A few years ago, it dawned on me that I needed to visit just three states–Maine, New Mexico and Alaska–to have made it to all 50. So, I traveled to New England and crossed off Maine in 2013 and hit New Mexico on a tour of the Southwest in January of this year.
In mid-July, I spent a week hiking the Kenai Peninsula with my beloved Ellen; the trip was her gift to celebrate my 65th birthday (not till November, but that’s an awkward time of year to assault the “Final Frontier” of Alaska). And it marked the culmination of my journey to every one of these United States.
You could easily make the argument that I saved the best for last. What a spectacular place. . .vast, imposing, gorgeous. . .yet darkly ominous with the ever-present reality that a grizzly bear or monstrous moose could be blocking your path around the next turn.
We joined a group of 18 hikers on a tour organized by a firm called Back Roads (www.backroads.com) that started at Land’s End Resort on the Homer Spit, continued to Seward and Girdwood and ended in Anchorage. Along the way we were challenged by rugged, steep trails (one gaining 2,000+ feet of elevation in 1.7 miles) and rewarded with stunning, up-close encounters with blue-stained glaciers; improbable mountain vistas; and dreamy, rainforest-shrouded, soundless paths lined with delicate ferns.
As a first-time visitor, the experience was at once thrilling and indelible. Beyond all the natural miracles of Alaska, though, what I found most unbelievable was the improbable presence of a thriving enterprise on the outskirts of Homer—Bear Creek Winery & Lodging. Here, in the most inhospitable and vine-free agrarian locales was a contrarian operation producing—and selling—85,000 bottles of wine each year.
There are bonded wineries in all 50 states, and Alaska is home to just two by my count—Bear Creek and another facility in Denali. Bear Creek’s sweet spot is making wine from all types of fruit—raspberries, blue berries, strawberries, apricots, peaches, kiwi and even rhubarb. It also produces what it calls “blended wines,” made from a combination of imported grape juice and its own fruit wines.
I sampled a dozen or more wines in the nicely appointed Bear Creek tasting room, and while I found two appealing enough to purchase—a very limited Golden Raspberry wine and Alaskan Port (19% alcohol but unfortified)—I’m just never going to be a fan of sweet wines. A parking lot full of cars, however, was testament to the fact that lots of people do enjoy this style and queued up with their credit cards.
It’s a given: if you live in Alaska, you are a hardy soul and there is a high likelihood that you embrace adventure, distain convention, are manically independent and, above all, a balls-to-the-wall risk-taker. Though I did not have an opportunity to meet him during my visit, there is probably no more apt description for Bear Creek Winery founder Bill Fry who started making fruit wines in five-gallon carboys in his kitchen in the mid-1990’s. After walking away from his job in Alaska’s oil industry, Bill and his wife, Dorothy, raided their 401k and opened a tasting room in 2003—a truly gutsy move. Launching a winery even in prime locations is insane. . .but in Alaska, come on!
Since 2010, the winemaker for Bear Creak has been Oregon-native Louie Maurer, who graciously interrupted his afternoon to give Ellen and me a tour of the tasting room and then drove us to the nearby winemaking facility. Louie, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, met the Fry’s daughter while in college. They married and settled in Homer.
The Bear Creek tasting room is as nice as any you’ll find in the Sierra Foothills AVA, and it is unusually well stocked with gift items. It is difficult to comprehend that you are in Alaska, everything is so similar to what you would expect to find in a small, family-owned, west coast winery. I toured the back of the shop with Louie, and visited the Winery’s cellar. . .a perfect 58 degrees year ‘round.
Unlike a single crush in grape-based wineries, winemaking at Bear Creek is perpetual because fruit is frozen and stored after harvest and then defrosted and crushed in small batches throughout the year. Remarkably, the winery facility is indistinguishable from what you expect to see in the lower 48, albeit everything is of a smaller scale—from fermentation tanks to the press to a complete laboratory.
A testament to the success of Bear Creek is the level of construction activity this summer. To accommodate increased wine production, a large, separate building is going up to house a giant freezer. An outdoor pavilion is also being built to augment the entertainment side of the business as a venue for weddings and private events.
If you fall in love with this idyllic place, you can also stay overnight in one of two guest rooms, complete with outdoor spa and a large deck overlooking a gorgeous vegetable and flower garden as well as adjacent orchards. Room rates range from $200 to $275 per night, depending on the season.
You have to truly admire what this family has accomplished. Though I was at Bear Creek for barely two hours, I felt a deep, personal connection because of my own similar experience in starting a business against long odds with limited knowledge of what I was getting into. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you are naïve about the realities of embarking on a venture.
All of those qualities that are necessary to survive in Alaska, especially perseverance, can help overcome just about any challenge. Bear Creek is a testament to this notion: it’s all about family united with one simple goal—building a future.
gary, Drew & the Carpe Vino Crew