Lifelong farmer Doug Fries knows that a journey is of no merit unless it has tested you. Quiet, strong and energetic, the former cotton grower from Central California was forced into an early retirement in the 1980s due to an ailment. He resettled his family in Oregon where he recovered a few years later and became restless. Fries bought a parcel of land in the Willamette Valley and set about planting a sizable hazelnut orchard. And because he had enjoyed fine wines, he thought it would be a novel idea to make his own, so he planted a 13-acre hobby vineyard of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir adjacent to the nut orchard.
But the forces of nature tested Fries and his home winemaking experiment. Through trial and error, he learned the Willamette Valley climate was too cool to grow Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes consistently, yet proved ideal for the thinner-skinned Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Armed with this lesson, Fries plowed ahead.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Several vintages later, the hobby winemaking project outgrew the family’s garage space, spurring Fries and his wife, Jo Ann, to launch Duck Pond Cellars near Dundee, Oregon in 1993. Their daughter Lisa, who was just finishing college, was tasked with running the tasting room. Shortly after, their son Greg jumped headlong into the family business, taking over as head winemaker. Well qualified, Greg had practically grown up in a vineyard, helping his father farm during summertime breaks, eventually studying enology at UC Davis.
“A hobby out of control,” Doug Fries admits with a slight grin and a twinkle from behind a piercing blue-eyed gaze, speaking about the family enterprise that hasn’t slowed its progression since those early plantings. In fact, 2013 marks Duck Pond Cellars 20th anniversary.
“We produce 58,000 cases annually with distribution to 44 states and 28 countries,” reports Scott Jenkins, VP of sales for the winery. The tally includes Desert Wind Winery, the family’s Washington State winery, which Fries founded in 2001.
But the journey hasn’t always been easy. When Duck Pond winery was built, the family’s budget was so tight they couldn’t afford the installation costs for a tile floor in the tasting room, so Jo Ann and Lisa took a class to learn how to lay down the tiles themselves. Another test passed.
There were only a small handful of tasting rooms in the Willamette Valley during the early ‘90s. The industry was young and nobody knew quite what was expected, so family members were forced to figure things out as they went. “Back then, we focused on entertaining,” recalls Lisa (Fries) Jenkins, who still oversees the tasting room, “because we saw that if people were having fun while wine tasting, they’d come back.”
DEEP WASHINGTON ROOTS
Doug Fries has been involved with planting new vineyards every single year for the past two decades. Unwavering in his quest to grow the kinds of grape varieties he sought, he set his sights on Washington’s flourishing winegrowing area in the mid-1990s.
Why would a Willamette Valley grape grower stretch his resources into Washington? “I like Pinot Noir, but I like Cabernet better,” replies Fries.
He planted 480 acres of wine grapes on the Wahluke Slope in Eastern Washington, where the hot dry climate is suitable for growing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to Cab, the initial varieties were Chardonnay, Syrah, and Merlot. Today other plantings include Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Malbec, Viognier, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, Mourvèdre, Barbera, Sangiovese, Riesling and Carménère.
A portion of the Washington grown grapes are shipped to Oregon to augment the Duck Pond brand, thereby giving tasting room visitors a chance to taste the best of both worlds.
Enlarging their footprint, the Fries family constructed the Southwestern-themed Desert Wind Winery, restaurant, and tasting room at the southeast end of the Yakima Valley, joining 30 or so wineries in the town of Prosser and quickly establishing the winery as a serious player in Washington. Growing with every vintage, Desert Wind produces an average of 20,000 cases of estate wines per year.
The Fries’ ability to source a diversity of estate fruit from both Washington and Oregon, as well as maintain a separate winery and tasting room in each state, gives them the advantage of a strong Pacific Northwest presence.
With a combined 1,027 acres of estate vineyards fairly evenly divided between the two states, the family’s Coles Valley Vineyard is their largest and newest vineyard undertaking in Oregon to date. Formerly in pasture, they planted 272 acres (with room to grow) with a variety of Pinot Noir clones, every single vine painstakingly hand-grafted to shield the vineyard from phylloxera, a tiny pest insect that can devastate unprotected vines. This laborious and slow process, overseen by Doug and Greg Fries, has taken them and their vineyard crew four years to complete but the results are promising. A recent barrel sampling of the 2012 vintage displayed complex earthy and jammy fruit characteristics, as well as excellent depth of color.
Despite being one of the larger wine producers in Oregon and Washington, the operation remains a closely-knit family affair much as it began twenty years ago, but with a few new faces and stepped up roles for members of the Fries and Jenkins families. Although patriarchs Doug and Jo Ann Fries like to say they are semi-retired, they are known to occasionally put in the longest hours, especially during busy harvest season.
THE LEGACY GROWS
Today, Greg spearheads the winemaking team, cellar crew and vineyard team, and his wife Amber is the communications guru for all the brands. Mark Chargin was recruited in 2005 and several years later took over as head winemaker for Duck Pond and Desert Wind. Lisa Jenkins oversees the day-to-day winery operations, and her husband Scott handles major sales, traveling around the world to promote the two brands. Erin Fries is the talented buyer behind the successful retail gift shops at both tasting rooms.
With family values at the heart of Desert Wind and Duck Pond, these wineries appear poised for another 20 years of success under the leadership and vision of the next generation, already tested beyond their years.
Written by John Vitale
GO WINE TASTING!
Desert Wind Winery
2258 Wine Country Road, Prosser WA
Open daily: 11am-5pm
Duck Pond Cellars
23145 Hwy 99W