Freeman Vineyard and Winery

Freeman Vineyard and Winery, “Affordable Luxury” Offered Internationally

Sandra Yerges

California’s West Sonoma County and Russian River regions are home to Freeman Vineyard and Winery. In an area close to one of the largest tourist attractions in the state, the Golden Gate Bridge, the business and its surrounding vineyards are located in a highly visited area. The idea for this business, which currently sells wines both domestically and internationally, began approximately two decades ago from avid food and wine fanatics, Ken and Akiko Freeman.

When Ken and Akiko were in college, they both had various interests outside of wine entrepreneurship. Ken studied media and finance, and Akiko studied Italian Renaissance history. Being that they both had families who enjoyed indulging in fine wine and cuisine, they realized post-graduation that they wanted to start a business venture that upheld their shared upbringings while working toward starting a business in Akiko’s home country, Japan.

While being exposed to the unique wines of Western California, the two knew they wanted to start looking to make varieties of their own at a start-up winery. In 2001 after a two-year search, they found 3.6 acres of land and upon it sat a run-down winery. At the time, the permit for the business only allowed 2,000 cases of wine, so the pair would utilize contracted and purchased fruit to make their wines. For the next 20 years, they revitalized the business, upgraded the permit to 6,000 cases, purchased an apple orchard and ranch to grow their own fruit, and expanded their knowledge of winemaking to begin making it on their own. 

Even though Akiko is the current winemaker for Freeman Vineyard and Winery, this was not always the case. Because she had no experience making wine when the business was purchased, the Freemans hired a consultant who began making the first wines for the company and taught Akiko all she needed to know to make the “wonderful wines” they offer today.

These wines are made primarily from estate-farmed grapes with the remaining 30% being contracted from other businesses. All of these fruits are grown and harvested organically and made into light, burgundy style wines, such as pinot noir and chardonnay. These varieties are known to appeal to younger, health conscious consumers and pair well with healthy foods, including salads and seafood.

In Napa Valley, a large wine tourism area in California, the wine offerings are both expensive and meant to be enjoyed with hearty steaks. With bottles of wine reaching up to $300, these cabernet offerings are accessible for those willing to spend the money during their tours. The cool climate location allows Freeman Vineyard and Winery’s products to differ from these varieties as their average bottles range from $45 to $75, making them more economical for the average consumer. “We call it affordable luxury,” Ken explained.

Those who participate in wine tourism enjoy visiting many of the wineries offered in an area or region. According to Ken, “People want to take back these memories, so they are drinking these wines all over the country or the world.” The California region for which this business is located is surrounded by many other wineries which allows the company to take in many locals as well as wine tourists in the area.

To create a fun and worthwhile experience for guests visiting the winery, Freeman Vineyard and Winery has a hospitality team of two full-time and two part-time employees who work with these wine tasting tours. The guests who visit the venue are able to witness the intimate location and cave on-site while trying up to six of their wines. During these tours, the Freemans hope their guests are able to view the shared passion they have for wine and the business they constructed together. “We love to share the experience,” Ken stated.

Those in California are not the only customers of this business as the company sells to other states and countries as well. There are 25 states and 15 countries that this company provides their wines to with half being sold direct-to-consumers. Japan is known to be their biggest customer abroad with some of their other international customers in areas including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. 

After already having a strong Asian market in 2019, the Freemans were looking to bring more attention and growth to this element of their business. A consultant from Richard Barber Associates urged them to apply for the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) to help expand their business in Japan and launch a new sparkling wine product in this area. 

Because they were granted the VAPG funds right around the time when COVID-19 was becoming prevalent around the world, it was difficult for the Freemans to utilize the grant for what they originally intended. However, despite having trouble traveling to Japan, Zoom proved to be a powerful tool for wine tastings and other meetings surrounding their work in promoting their sparkling wine.

To facilitate awareness for this new product, the Freemans used the VAPG funds to purchase advertisements in Japanese wine magazines as well as hire a public relations professional from Japan to assist them with their promotional efforts. Being that the demand was high around this time and the added exposure brought new awareness to their sparkling wine, sales climbed for this product. “Without the grant, it could have been hard during COVID,” Ken admitted. With the support of their VAPG funds, their business in Japan grew 150% in 2022.

Decades ago, the Freemans had a large dream that was new and exciting for them. “It was a big plunge 21 years ago,” Ken remembered. Now, as they found success in growing their business in Asia, they are both grateful for the USDA and ready to look to apply for another grant to try to replicate the success of the VAPG. They hope to look into creating more sparkling wines as well as add new varieties and products to their existing inventory of wines.