He’s been busy making new preparations from the wealth of materials sent to him from his generous biodynamic colleagues, and they’ll be ready to apply in Spring 2019.
Tons of wine and grapes were lost to the smoky fire, and the family is exploring buying wine from South American organic wine producers to blend with the existing Frey wine before bottling. Grapes are harvested in March and April in South America, perfect timing for one of the Freys to travel south to supervise processing totally organic wine.
On the home re-building front, many of the Freys, along with other folks who were living on Tomki Road, are exploring building fire-proof, prefabricated houses made with high sustainability standards. “This could move things along more quickly,” said Katrina, who’s yearning to be back on the land surrounded by nature and her gardens. They purchased a fifth wheel they hope to set in place soon near their original home site.
Frey Vineyards had broken ground for their new winery and tasting room off of West Road in Redwood Valley a few months earlier, and it was not damaged in the fire. In keeping with the family’s vision of conscientious land stewardship, it has an Argentinian-designed water treatment plant will run the winery’s waste water through earthworm beds (both EPA and Mendocino County approved).
According to Katrina, the new winery will be safer, fully compliant, more efficient, and, thanks to a temperature controlled warehouse, the wine quality will be even better. The new facility is slated for production of the 2018 harvest. “It’s sort of hard to believe right now as I look at the plans,” she laughed on a rainy day in January. But when you consider the fortitude they’ve demonstrated up to now, it seems like anything is possible for the resilient Freys.