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The White House

We are honored that the White House featured our Ryo-fu Chardonnay at a recent State Dinner welcoming Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the United States. Reveal more

Akiko Freeman

LE.PAN: The small Sonoma winery with Asian ambitions; “We don’t manipulate anything. We just try to grow the best fruit and bring out the best of it. That’s our philosophy.” Reveal more

Celebrating Women of Color in Wine
Five Trailblazing Women to Watch
Akiko Freeman cover
where epicure
Celebrating Women of Color in Wine
Five Trailblazing Women to Watch
Akiko Freeman

THE CALIFORNIA WINE industry isn't known for its diversity—for decades, most winemakers have had similar backgrounds, and most have been men. In recent years, however, a handful of women of color have taken Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties by storm, blazing new trails for their respective families and for the industry overall. Here are the stories of five remarkable women in the wine industry.


To say Akiko Freeman's family goes way back in Japan would be an understatement. Her family members trace their lineage back 23 generations. She is a cousin of Japan's Empress Michiko and related to the founding Mitsubishi family. She also likely the only female Asian winemaker in the entire United States. Akiko makes the juice at Freeman Winery in Sebastopol and co-owns the winery with her husband, Ken. In her job, she performs tasks that no women in her family have done before. "In Japan, ladies don't usually pick up anything heavier than chopsticks," she quips. "Now I'm doing punch-downs and carrying boxes of wine around the winery." Freeman credits her father and grandfather for her interest in wine; her grandfather loved Bordeaux-style vino and her father liked wines from Burgundy. When asked to describe her style, Akiko says proudly that she tries to imbue her wines with classic Old World-style influences. Consider it her way of paying tribute to the past.


Westerly Winds
Inside Akiko and Ken Freeman's cool-climate oenophile's paradise. cover
Caviar Affair
Westerly Winds
Inside Akiko and Ken Freeman's cool-climate oenophile's paradise.

A COOL BREEZE—RYO FU IN JAPANESE—WAFTS OVER AKIKO AND Ken Freeman’s winery, vineyards, and home in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. They and their grape-growing neighbors in Sebastopol embrace the chilling Pacific winds, which refresh the vines and produce the bracing yet rewarding chardonnays and pinots noirs for which Freeman Vineyard &c Winery is known.

So vital are these breezes that Freeman pays homage with its Ryo-Fu Chardonnay, a multi-vineyard blend. In fact, all the Freeman wines are positively influenced by ocean winds and fog, so much so that each can be counted on to deliver energetic fruit flavors, mouthwatering acidity, vibrant finishes, and overall elegance.

Akiko and Ken started Freeman Vineyard & Winery in 2001. He was raised on the East Coast, she in Tokyo; they met at a party in New York in 1985. Akiko had just arrived in the US, her father having passed on his knowledge of Burgundy-style wines to her. Her love of chardonnay and pinot noir mirrored international businessman Ken’s tastes, and the topic was the launchpad for their romance, marriage, and eventual founding of the winery.

After apprenticing with consulting winemaker Ed Kurtzman, Akiko now produces the wines in the Freeman cave, with a less-is-more hand. Harvesting at just the right moment in the relatively cool conditions preserves the grapes’ natural acidity, and her judicious use of new French-oak barrels for fermentation and aging ensures the wines will have broad palate texture, without the overt toast aromas and flavors that new French oak can impart.

The Freemans balance estate-grown grapes with purchased fruit for their wines. Their first estate vineyard, Gloria, at the winery, is a former apple orchard named for Hurricane Gloria, the storm that led to their party meet-up in 1985. The pinot noir it produces is, well, glorious.

Also in 2007, the couple acquired property near Occidental, a cold, windy, and steep site just five miles from the ocean and surrounded by old redwoods. The vineyard they planted there, in the Sonoma Coast AVA, is named Yu-ki— Japanese for “big tree.” Its pinots are firm, lean, and savory when young, yet blossom beautifully with age.

Also not to miss: Akiko’s Cuvée, a blend of her favorite barrels of pinot noir, and KR Ranch Pinot Noir from the Keefer Ranch Vineyard.

The Freemans are fans of—and investors in—the Single Thread Farm-Restaurant-Inn in Healdsburg, awarded three Michelin stars in 2019 for its eleven-course, Japanese-influenced kaiseki tasting menu. Says Akiko: “We attended a fundraiser for Sonoma Land Trust in 2015, where Kyle Connaughton prepared an amazing meal, using only a campfire. This was two years before Kyle and his wife, Katina, opened Single Thread. We found a group of friends to invest.”

Umami abounds on the Single Thread menu, and Freeman pinots noirs are great mates for the cuisine.

Freeman offers tastings by appointment, at $30 per person. 1300 Montgomery Road, Sebastopol, CA, 707-823-6937, freemanwinery.com.


The accidental winemaker cover
The accidental winemaker

Akiko Freeman from Freeman Winery wowed everyone with her discerning palate, which is how she found herself making Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California.

Growing lip in Japan, Akiko Freeman can t remember when she first became her father’s “drinking buddy”, but as her sibling didn't drink the task fell onto her. He had spent time in England where he fell in love with wines, and in particular Burgundy. Akiko modestly recounts that she became adept at identifying flavours in wine, and developed a keen sense of nosing and tasting.

Serendipity in a storm

Arriving in New York in 1985 to start university. Akiko made a cultural faux pas at her first party - she was * dressed to kill“ In a formal Chanel dress and heels for a basement keg party. Ken, who was supposed to be sailing to the Caribbean post-college, bad been forced ashore by Hurricane Gloria and was invited to the same party. He couldn’t help but notice the striking Japanese newcomer, and they bonded over their mutual passion lor wine. That date is commemorated on the keystone at Freeman Winery, and Gloria is the name of their estate vineyard.

The winery was set up in 20f)t after the Freemans had moved back to the States from Singapore and decided to pursue a vision of winemaking that they cherished - cold climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. in a sophisticated, balanced and elegant style. Having looked at over 300 vineyard sites, they decided on the Russian River A VA, working with esteemed growers like Keefer and Heintz.

Ken interjects, "We had to kiss a lot of frogs before we found the right partners.” Their first eight-acre Gloria Estate Vineyard was established in 2006, planted with six blocks of Pinot Noir clones Swan, Pommard, 115, Marl ini and Calera: followed by the 14-acre Yu Ki Estate Vineyard in 2007 in Sonoma Coast.

Looking for umami

Freeman Winery’s first winemaker Fd Kurtzman is a renowned Pinot Noir specialist, and helped the couple to establish Hie early picked. Burgundian style that they were looking for. Akiko started out assisting Ed but soon discovered she enjoyed making the wines - and also living in Sonoma. Ed also gauged that Akiko had a flair for the industry, and nudged her over the years towards taking over. After eight years of commuting between San Francisco and the winery, the Freemans built their own home adjacent to the winery in 2009, just before Akiko took over the winemaking reins completely in 2010.

"In making wine, you have to stick with your gut feeling,'’ explains Akiko, who despite her small stature is hands on with Hie whole tiring, physical process. “I really enjoy the punchdown," she adds, describing the laborious task of breaking up the layer of seed, stem and skin that forms on the surface of fermenting red wine, and using a tool to continually submerge the solids to extract tannins, colour and flavour into Hie wine. She is meticulous and exacting in the barrel room, matching each plot of clones to a designated barrel depending on its character, looking for toasted hazelnut or extra tight grains for example. During harvest, you’ll find her with mouthfuls of grapes as she walks the Holds, looking for maturity of flavour, even as she decides when to pick to avoid bitter green flavour but with the right level of ripeness.

In a tradition started in 2002. Ed, Akiko and Ken have a 'friendly competition' to bottle their preferred blend. The 2002 was based on the vintage of 22 Sonoma coast barrels, so each of them chose about seven barrels to create their Pinot Noir expression. Akiko won. and thus the Akiko's Cuvée Pinot Noir was born. She's won every year since, 15 years running, with her uncanny palate pinpointing an elusive layering of flavours and umami. As Ken says with a touch of pride. "Akiko's selection bits every taste bud, it's a party in the mouth."

Critics arid fans agree, and the winery's total production of 6.000 cases is snapped up very quickly via mailing list. While Akiko was content to make just one white wine, Ryo-fu, demand was so high for their style of lightly naked and elegant Chardonnay. that Ken has finally convinced her to make another. Hawk Hill chardonnay which will be available from the 2017 vintage. 'Tor Chardonnay, the barrel can add elegance, but like makeup, you just need a little," Akiko describes. Her keen sensibilities and informed palate have yet to be proven wrong.

Grapes: 100% Pinot Noir
Taste: Attention to detail is shown in this bottling, with grapes handpicked block by block due to the site aspect and five varieties of Pinot Noir clones planted in 2008. This was a more restrained vintage, showing
cherry and bramble on the nose and firm tannins that will carry this wine through to 2026. $155

Grapes: 100% Chardonnay
Taste: Made in a Chablis style, Ryo-fu (meaning ’cool wind’) is cooled by breezes trom the Pacific Ocean. Its combination of estate truly imbues a balance of acidity, subtle stone fruit aromas and lemon-cream
character, even in a warmer vintage as this. Ready to drink now, there is just a hint of oak from 15-month
sur lie ageing in mostly used French oak. $110

Grapes: 100% Pinot Noir
Taste: Akiko’s je ne sais quoi/imbues this top blend with an alluring harmony. There’s bright fruit showing toast, herbs and cranberries, yet with a delicacy and silky mouthfeel that belies its length and full bodied structure. A note of umami and stewed fruit lingers on the palate. Best to cellar till 2027 or longer.


Freeman Vineyard picks up inspiration from Burgundy cover
San Francisco Chronicle
Freeman Vineyard picks up inspiration from Burgundy

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.

Cork ‘pop’ still holds most romantic sway for North Bay winemakers cover
Sonoma Index Tribune
Cork ‘pop’ still holds most romantic sway for North Bay winemakers

Would the romantically inclined take their date to a three-star Michelin restaurant, order the Coq au Vin and then ask the sommelier to bring a special bottling, with a screw cap?

It’s possible, if you’re wooing an accountant or dating a oenophile, since a variety of closures now grace the bottles of many an award-winning sip. But for true romance, many will tell you that the chivalry of the cork can never be underestimated.

Billions of closures go onto wine bottles each year – cork, plastic, glass, etc. – but a small-but-mighty contingent are bucking the trend and holding the line for natural cork, as a matter of tradition, pride and yes, even romance.

Vintners Ken and Akiko Freeman are consummate cork lovers who are well aware of the voyage that a real cork makes to get to their Northern California winery, and the testing protocol involved in choosing these stoppers for their coastal chardonnays and pinot noirs.

The Freemans have a boutique winery in Sebastopol on a 20-acre spread with an upscale barn, a spacious cave and an enclave of vines.

On this particular day they’re hosting a chapter of the Chevaliers du Tastevin, an exclusive fraternity of Burgundy lovers. This is a white-tablecloth affair – pop-up extravagance – amid rows of sleepy barrels aging in their chilly cave. In these pre-feast moments guests are tasting barrel samples while Ken explains why his winery will always opt for natural corks, cut from the bark of cork trees.

“If you have a screw cap wine it’s extremely difficult to have your wines served at top restaurants,” he says. “The pulling of the cork is part of the fine-dining experience.”

While there are those who would disagree, Ken says he’s speaking from his experience in working with high-end restaurants. His bottlings are on many wine lists, including the French Laundry in Yountville, Single Thread in Healdsburg and Boulevard in San Francisco, among others.

Ken acknowledges corks have a serious downside and it can make even the most expensive wine off-putting. When a wine is deemed “corked,” it means it smells and tastes like wet cardboard, contaminated by a chemical compound called TCA (2,4,6 – trichloroanisole).

To prevent corked wines, Ken says the winery pays a high price for testing and beyond that, Akiko smells every cork before it’s inserted into their bottles. The romance of corks, he says, is worth the fuss.

Weighing in on the amour of corks is Norm Bouton, who drove up from San Francisco with his wife Nan for the cave gathering.

“It’s definitely romantic when you hear that little pop, especially if it’s really a special bottle of wine,” he says.

Norm knows a thing or two about extraordinary wine, cellaring 2,800 bottles.

While wine lovers like Norm are quick to talk about the romance of corks, many are unaware of the odyssey a typical one makes.

The lion’s share of these closures hail from Portugal’s cork forests, according to Peter Weber, executive director of the Cork Quality Council. Dating back more than 150 years, the cork industry in Portugal is based on using the thick bark of this indigenous tree which is harvested every nine years to keep it sustainable, Weber said.

Once the corks are produced into approximately 2 inch stoppers, Weber said, roughly a billion are shipped to the Port of Oakland every year for U.S. businesses.

Most cork companies in the U.S. are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, so Weber said it’s more than likely you’ve passed these stoppers in transit. You see, every week there’s an average of 20 truckloads of wine corks leaving Oakland for one of these cork companies in the North Bay. The two largest in Sonoma County are Petaluma’s Scott Laboratories and Santa Rosa’s MA Silva Corks.

Once the corks are tested at any one of these companies, they’re sold to wineries before reaching their final destination – your bottle.

With Valentine’s Day in the offing, chances are the chivalry of the cork will play a role in your revelry.

That is, of course, unless you’re an accountant.

Nan, an unabashed romantic, perhaps puts it best:

“If you’re having an elegant dinner with candlelight, there’s something so beautiful about having a bottle of wine that has a cork in it. It’s lovely. It’s almost part of the ceremony.”


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