Beyond Sustainable: Frei Brothers Reserve

If you ask Jim Collins, he has great things to say about organic farming and winemaking. He defines it quite concisely: “To be an organic grower, your focus is taking out synthetic chemicals from your operation,” he states. Of course, in his vineyard, he strives to do that.

But to Jim, the chief viticulturist of Frei Brothers Reserve (a Sonoma wine), the idea of being a sustainable winemaker goes beyond the removal synthetic materials. To Jim, sustainability is defined by every detail of a his business, right down to the steel used for grape stakes.

“What is truly better for the environment?” Jim always asks of the way he grows and conducts business. And whether it’s using the aforementioned grape stakes made from recycled rail steel or setting aside land for Sonoma wildlife, he always tries to make the best decision, even when it’s not easy.

It all started in the 1970s when the Frei family sold its vineyard to what is now E.&J. Gallo Winery, with the latter renaming the business “Frei Brothers” to preserve the family’s heritage: A set of values, Jim says, to “take care of the land and it’s going to take care of you.”

Perhaps the most blatant example of this theory in practice was an undertaking known as Redwood Row, the transplant of 21 aged redwood trees from one location to another roughly 100 yards away. Originally, the trees were to be cut down for vineyard expansion, a suggestion vetoed by Jim’s love of the land. Instead, an arborist was commissioned to dig, lift and carry the trees, roots intact, to a new space.

The successful tree transplant is one major extension of Frei’s 50/50 Give Back program, an exchange in which every acre of land used for winemaking is accompanied by another contributed to wildlife preservation.

The principles echo organic winemaking. Some of the farming is done organically and there’s ongoing talk of certification. The conversation gets stuck, however, on current efforts to aid nature’s balance within Frei’s land; practices that can contrast organic pest control methods.

One of Jim’s greatest passions is, in fact, an “integrated approach” to pest control. He uses Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which, though not organic, does avoid the use of chemical pesticides and sprays. The property serves as a habitat for wildlife like owls (made possible by the redwood trees) that feed on pests, allowing nature to protect itself with minimal interference.

He instills Canopy Management, too, a process of trimming leaves from grapevines that removes feeding pests while also exposing plants to sunlight.

“Sustainability is a huge umbrella,” Jim remarked. It’s a matter of social responsibility, which means supporting the community and small businesses whenever possible. It extends to the treatment of the vineyard’s staff to ensconce an understanding of such particular farming; an education that directly translates to a shared passion for preservation.

But it’s also about building alliances and, rather than viewing them as competitors, forming a knowledge exchange with other winemakers.

“You can learn a tremendous amount from other people,” Jim said.

“I want Frei Brothers to be the best wine it can be,” he concluded. “We’re taking care of the ground, taking care of the folks who are farming it, doing good in the community. And, oh, by the way, we’re making really good wine.”

Really good wine that, as most agree, is directly attributable to sustainable habits and traditions that can continue for generations.

The Frei Brothers Reserve is located in Healdsburg, CA in the Sonoma region.