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Caviar AffairWesterly 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.
EpicureThe 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.
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 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.
GLORIA ESTATE PINOT NOIR 2016
RYO-FU CHARDONNAY 2016
AKIKO’S CUVÉE PINOT NOIR 2016
San Francisco ChronicleFreeman 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.
Sonoma Index TribuneCork ‘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.”
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.