After 14 years serving as the most prominent voice for the region's grape growers, Nick Frey is retiring as president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.

The leadership change was announced Thursday at the 22nd annual Dollars and $ense conference, held at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.

"Our board has been hard at work looking for a replacement. We've got a plan in place," said John Balletto, chairman of the group. "Filling Nick's shoes is going to be a hard task, but we all have the confidence that our new candidate will take us to the next level."

Frey, 65, intends to retire on May 1, but will continue to work with the group part-time.

"I think it's good for us to have fresh blood," Frey said in an interview. "I'll be here and probably involved for some time."

Frey, along with grower Duff Bevill, played a key role in turning the loose-knit group into an influential marketing organization. The two convinced growers to tax themselves to promote Sonoma County grapes.

Before its formation, the grape grower's association had about 400 voluntary members, Bevill said. Today, the group represents about 1,800 growers in Sonoma County and is funded by $1.2 million in mandatory assessments on growers who harvest more than 25 tons of grapes.

The group is legally known as the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. As part of a re-branding campaign, it now goes by the name Sonoma County Winegrowers.

"The commission comes up for renewal in a few years, so I think we need to have a new leader in place so they know what they're voting for," Frey said.

Frey came to Wine Country from a career in agriculture, working 25 years as a research manager at Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a seed company based in Iowa. He was an early advocate for the adoption of sustainable practices in the vineyard, helping to develop the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing, which has been widely embraced by the industry.

"To this day, Sonoma County still has more individual growers participating in this statewide program than any other county in California," Bevill said.

Frey is known for his cool, calm demeanor, even in the face of challenges, growers said.

"Nick's pretty special to all of us," said Bevill, past chairman of the group. "His integrity has never, ever come into question by anybody, even people who disagree with our industry. He's going to be missed."