Meet a Farmer: Scott Johnsen of Frei Brothers
Meet Scott Johnsen, Winegrower for Frei Brothers Sonoma Reserve in Dry Creek Valley in Healdsburg, CA. As the son of a NASA scientist and a teacher, he was raised to respect the importance of science with a highly creative spirit in a home filled with music, art and agriculture.
Learn more about Scott, why he believes it’s important to work your way up to the top in this industry and why a simple moment with his daughter in his garden was so special.
CA GROWN: Tell me about the history of the company and what your role is.
Scott: I’ve been with Frei Brothers for 15 years, so I’m a fourth-generation Californian. I grew up in the Northern LA area learning about grapes, vegetables, grapefruit and avocados from my neighborhood and my backyard. My father was a rocket scientist, literally, and was a technical guy, so he would come home and his creative outlet was the garden. That’s where I learned the balance of the science you can bring to the table with your education, but also that you’re at the will of Mother Nature and what she wants to bring to the table that year. So I fell in love with all that and ended up going to UC Davis to study crop science and management and I focused on wine grapes. There were about six of us in our major and I still keep in touch with a few of them today. UC Davis was well-known for the wine industry, so I thought it was a good direction to go because I loved the wine world. In school, we went to a Napa winery during harvest to learn about really high-end and detailed winemaking and grape growing business. The next harvest we spent at a family farm in the Bordeaux region of France that was a family farm for 12 generations, so we got to learn about a long-term business and how to keep the ground sustainable for so long. I brought that education with me back to California, finished up my degree and then had the opportunity to come on board at Frei Brothers. I started out as an intern and I lived on the property here in Dry Creek Valley. I was able to live, learn, smell and be the vineyard. I met my wife here at work and she still works here and we have a couple of children now, so I have the privilege of bringing them to work with me to learn that Mother Nature provides all these things for us. It’s important to me that they know that they don’t just go to the store to get carrots or grapes or wine, but you can make it yourself.
CA GROWN: You mentioned starting as an intern. Do you think it’s important that people start at the bottom and work their way up in this industry?
Scott: I don’t think we do that often enough. It definitely gives you a better appreciation of the people that you’re expecting to do a lot of the difficult work and also what goes into a product. It also allows a younger person to figure out where they want to be in life and there’s nothing wrong with a little hard work for someone just starting their career, that’s a great thing. And honestly, you’ll never be closer to your product than at that time when you’re out there working like a dog and you’ve got your hands on the vines and dirt. The beautiful thing about this industry is that it teaches you how little you know every year, whether you start as an intern or not. Mother Nature reminds us who’s in charge every year one way or another. We can try to put our best plan in place, but we’re at her mercy. Even the most experienced winegrowers I know that have been doing this for 50 years or however long, they’ve only made their product 50 times. It’s not like making 100 cars a day. We make one product a year so we don’t get a lot of chances at it so it’s definitely a challenge.
CA GROWN: What does a typical day look like for you?
Scott: We source grapes from our own internal vineyards and we also source grapes from our grower partners. We have the privilege of both learning from our grower partners and sharing our knowledge with them. Some people look at estate grown as a huge benefit and grower-sourced is kind of that dirty secret associated with poor quality. I’m biased, but I’ve spent most of my career building relationships and finding people that are excited about growing grapes for other wines. I can tell you there’s just as much care and energy put into the grapes from a grower of our wine products as there is from our internal vineyards. They live and die by the product they make, they put food on the table for their families based on selling good wine and they’re constantly asking how our wine sales are going and how they can do better. So, on a day-to-day basis I’ll start out on our own vineyards with the guys that are doing the work, what they’re doing that day and what the consumers are expecting. Then we’ll do the same thing with our grower base and go out to talk to important players with our different wines from different parts of the Appalachians that we don’t have vineyards in. We’ll talk about the styles that their grapes are bringing to the table to make the wine and talk about how to get there. We’re the keepers of the style we want to go after and each vineyard or grower plays different parts of that. They look towards the choreographer of how all this stuff will play together and that’s what we do on a day-to-day basis and make sure we’re all heading towards the same target.
CA GROWN: What drew you into the grape growing profession?
Scott: It was really learning how to grow things in the backyard, that brought me into agriculture. Learning how to grow my own lettuce, carrots, grapefruit, apricots, plums, apples, tangerines, potatoes, you name it and we had it. To me, it was the fact that every time you went out there to try something, it tastes that much better. When you can pour your heart and soul into it and you care about what you’re making, the final product tastes that much better. I think a lot of that is the fact that you sweat a little bit doing it and the fact that you earned it. We definitely have an opportunity to showcase our products and wine and show what we can do to make a good product. We’re pretty fortunate in California that we can grow anything, we have the most diverse set of crops in the nation and I think anyone would agree that we grow all of them very well.
CA GROWN: What are some ways your company gives back to the community?
Scott: In being a certified sustainable winery, a lot of things we focus on include being as low-impact as possible to our local environment. In our neighborhood, there’s a lot of rural residents and a lot of people that live on farms that aren’t connected to the city water or sewer. They live off the ground water that the whole community farms off of as well. The nice thing about Frei Brothers and now with our involvement with Gallo Winery, is that we’re multi-generational. When we figure out what we want to plant on a vineyard, we put in a good water source. At Frei Ranch, we have multiple large reservoirs that are fed through rain water and that allows us to irrigate off of rain water that would have gone down to the Russian River and out to the ocean. We’re able to capture it and irrigate with it all year long. If we don’t have that, it means we’re pulling from well water and that’s the ground water system during the summertime when everyone else needs water as well. To me, that’s an example of us being a good neighbor and sharing our resources.
CA GROWN: What are your hobbies or pastimes when you’re not farming?
Scott: Gardening is still a big thing for me. I have fruit trees that I love and a small garden that I have little things going in and out of all the time. One of the most special moments in my life was watching my daughter pull carrots out of the ground when she was three. She could see the leaves on top of the ground and I encouraged her to pull it up and then she saw a carrot. I remember looking at her wide eyes because she couldn’t believe the carrot that we normally get at the store was underground. I also play the guitar and I try to coach my children in sports as much as I can.
CA GROWN: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Scott: Being able to showcase Sonoma County wines to a large audience and pour wine for people in Texas that may never get to experience Sonoma County. They can taste the wine and get an understanding about what’s so special about where we’re from.
CA GROWN: What is something that’s unique about your business or makes it stand out?
Scott: It’s pretty unique that we cherish our history and our relationships with growers who care as much or more about the products we make and the wines we sell. They’re active participants in our business and they bring a different flavor style from that part of the county, so we have an opportunity for a lot of different vineyards and a lot of different sites. We’re able to partner with people that have different grapes in Dry Creek Valley and bring a more well-rounded wine than we would have otherwise. If we have a wine that just represents one spot, it can be a little one dimensional. But since we can partner with a lot of different people and bring on some higher acid sites or some richer and complex sites, we can mix them together and make a well-rounded product.
CA GROWN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a farmer?
Scott: Get out there, work hard and see things. Traveling to France was one of the best experiences of my life and it’s influenced me more than I probably even know. I think getting out of your environment and meeting new people to learn from is important. There’s a lot of expertise out there and you’d be a fool not to soak it up.
CA GROWN: What has contributed to your past success and what are you doing to ensure success going forward?
Scott: The people that are working in our vineyards have been critical to our success to this point and that’s both from the Frei Brothers family from an innovation standpoint and also the multigenerational families that work in our vineyards. That’s been our edge and helped us grow throughout many different industry changes and the key to the future is to figure out how to maintain an environment that enables success for the people that work with us.
CA GROWN: As a California farmer, we know that you have a long list of activities you undertake on your farm to care for the land and its resources. What are one or two ways that you’re most proud of or you feel are innovative ways you care for your land?
Scott: I mentioned using groundwater before and I think we also do a great job recycling our water use. We not only capture rain water, we also reuse a lot of our winery water. Wineries tend to use a lot of water for washing tanks, barrels and what not. We’ve made some great strides in reusing our water and figured out how to get it to the right temperature, use it multiple times and put them in different ponds until they’re clean enough to reuse back in the vineyard. Not only are we using less water, we’re also not putting waste water back into our community system.