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Frey Reflects on Sonoma Winegrowers Tenure

Leader's retirement comes after 14 years with Sonoma County Winegrape Commission

by Jane Firstenfeld
nick frey sonoma county winegrowers
Nick Frey said he plans to stay on board while the Sonoma County Winegrowers search for his successor.
Santa Rosa, Calif.—Nick Frey arrived in Sonoma County some 14 years ago with neither wine business experience nor association management expertise. Nonetheless, he landed a job as executive director of the Sonoma County Grapegrowers Association in 1999. In 2006, growers voted to re-form as a state commission, with a mandated assessment structure. The Sonoma County Winegrape Commission (now branded as Sonoma County Winegrowers), was born. As the group’s original executive director, Frey has helped steer the county into its current place of prominence, gaining both in recognition and grape and wine prices.

He’s been such a familiar face at wine industry events during his tenure that it came as something of a shock when, on Jan. 17 at the SCWC’s annual Dollars and $ense seminar, he announced his imminent retirement.

Although surprising, the transition won’t be abrupt, he assured Wines & Vines. He’ll stay on while chairman John Balletto and the commission board members begin their search for a successor.

Acknowledging the non-profit’s stated intention—promotion and preservation of Sonoma County as one of the world’s premier grape growing regions—Frey emphasized that marketing is the main requirement, but, the new director should also have “some knowledge of agriculture and relate to ag people.” (Among its staff of five, the commission also employs a marketing director, Karissa Kruse.)

Frey brought an agriculture background to the post: In 1990, he’d just retired after 25 years doing research as a plant physiologist for a Midwestern ag company. He and his wife selected Sonoma as the place they wanted to live. Now, as he turns 65, Frey’s ready to retire again and collect the pension from his previous position.

Another reason for stepping down now: The commission is three years into its most recent five-year term. Frey hopes to give the new director two years to learn the territory, settle in and earn continued approval prior to the next election.

Currently, with more than 1,800 grower members, the commission hosts more than 70 events annually, from small grower conclaves to major industry trade events, Frey estimated. “We have an extensive grower-education program. We follow regulatory requirements and educate members about those issues to make sure they’re in compliance. There’s a lot of things to respond to.”

Water-use supplies and storage have been major issues facing Sonoma growers in the past decade, although a couple of wet winters have soothed the seething contention, at least temporarily. Virtually every year, growers have confronted and dealt with new invasive pests, sometimes by submitting to inconvenient but effective quarantines imposed by state and federal agriculture officials.

What’s on the label
With a continuing proliferation of sub-appellations in the county, members voted in 2010 to require “conjunctive labeling.” Signed into law in October 2010, this regulation requires every winery in the county that labels its wines with a sub-appellation also must include “Sonoma County” on the label.

Wineries had three years to comply with this requirement. Anything bottled after Jan. 1 must include that designation. Although approved resoundingly in 2010, conjunctive labeling is still stirring controversy in the wine blogosphere.

Frey supported the change. “This will put 100 million label faces out there” identifying Sonoma County, he said. “It will elevate the recognition of the AVAs.” With 13 AVAs, has Sonoma reached a saturation point? Not necessarily, Frey said. “If you have too many labels, conjunction will help. People who want AVAs will go out and do that, we try to promote them.”

The branding of Sonoma is finally beginning to take hold in consumer minds. Working closely with Sonoma County Tourism and Sonoma County Vintners, Sonoma County Winegrowers is, Frey said, “consumer directed. We’ve come together as a county, in a place with a long tradition of everybody doing their own thing.” 

Changing public perception of the industry—even within the county—has been one of Frey’s steepest challenges, he said. “A lot of perceptions (about the winegrape industry) are not well-founded,” he said. Only 6% of the county—about 60,000 vineyard acres—contribute 70% of farm revenue, he said. “If you want to preserve agriculture in Sonoma, you need to preserve grapes first.”

Not only do winegrape sales help fill the county coffers, the vineyard and winery industry also support tourism and fine dining. In October 2012, Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards proclaimed Sonoma County the top wine destination in the United States, stating: “What it lacks in volume, it more than makes up for in variety.”

Still, Frey said, “I don’t think there will be a lot more growth of vineyard acres” with high land costs. “It’s not about what you produce, it’s what you can sell at a profit.”

A 1999 report from the University of California, Berkeley, created angst by predicting an ultimate 160,000 acres of vineyards in the county. “Grapes were the root of all evil. We could have done a better job of building understanding and trust.

“It&rsq uo;s about being good stewards, neighbors and preserving the land for future generations—but also about making money,” Frey stated. “Work remains. Fourteen years didn’t get it done.”

Frey said he hasn’t yet decided on his future path. “I enjoy the industry, and I have a few acres, but they have toxic levels of boron. After the transition, I’ll have a little more time to think about it.”

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