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Freeman Winery Visit Interview

Convey what the soil and grapes went through with a bottle of wine...

If you drive through the thick fog covering Golden Gate Bridge, blue skies and sunshine greet you like it was all a dream.  Drive 50 more miles north on highway 101, and you will find Freeman Winery, the ‘Little Bourgogne’ in the small city of Sebastopol, Sonoma County. There was some traffic with everyone driving home from work, but it was bearable thanks to my rental Tesla’s Autosteer option.

The founders of Freeman Winery, Ken and Akiko Freeman, met through a hurricane, both figuratively and literally. With the recommendation of her principal at the all-girls Catholic highschool in Japan, Akiko decided to go as an exchange student to Manhattanville College, a sister school in the U.S. The name misled Akiko to believe that the college was located in NYC (it had been, when it was founded), but when the taxi she rode from the airport dropped her off 30 miles away in Purchase, Westchester County, she was taken by surprise.  One day, a huge hurricane hit the State of NY (and other parts of the U.S.), causing a power outage in the area, including Akiko’s dorm.  Sitting around with nothing to do in her dark room, Akiko was invited to go to something called a ‘keg party’, which was being held by her friend’s boyfriend and his friends.  For her first party in the United States, Akiko dressed to the nines like Audrey Hepburn would in the movies. She would only find out what a keg party was after arriving there.  Meanwhile Ken, who had been sailing a yacht with his friends in the Atlantic, had to take shelter during the hurricane and went to the same keg party held by his friends.  He found Akiko, elegantly dressed and beautiful, standing out amidst the rowdy college crowd of the keg party.  It was love at first sight, and the rest is history, as they say.  They continued their long distance relationship until they got married in San Francisco, and in 2001, acquired the winery here and started making wine.  Ken’s day job is in finance and Akiko majored in art history of the Italian Renaissance, earning a master’s degree in Stanford.  They originally hired a professional winemaker for the wines from 2001 to 2009, during which Akiko worked next to him as an apprentice doing every task imaginable, however meager or difficult.  One day in 2009, the winemaker, who is a good friend to the founders to this day, told Akiko that ‘now you are able to make wine completely on your own’, and left, putting Akiko in charge of everything.  Ken and Akiko subsequently sold their house in San Francisco and built their estate in the winery to live there, and Akiko has been a full-time winemaker ever since.

“As a winemaker, I think of myself as a translator of nature. Wine is a story of what happened in nature during that year.  A bottle of wine contains the entire tale of whether the weather was hot or cold, if it was windy, whether it was rainy or there was a draught, if there was plenty of sunshine, what the soil and grapes had to go through. I try to translate nature’s story as truthfully possible, as it was.” (Akiko)

“To convey the story as it actually happened, we interfere as little as possible.  A minimalistic approach.” (Ken)

They planted pinot noir clones flown directly from the Bourgogne area in France in the vineyard named after the hurricane that helped them meet, Gloria Estate Vineyard.  They grew the sensitive and delicate-skinned grapes with great care, using organic and biodynamic farming methods.  The Sonoma area where Gloria Estate is located, had traditionally grown apple trees, until large grocery chains started taking over the U.S.  The type of apples produced here were very delicious, but had a very short shelf life leading to their dismissal by the large supermarkets.  As a result almost all of the apple orchards were replaced by vineyards.  I found out during this interview that apple farming is notorious for using a lot of pesticides and other chemicals, and it takes about 7 years for the soils to detoxify and become free from their effects.  Freeman Winery has another vineyard in Russian River Valley called KR Ranch.  Among Freeman’s Pinot Noirs KR Ranch and Akiko’s Cuvee are my favorite.  Both are minty, herby and very elegant.  A light touch of French oak lends flavor yet keeps the daintiness intact.  It is like it was made just for me, usually having a bit difficulty with other strong character U.S. wines.  Closing my eyes and taking a sip, I listen to the story of nature as translated by Akiko, very earnest and clear, of the strong and bright sun in contrast with the coolness brought by the hills, the sea winds from the Pacific, the life story of the wine grown with love and care in Freeman Winery.  When I open my eyes, I am already there.

Freeman Vineyard picks up inspiration from Burgundy cover
Freeman Vineyard picks up inspiration from Burgundy

The vineyards at the Freeman Winery in Sebastopol, Calif. are seen on February 2nd, 2019.

Ken and Akiko Freeman started Freeman Vineyard and Winery in 2001 after being inspired by the fine wines of Burgundy.

With two estate vineyards, Gloria and Yu-ki, the Freemans devote themselves to cool- climate, coastal Pinot Noir, working with other sites within the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley to produce five unique Pinots, as well as one Chardonnay from Hawk Hill Vineyard nearby. Everything is made in small quantities with the utmost attention.

Tokyo native Akiko makes the wines, having apprenticed alongside consulting winemaker Ed Kurtzman since the winery’s inception.

Ken has been actively involved in the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, which has applied for a new appellation to be formed, incorporating vineyards like his that lie within a certain proximity of the Pacific Ocean.

Visits ($30) are held in the wine caves and are by appointment from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. They’re private and intimate and, in addition to tasting the wines, visitors will have the chance to experience the Freeman’s small-lot winery and Gloria Vineyard next door.

WHAT TO TRY: The two estate Pinot Noirs are well worth trying side-by-side if possible. The Gloria is from a hillside spot once planted to apples that the Freemans named after its original owner. Yu-ki, from a high-elevation site above Occidental that is surrounded by redwoods, is spicy and sublime. Akiko’s Cuvée is a selection of the best barrels each year.

INSIDE INFO: From Freeman it would be a shame not to head just a tiny bit farther to Freestone’s Wild Flour Bread Bakery for brick-oven breads, scones, fougasse, flatbreads and sticky buns.

Freeman 2018 Yu-Ki Estate Pinot Noir
95 points.  & Cellar Section
A Wine Spectator Sonoma Pinot Noirs Favorite cover
Wine Enthusiast
Freeman 2018 Yu-Ki Estate Pinot Noir
95 points. & Cellar Section
A Wine Spectator Sonoma Pinot Noirs Favorite

Freeman 2018 Yu-Ki Estate Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $68, 95 points. Vibrant, focused and well balanced, this medium- to full-bodied wine offers brilliant aromas and complex flavors of ripe black cherries, violets, sour cherries and black tea. It offers a firm, elegant texture, with fresh acidity and fine-grained tannins. Enjoy through 2026. Cellar Selection. —Jim Gordon

We’re living in the midst of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Pinot Noir in Sonoma. Throughout the county’s appellations, including Carneros, which has its foothold in parts of both Napa and Sonoma, the region has been blessed with a string of great vintages that are current on the market, stretching at the moment from the 2016 red wines through the 2019 rosés.

The quality of the 2017s in particular should be noted. While it was the first year California wasn’t in a yearlong drought, it saw dangerous heat spikes during harvest, followed by fires in October. Pinot was picked relatively early, hurried along by the heat—a result of smart decision making and hustle by experienced producers like Gary Farrell, Patz & Hall, La Crema, Flowers and Emeritus.

“The Pinot Noir bottlings shine because the fruit is so vibrant with incredibly lifted, fresh aromas,” said Gary Farrell Winemaker Theresa Heredia. “These sorts of qualities are unexpected from a very hot vintage like 2017, but we busted our ass to bring all the fruit in as quickly as possible before it began to dehydrate, which would have led to overripe qualities and jammy wines with flabby acidity.”

She started picking on the day of the total solar eclipse, August 21, 2017, bringing in only 6% of the harvest. A heat wave came around August 26, and over the next seven days, she harvested 53% of her total tons. Once she saw a severe heat wave on the horizon, she called all her growers to schedule picks of any grapes that were even remotely ready.

Because of this quick harvest period, she and others were able to capture flavors that are bright and lifted, with aromas that are fresh and energetic.


Akiko's Recipe as featured on Better Magazine! cover
Akiko's Recipe as featured on Better Magazine!

Sweet Pea and Fennel Soup

Freeman Vineyard & Winery, Sebastopol


2 tbsp butter
1 tbsps
olive oil
2 medium to large fennel bulbs, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
5 cups chicken stock
20 oz sweet peas (If it’s not season, frozen peas works great for this)
Salt and pepper
Heavy cream (optional)


Serves 4-6

1. Melt butter on a large pot, add olive oil when butter is melted. Add onion and fennel — cook stirring occasionally until softened about 15 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste as you cook.

2. Add chicken broth and peas. Cook over medium heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low. Simmer, partially covered, and cook for another 15 minutes.

3. Cool the soup and puree in batches in a blender or food processor until completely smooth. Add about ¼ cup cream if you like to finish.

4. Check the taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

5. If you are serving the soup cold, cover and chill it in refrigerator at least 6 hours.

If you like an onion flavor, top with chopped chives. You can also add chopped tomato if you like. If the soup is too thick, add more chicken stock later. This soup is very forgiving.

Chef’s tip: Pairing with Freeman Winery Yu-Ki Estate Pinot Noir or Ryo-fu Chardonnay


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