Drinking on the Last Frontier: Local wine paradigm — Bear Creek Winery uses local ingredients to wide appeal

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. The Bear Creek Winery in Homer sees steady traffic to its tasting room.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. The Bear Creek Winery in Homer sees steady traffic to its tasting room.

If you’ve read this column for any length of time, it should be obvious that beer is my alcoholic beverage of choice, with the rare glass of single-malt scotch thrown in for variety. Despite my love affair with fermented barley, I recognize that there’s more to drinking in Alaska, and even on the Kenai Peninsula, than just beer. In past columns I’ve written about our award-winning local producers of mead and about a new distillery opening in Sterling, but I don’t think I’ve ever written about beer’s biggest competitor amongst alcoholic drinks — wine.

Since there are actually several wineries in Alaska, including one right here on the Kenai Peninsula, it seems only fair that I should give wine its day in the sun. So let’s talk about Bear Creek Winery, at 60203 Bear Creek Drive, about three miles out East End Road from downtown Homer.
Like so many craft breweries, Bear Creek started as a hobby. As Dorothy Fry told me, “The winery is my husband Bill’s hobby run amuck.”

Bill started making his own wine in the mid-1990s. As such things are wont to do, his hobby quickly grew from its inception as a few glass carboys on a kitchen counter to taking over their entire garage. After a few years, Bill’s wines were receiving rave reviews, with so many requests to purchase them coming in from family, friends and even complete strangers that he and Dorothy decided to make wine their business.

In 2003, Bill and Dorothy took the plunge and opened Bear Creek Winery and Lodging. For the first year they only offered lodging, as it took that long to complete all the paperwork and jump through all the hoops with both the state and federal governments to be allowed to produce wine commercially. They still offer lodging, in two suites, along with a hot tub, steam bath, horseshoe pits and fire pit, all of which are available for use by guests.

But let’s get back to the winery.

They started small, producing 5-gallon batches, using locally sourced fruit and bottle labels printed on their home computer. They soon learned, just as so many of our local craft brewers have learned, that Alaskans are not only willing, but eager to pay for a high-quality, locally made product. For the first several years, Bill and Dorothy distributed their wines themselves, often after being contacted by a store or restaurant eager to start offering their products to customers.

Finally, about two and a half years ago, they chose Specialty Imports to handle their distribution across the state.

Steady sales growth eventually put a strain on their ability to produce, leading to a decision to expand. In 2011 they built a new timber frame production facility, which now allows them to produce many of their wines in 500-gallon batches, though some specialty wines are still produced in the original 5-gallon carboys.

Bear Creek Winery focuses on producing wines and meads utilizing fresh local ingredients — berries and honey. In fact, according to Dorothy, one of their biggest challenges is sourcing enough of these products locally.

“Most local growers aren’t interested in selling their berries wholesale to us. They’d rather sell them at farmers’ markets and such. We’ve put the word out to local berry gatherers that we’ll buy all they can collect. We need all the local berries we can get,” she said.

The use of these ingredients is clearly evident in the names of Bear Creek’s most popular and award-winning wines, like their Strawberry Rhubarb and their Black Currant wines. They also offer wines featuring blueberries, raspberries and gooseberries, plus special seasonal offering, like a Chocolate Raspberry port for Valentine’s Day and a Holiday Spiced Wine for the Thanksgiving-Christmas season.

While they are certainly pleased by the popularity of the wines and meads they produce, the Frys are perhaps proudest of their commitment to customer service and to supporting their local community. Their mission statement reads, in part, “Our goal is that our guests leave feeling like they are friends and family.”

Bear Creek Winery also strives for sustainability and community support. They recycle and reuse their bottles and corks, turning the latter into key chains. They source everything possible locally, from ingredients to gift shop items to label printing, despite the added cost, earning them the Green Star Award for their commitment to environmental responsibility.

So if your travels take you to the Homer area, be sure to take the drive out East End Road to the Bear Creek Winery and Lodging. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Until next month, Cheers!

Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.

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