It's almost like a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan film. A young man meets the woman of his dreams after his sailboat is chased ashore by a hurricane. Marriage and career success ensue and years later the happy couple end up running a Sonoma winery that just so happens to produce some of the finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in all of California. Yes, Ken Freeman's life story may indeed be one of which movies are made. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Ken Freeman about his eponymous winery, Freeman Vineyard and Winery, as well as his unique path to becoming a revered wine maker.
Your path to winemaking involved Hurricane Gloria. How so?
After graduating from college I spent some time working on Martha's Vineyard as a personal helper to Lillian Hellmann. At the end of the summer one of her friends who owned a boat asked me if I wanted to help him sail it to the Caribbean. A day or two after departing, while we were sailing down Long Island Sound, Hurricane Gloria started up the coast, so we headed to land and parked the boat in Larchmont, NY. My hometown is located nearby, so I decided to stop in for a visit. A friend happened to be having a keg party. Next to the keg, my friends were all standing around in their jeans, but there was also this beautiful, Japanese girl in a Chanel dress. That’s how I met my amazing wife Akiko. Early on, we discovered that we shared a passion for wine, especially great Pinot Noir. Needless to say, we’ve found a way to embrace that passion. I should also add, that the date we met is engraved on the keystone of our cellaring cave at the winery.
Why did you choose Sebastopol as the location for your winery?
After living in Asia for quite a while, Akiko and I moved back to San Francisco. For special occasions, we would go to a great restaurant in the city called, Jardinière. During those meals, we were introduced to some really exceptional wines by such producers as Kistler, Flowers and Dehlinger. We were both stunned by the complexity and taste profile of these wines, which inspired us to focus our search for a winery property on West Sonoma and the Sonoma Coast appellations.
Tell us about your wines:
Both Akiko and I are wine lovers, and we both have a very clear sense of what speaks to us in a wine. This said, Akiko also has a remarkable palate, which allows her to help guide our wines to a place of elegance and balance. We produce an understated style of pinot noir and chardonnay. This goes back to those evenings at Jardinière. We deeply believe in the relationship between wine and food, and we want our wines to make that experience all the more satisfying. So our style is focused on lower alcohol and less new French oak. This may not always get us 100-point scores in some wine publications; but it’s what we believe in. We also think it’s a style that’s essentially timeless. Fortunately, many of the top sommeliers from across the US share our philosophy, and it’s been amazing how they have embraced our wines.
You partner with some of the most respected growers -Klopp, Keefer, and Heintz to name but a handful- in Northern California. What do you look for in a grape?
We started looking for vineyard sites in 2000. As a winery, your ability to access great fruit is the single most important key to your success. With this in mind, we have looked at over 300 vineyards since then.
We are very particular. We only want to work with growers that share our passion for quality. On top of that, we also have several other criteria that are important to us: in keeping with our cool-climate style of winemaking, the vineyards should be located near the coast, we prefer hillside vineyards, and there are key clones we look for, particularly Swan, Pommard and Calera.
Why did you choose to focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?
We lived in Asia for five years. At the time it was difficult to find high quality American wine. Most of our friends were from Europe, so we drank, and fell in love with the wines of Burgundy. That mix of elegance and complexity stayed with us. When we started our own winery, we knew that we wanted to craft pinot noirs and chardonnays that expressed vibrant California flavors with a sense of grace and sophistication.
Share with us some insight into the genius of your winemaker, Ed Kurtzman.
The best thing that has happened to us in the wine industry has been meeting Ed Kurtzman (interestingly, Ed and I both attended UMASS Amherst and he used to watch me play lacrosse, but we did not know each other at the time). In 2002, we heard that Ed was leaving Testarossa, and we arranged to meet him. It was clear right off, that we shared the same vision about wine and winemaking. Ed has been an absolute pleasure to work with.
He is an immensely talented winemaker, who is bright, and charming, and without ego. Ed has spent a lot of time in France and the US drinking and learning about some of the best wines in the world. This, combined with his skill and great palate, has made Ed an essential part of our success.
Your wines are some of the most celebrated and sought after wines in all of Sonoma. What's next?
Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. Our goal has always been to produce great wine, and we think this is done best in small quantities. We only make a couple of thousand cases per year. That is the physical amount of grapes that our winery can handle, and it’s a level were we can control all the small but crucial details of great winemaking. As for what’s next, we just want to keep producing better and better wines each year.
Where can your wines be found?
As a small, family-run winery, selling direct to the consumer is essential to our success. We are fortunate to sell most of our wine through our mailing list. Our list members have been phenomenally loyal and supportive. The rest of our wines are sold through a group of specialized distributors (I think we are now in 20 states) who's focus is on-premise accounts (i.e. leading restaurants), and a few hand-sell retailers. We are so proud to have our wines served at some of the finest restaurants across the country. It means a lot when people like Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse want you on their wine list.