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Homer couple presses hobby into growing bottled wine business

Posted: June 11, 2011 - 9:57pm

ANCHORAGE — For Bill and Dorothy Fry, winemaking is more than just an obsession: what started as a hobby in garage has fermented into a successful business.

The couple owns and operates Bear Creek Winery and Lodging in Homer, which combines luxurious lodging with an extensive winemaking operation.

The winery serves virtually every berry and grape-based fermented concoction imaginable, each with an Alaska twist. Examples include black raspberry, gooseberry and Blu Zin (a mix of blueberries and White Zinfandel).

Bear Creek serves as a retail outlet for wine (offering wine-tasting) and a lodge with two luxurious suites. The Frys also ship wines out to customers several states, and stock restaurants and liquor stores around Alaska.

The wines are a hit. In the first year, the Frys produced 600 gallons for customers. This year, they’re expecting to make 10,000 gallons, having already produced 7,000 so far. Several of their wines have won medals at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in New York.

Before they got into the business of winemaking, it grew into an obsessive hobby for Bill. It comes after another foray into small business: a water-drilling operation.

The couple moved to Anchor Point from Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1975. Bill moved up first to seek a pipeline job, Dorothy said.

It didn’t happen at first. So the couple maintained a water-drilling business, Stariski Well Drilling. In 1986, they moved to Homer, and Bill got the pipeline job he was after.

Even though Bill got the job he came to Alaska for, they kept up the well-drilling business, Dorothy said.

At one point, the two attended a potluck where homemade rhubarb wine and smoked turkey were served, Dorothy said. Bill was impressed.

“And he just had a hankering to do both of those: start smoking things and make wine,” Dorothy said.

Bill eventually began experimenting with various fruits the couple had lying around in their kitchen, pressing and fermenting whatever he could get his hands on to see how it tasted in a glass.

The kitchen counter became a makeshift winemaking factory, Dorothy said, with as many as eight containers full of fermenting wine cluttering up the room.

But Dorothy had teenagers to feed and quickly got tired of taking care of Bill’s fermenting wines while he was away at work, so the operation had to be moved over to the garage.

Bill adjusted to the garage location, and eventually everything that was not dedicated to winemaking had to be moved out into a shed to make way for more wine.

The Frys sold the well drilling company in the 1990s, and Bill’s pipeline gig wasn’t always steady work. Since their two daughters were grown, the couple started looking into other business opportunities that they could delve into together.

They decided to build a lodge, starting construction in 2002. It opened in 2003; they started offering wine-tastings the following year.

Shortly after they opened the lodge, Bill fell ill and nearly died after contracting a systemic staph infection. He had to leave his job until he was able to return to work.

While he was recovering, Bill did the paperwork to acquire the permit to sell wine at the lodge. In 2004, the winery opened, and Bill has fully recovered, Dorothy said.

Throughout the years, Bill constantly experimented with new fruits. If it could be pressed and fermented, Bill tried it. And if family members, friends and neighbors liked it, it stuck.

“We decided we wanted to be different and unique. And we wanted to make it Alaskan, so we were focusing on the Alaska fruits and berries,” Dorothy said.

As often as they can, the Frys use local ingredients. They grow their own rhubarb and golden raspberries, and look to growers around Alaska for the other berries, Dorothy said.

“We start very locally, and we move out from there,” she said. “We’re looking for berries anywhere we can get them in the state of Alaska.”

But getting berries in-state can be tricky, she said.

“We have all the berries that we could possibly need, they’re out there. It’s getting them picked and getting them to us (that’s difficult),” she said.

Most growers in Alaska are focused on Saturday markets and retail businesses, Dorothy said, as opposed to wholesalers that sell bulk shipments to restaurants and other food and beverage producers.

One means of establishing contact with possible suppliers is the Global Food Collaborative’s Global Food Alaska biennial event, which brings together Alaska-based producers of food and beverages with the restaurants and other outlets that serve those products, as well as companies involved in the transport of those items.

(The Alaska Journal of Commerce is a sponsor of GFA 2011.)

“It’s a great opportunity for all of us that have Alaskan-made products to connect up,” Dorothy said.

Bear Creek will host a tour of the facilities during this year’s event, Dorothy said. The event is in Soldotna June 8 and 9, and the winery’s tour is scheduled for June 10. Bear Creek is also a sponsor of the GFA.

Bear Creek’s emphasis on local extends to its clientele, at least on the lodge side. More than 90 percent of the tenants are local residents, Dorothy said.

In fact, when the Fry’s started the lodge, they intended to give locals a place to get away.

“Alaska is one of the hardest states for people to get out of, get away from, and get relaxed and renewed and rejuvenated,” Dorothy said.

The suites were built for “Alaskans to be able to come here, feel like they’ve gone away, yet they may just live around the corner, or be from Kenai or Anchorage or Soldotna,” Dorothy said.

Alaskans do have easy access to, as any local knows, beautiful scenery. And the suites at Bear Creek offer tenants a view of Kachemak Bay, as well as the nearby glacier and mountains.

The business also is as eco-friendly as it can get, Dorothy said. The paper products are made of recycled paper, Dorothy said. And the winery gives out bio-degradable bags, Dorothy said. And people can bring in their own re-used bags for a discount.

Used wine corks are even converted into key chains that are then given out to customers.

The couple also had a windmill installed to supplement some of the operation’s energy, Dorothy said.

The business has six employees in the winter and 11 in the summer.

And the winery business is expanding, with the recent addition of a 3,500-square-foot building, and work is about done on a new walk-in freezer.

And even when Dorothy and Bill can no longer operate the winery, the couple’s son-in-law, Louis Maurer, is looking to step up to ensure that the winery serves unique Alaska wines far into the future, Dorothy said.

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