Say what you want about the state of America, I know of no other place where it remains so imminently possible to realize your dreams. These days it takes a lot of money to do it, but this country is still one of the easiest places to decide that you want to achieve something, and then set out to do it.
This is especially true in the wine business which, despite being a far cry from the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps success stories that typify the American Dream, continues to support those who decide to take their strongest passions and turn them into a reality.
The cynical might say that it is easy for rich people to live out their fantasies, but if you know anything about making wine, you know that there’s a lot of hard work involved, and especially so if you’re going to produce something good, rather than just a bottle with your name on it.
In fact, it’s hard enough to do that when people who simply dive in because they love wine manage to make something fantastic, it’s quite a surprise. Sort of like deciding you’re going to open a restaurant because you love food and getting a Michelin star or two. But while not commonplace, it certainly is a possibility in the wine world. Just ask Ken and Akiko Freeman.
Freeman Vineyard and Winery was born of Ken and Akiko’s mutual love of food and wine. The two met at a fateful garden party when the boat that Ken was crewing on was driven to port by a looming hurricane, and their love at first sight was soon cemented by their discovery that great Burgundy numbered in both their lists of the best things in life.
Their life together over the next 10 years revolved around three things: school (Ken would return for his MBA, while Akiko went back for a Masters in Art History), wine travel (to as many wine producing regions as they could manage), and business (all this while Ken brought the Discovery channel to Asia).
Returning to California in 1997 for Ken to take a job at CNET, the two decided that they wanted to set down roots in all senses of the word. As the Internet bubble swelled, Ken and Akiko began the hunt for a place to call home and a place to make their own wine. In 2001 they purchased a small winery in the town of Sebastopol in the heart of the Russian River Valley. Their goal was to simply make the best damn Pinot Noir they could.
And after having watched (and tasted) their efforts for the last few years since their initial vintage, I’d have to say they’re getting close. Close enough for it to not make much difference if they ever really meet their final goal, because the wines are consistently excellent.
Freeman Vineyards and Winery is a classic example of what I call an “estate-less winery,” a model that was popularized in the old world by the negociants of France, and which is gradually proving incredibly successful here in California. The Freemans own no vineyards (yet), only a winemaking facility and cellar. They purchase long term contracts for grapes with growers that let them be extremely hands-on with the vineyard management. Together with a contract winemaker, assistant winemaker, vineyard manager, and a small team of friends and family, they make small quantities of wine that bear the unmistakable signature of diligent and tender care just as they do the flavors of the soil they come from.
Freeman makes around 5,400 cases of mostly Pinot Noir from a couple of single vineyard sites around the Russian River valley, as well as a top cuvee named after Akiko that is their flagship wine each year. They also produce a Sonoma Coast designated Pinot Noir, and more recently a Chardonnay.
The winemaking regimen at Freeman, handled by winemaker Ed Kurtzmann (formerly of Chalone, Testarossa, and currently his own label, August West), is what you might expect from an artisan Pinot Noir producer. The grapes are babied in from the vineyard by hand, de-stemmed and fermented without crushing in small lots, and then mixed with the fermenting juice (“punched down”) several times per day by hand as the fermentation proceeds. The wines spend at least 11 months in French oak before spending another six in bottle before release.
The crown jewel of the Freeman portfolio for me has always been Akiko’s cuvee, which is a blend of “best-barrel” fruit from many vineyard sites and always embodies the best qualities of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2006 Freeman Vineyards and Winery Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a bright, horsey nose that combines cranberry, plum, and faint barnyard aromas into a pleasing whole. In the mouth it is soft and velvety with pleasant but not resonant flavors of cranberry and cherry. Soft, even plush tannins guide the wine to a decent finish with hints of herbs. Good acidity plus tannins says to me that this wine will age well. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40. Where to buy?
2006 Freeman Vineyards and Winery Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of cranberries, herbs, and wet tree bark. In the mouth it has a beautiful texture and a dark loamy quality that is arresting even as bright acids dance on the palate. The primary flavors of cranberry and herbs are nicely balanced with this earthy quality, and remain so through a nice finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. Where to buy?
2006 Freeman Vineyards and Winery “Ryo-fu” Chadonnay, Russian River Valley
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of buttered popcorn in the best possible way. In the mouth that same bright buttered, almost savory flavor persists with a silky texture, only to be cut, slashed, and dazzled by a tempest of citrus zest and lemon curd that bounce on through a long, intense finish. Ryo-fu means “cold wind” in Japanese. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. Where to buy?
2006 Freeman Vineyards and Winery “Keefer Ranch” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine has a rich plum and pomegranate set of aromas that creep out of the glass to take hold of your senses with a velvet vise grip. In the mouth its initial impression is of intensity — smooth, silky and bursting with tart cherry and pomegranate flavors that are beautifully balanced with acidity and fine grained tannins. Hints of sandalwood and crabapple emerge on the long finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. Where to buy?
2006 Freeman “Akiko’s Cuvee” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light garnet in the glass, this wine has a pungent nose that, with the right memory, might instantly transport you to a misty ridge above the pacific with aromas of cedar and sea air mixed with redcurrant and cranberry. In the mouth it is soft — baby bottom soft — with bright, juicy flavors of cranberry, cherry, and amidst the nicely balanced acids and tannins, the faint traces of exotic spices that linger for a while, quietly. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60. Where to buy?