Nick Frey, who has been the leading – and most respected – voice for the Sonoma County wine grape industry over the last 14 years, is retiring as president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, the marketing organization that he helped launch.
Frey’s retirement was announced earlier this year and became effective on May 1.He will continue to work part-time for the commission. He and his wife Angie plan to stay in Sonoma County where they have become part of the agricultural community.
“My passion for Sonoma County and its grape growers will continue after my retirement. Angie and I have made our home here and I will continue to be involved at the Winegrape Commission at least through the year-end, although in a reduced role,” Frey said in his farewell column as president of the Winegrape Commission.
Karissa Kruse, who was in a marketing position at the Winegrape Commission, succeeds Frey as president of the marketing organization.
Frey, a Midwest farm boy, worked as a plant research for Pioneer Hi-Bred International Seed company for 25 years in Iowa before being hired as the executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers in 1999. The Sonoma County Grape Growers morphed from a loose-knit voluntary organization into the Sonoma County Winegrape
Commission, an influential marketing organization funded annually by $1.2 million in mandatory assessments on growers.
Frey was a quick study, quickly learning about grape growing and the politics of farming in Sonoma County.
“Nick came along at a time when he was needed the most. With his Midwest work ethic and methodical approach, he brought a new perspective and open-dialogue approach to agriculture and the way farming interfaces with the larger community in Sonoma County,” said grape grower Saralee McClelland Kunde of Windsor.
Frey has earned universal respect among grape growers and agricultural and political leaders for his focused leadership, calm demeanor, integrity and steady-as-you-go approach in dealing with issues. Newspaper reporters loved him because he always took their calls no matter the time — day or night. Many times it was to answer questions about what the weather – rain, frost or scorching heat wave – was doing to the grape crop but often it was more thorny issues like farm labor or pesticide use. Frey would provide honest, straight word answers.
Early in his tenure, Frey became a peacemaker in the battles between growers and environmentalists. He brought warring factions together to hammer compromise agreement in the battle over forced spraying of pesticides if there is an infestation of the glassy-winged sharpshooter. He also had a hand in developing the county’s landmark vineyard ordinance and shaping an environmental stewardship program for the county’s 1,800 grape growers.
“My goal is to find the common ground between growers and environmentalists because they do have a lot in common, like commitment to the land,” Frey once said an interview with The Press Democrat. Keeping grape growing profitable was Frey’s primary tasks but he always saw the bigger picture, which he believes is securing the viticulture industry’s place in Sonoma County for generations to come. That means working to improve relations in the communities where grapes are grown.
“I would rather see us work together to address issues in our community rather than allow a polarization that limits dialogue and problem solving,” Frey said in the Press Democrat interview.
In leaving his post as president of Winegrape Commission, Frey warned that much of the community doesn’t understand or appreciate the value and contributions that the wine industry provides to Sonoma County on so many levels including the economy, landscape and way-of-life.
“The area that remains challenging is building community understanding of, and support for, grape growing in Sonoma County,” said Frey in his farewell column. Frey said grape growers and winemakers need to tell their story to the urban residents, conveying the wine grape industry’s commitment to sustainable farming, environmental stewardship and the larger community.
“More must be done if we are to preserve agriculture in Sonoma County for future generations,” said Frey, who asked that growers support Karissa Kruse as she “tackles these important issues in the years ahead.”