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Northbay BizGreat Tastes: Freeman Vineyard and Winery
Did You Know? Ed Kurtzman, one of the most highly sought-after winemakers in California, who specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, was the founding winemaker at Freeman Vineyard & Winery. Proprietor Akiko Freeman worked alongside Kurtzman for seven years. Today, he serves as the consulting winemaker, helping the Freemans preserve and perfect the visionary style he helped them pioneer.
Nestled along a quiet, country road west of Sebastopol and surrounded by Redwood trees, you’ll find Freeman Vineyard & Winery, known for its critically-acclaimed wines. To the left of the winery’s cellar is the Gloria Estate Vineyard and above the wine cellar doors, surrounded in
The Freemans’ story began on September 28, 1985, during Hurricane Gloria, along the Atlantic coast. Ken had just graduated from college and was working on Martha’s Vineyard. Akiko Wakimura was a young international student from Japan. They met at a hurricane party that evening. “It was a keg party,” Ken recalls. “She thought it was like a ball in Japan and showed up in a formal gown.” At the time, Akiko had no plans to stay in the U.S. permanently, but she caught the eye of young Ken, and it marked an auspicious moment in time that would change the course of their lives.
The Freemans married five years later, and though neither had planned careers in the winemaking business, they shared a passion for wine. Akiko’s grandfather was a leading academic in Japan, who loved the enigmatic beauty of great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Ken was captivated by the mystery of winemaking since childhood.
In 2001, they established a winery and set out to acquire two properties. The first nine-acre parcel was at the cool western edge of the Russian River Valley AVA. “If you believe in divine intervention, we bought an orchard from a woman named Gloria,” says Ken with a smile. The hillside property, now adjacent to the winery, is named Gloria Estate. The second parcel of land is now the 14-acre Yu-ki Estate, situated just five miles from the Pacific coast, above the town of Occidental at an elevation of 1,000 feet.
Today, Freeman is a boutique winery, producing about 6,000 cases per year. Ken helms the proprietary details of the winery, and Akiko serves as the winemaker, guiding every vintage. Their winemaking philosophy is centered around the idea that great wines capture the soul of great vineyards, and they focus exclusively on two varietals—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “We love our size,” says Ken. “We’re just large enough to offer variation. And part of the key of our humble success is focus. With a Japanese wife, it’s always about focus.”
We begin with the 2016 Ryo-fu Chardonnay. “Ryo-fu” means “cool breeze” in Japanese, and this is not your typical Chardonnay. This is an exquisite wine with delicate notes of stone fruit, lemon and cream. In 2015, a Ryo-fu Chardonnay was served at The White House during the Obama administration when the prime minister of Japan was visiting.
Next, we taste the 2016 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Sourced with fruit from the Sonoma Coast vineyard, this wine is distinctive with dark fruit, spicy notes and a silky texture. Akiko’s approach to winemaking is to be as minimalist as possible. “Our grapes are like a beautiful woman,” she says. “There is no need for a lot of makeup—just a small amount of oak, and let our beautiful grapes shine.”
The Freeman-style of winemaking goes against convention. Rather than pushing the limits of ripeness, they prefer to pick early during harvest. “The earlier you pick, the less sugar, which gives the wine more acidity,” says Ken. The bright acidity makes Freeman wines ideal to pair with food. In the early days, the winery built its reputation by the wine lists in notable restaurants such as French Laundry in Napa, and Boulevard in San Francisco.
We follow that with the 2015 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir, made with fruit sourced from a single vineyard, planted 45 years ago. “This is a Swiss clone with peppery notes,” says Ken. This is a distinctive wine with a unique taste profile. Next, we try the 2016 Gloria Estate Pinot Noir, which features a Japanese symbol for “glory,” another nod to Akiko’s rich heritage, which spans 21 generations. This has lovely aromas of sweet cherries and brambles, and it’s fruit forward on the palette.
Finally, we taste the 2016 Yu-Ki Estate Pinot Noir. On the nose, it offers deep-berry flavors with a hint of Sonoma Coast spice. The fruit is sourced from Yu-ki Vineyard, named for their nephew in Tokyo. Here, the yields are low—only one or two tons per acre—and the berries are small, which allow for intense flavors. This is a wine you can purchase now and keep on hand. It’s expected to be at its best through 2024.
Freeman wines are elegant, balanced and feminine, and the Pinot Noirs offer a beautiful layer of complexity. Next time you’re heading to the coast, stop at Freeman to experience the wines that have been written about by Robert Parker and reviewed in Forbes, USA Today and Bloomberg Business Week.
International Wine ReportFreeman Winery’s 2015-2016 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Releases from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast
Last week, we met with Ken Freeman, proprietor with his wife Akiko of Freeman Vineyard & Winery, to taste through his new Chardonnay and Pinot Noir releases from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. Ken and Akiko launched the winery in 2001 and today produce some 6 thousand cases of first-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Freemans source grapes from their Gloria Estate Vineyard, Yuk-ki Estate Vineyard and top neighboring vineyards in Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. Akiko serves as winemaker, having acquired her knowledge of viticulture and winemaking by apprenticing with veteran winemaker Ed Kurtzman who now serves as consulting winemaker.
We previously tasted the Freeman wines two years ago and were impressed with their quality. This year’s new releases are at least as good. In general, the Freeman wines are approachable young and reveal excellent winemaking. This year we saw some improvements in some of the wines, especially in the Ryo-fu Chardonnay and the magnificent Pinot Noir, Akiko’s Cuvée.
Freeman Winery is one of some 25 wineries that form the West Sonoma Coast Vintners (WSCV). These vintners are passionate about farming along the mountainous coastline of western Sonoma County. Following on our previous Report #44 The Wines of Sonoma County, the IWR plans to prepare a new report on the West Sonoma Coast wineries in 2019 to educate readers on the exciting developments taking place there.
Wine Reviews and Ratings
Freeman Winery 2016 Chardonnay Ryo-fu Russian River Valley ($45) 92 This is a delicious Chardonnay, exemplary of the top producers in Sonoma Country. Picked early and fermented in 10% new French oak, the 2015 Ryo-fu Chardonnay offers bright tropical fruit aromas and flavors in a light and leesy format. It is beautifully balanced and reveals a crisp persistent finish.
Freeman Winery 2016 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($45) 90 The 2016 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley consists of grapes from the winery’s Gloria Estate Vineyard (50%), Keefer Ranch (40%) and Sexton Vineyard (10%) and is aged 10 months in 30% New French oak. Russian River Valley in character, it is ripe and perfumed with aromas and flavors of dark cherry fruit. It is concentrated with firm tannins at this stage of development and needs additional time in the bottle for maximum drinking pleasure.
Freeman Winery 2015 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($45) 90 A 50-50 blend of grapes from Campbell Ranch and the Yu-ki Estate Vineyard, the 2015 Pinot Noir Coast Pinot Noir exhibits the high acidity and freshness typical of Pacific Coast cool climate Pinot Noir. If offers medium-light red berry fruit aromas and flavors with considerable elegance and concentration on the palate.
Freeman Winery 2015 Pinot Noir Yu-ki Estate Sonoma Coast ($68) 91 The 2015 Pinot Noir Yu-ki Estate is an elegant wine offering light berry fruit and high acidity. It is a new wine in the line up since we last tasted Freeman Estate’s wines and it is a welcome addition. It is not in the same league as Akiko’s cuvee, but is still first-class.
Freeman Winery 2015 Pinot Noir Gloria Estate Russian River Valley ($68) 92 The 2015 Pinot Noir Gloria Estate is sourced from a 9 acre parcel in Green Valley planted with Calera, Swan and Dijon clones.It is soft and elegant on the palate revealing dark cherry fruit. Aged in 30% new French oak, it shows excellent balance and a persistent finish.
Freeman Winery 2015 Pinot Noir Keefer Ranch Sonoma County ($62) 93 The Pinot Noir Keefer Ranch is sourced from a 40 year-old vineyard planted with the Wadenswil clone in 1982. Dark ruby in color, it offers aromas of ripe black cherry and plum. It is soft and velvety on the palate with good concentration of flavor. Aged one year in 30% new French oak, which is nicely integrated.
Freeman Winery 2015 Pinot Noir Akiko’s Cuvee Sonoma Coast ($72) 94 Akiko’s Cuvee consists of the 10-12 favorite barrels of the winemaker, Akiko Freeman. It is a gorgeous wine, rich and classy with pure red berry fruit and hints of plum and violet. It is beautifully focused with firm round tannins and a persistent finish. An impressive wine, more elegant than the 2013 vintage we tasted a few years ago and shows great aging potential.
Sonoma Magazine5 West County Wineries to Visit Right Now
West Sonoma County – or simply West County to locals – is one of the most beautiful rural areas of the North Bay. From farm to ocean, the area west of Highway 101 offers boutique and luxury wineries producing highly coveted wines in settings that inspire a deep admiration for nature and an appreciation for the craft of winemaking.