20 minute read

A Small Business Success Story

A Small Business

Samples of Alaskan-made wine are served at Bear Creek Winery

© Scott Dickerson | Bear Creek Winery and Lodging

Success Story Multi-generational family lodge and winery flourishes in Kachemak Bay

28 | September 2019 By McKibben Jackinsky P ut Bear Creek Winery and Lodging next to other wineries in the world—castle-neighboring wineries in Alsace, France; Tuscany wineries scattered from seashore to rolling countryside; the California wineries of Sonoma County—and this family-run Alaska business stands tall.

It has an award-winning product, can claim bragging rights for using Alaska fruits and berries, offers overnight accommodations designed with Alaskans in mind, has a picture-perfect setting near the shores of Kachemak Bay, has roots that sink deep into its

Alaska Business surrounding community, and is a multigenerational enterprise.

Using the kitchen in the family’s home a few miles east of Homer, Bill Fry began trying his hand at winemaking in the 1990s. Positive reactions from friends to whom Bill gave bottles of his wine as gifts for birthdays, holidays, and special occasions encouraged the budding vintner. It wasn’t long before the kitchen became too small for his growing interest and Bill was forced to find a bigger space to set up shop: the garage. Blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb—just name it and Bill found a way to incorporate it in his wine-making experiments.

www.akbizmag.com When a Kenai Peninsula lodge that catered to tourists in the summer and Alaskans in the winter chose to focus solely on its summer guests, Bill and his wife Dorothy found themselves without a favorite get-away. Aware of others who shared this same sense of loss, in 2003 the couple constructed a two-suite, year-round destination conveniently located next to their home.

The Frys' goal was to offer guests more than simply a hotel-type atmosphere. Dorothy paired locally made bedroom furniture with soft linens. She selected artwork to decorate the sitting areas, kitchenettes, and

private baths. Once completed, the two suites were a perfect reflection of their names: Arctic and Cowboy. Arctic has a queen bed; Cowboy has a queen plus a sofa bed.

Reviews from lodge guests with whom Bill shared his wine opened the couple’s eyes to an until-then unconsidered possibility, and in 2004 they turned hobby into business and launched the winery. That first year, Bear Creek Winery sold 600 gallons of wine.

During construction, Dorothy treated the building crews to a home-cooked lunch every day. The lunches have continued with Bill’s mother Ruth now doing the cooking. The mid-day break in the action gives Bear Creek’s ten year-round employees an opportunity to set aside bottling, packaging, housekeeping, and landscaping to enjoy a meal together and discuss the day.

Bill’s original plan was to produce

wine using only Alaska-grown berries and fruits. That proved a challenge, but rather than give up, the Frys found alternatives.

“Our biggest hurdle through the whole process was Bill and me trying at the beginning to use 100 percent Alaska berries,” says Dorothy. “Some people brought great big bags of black currants, and the first time we made that wine, it was amazing. Then we couldn’t source enough black currants, so we had to look elsewhere and got them from Outside.”

Today, Bear Creek produces two

“We designed a place where we’d like to stay and made a wine I wanted to drink.”

Bill Fry, Founder, Bear Creek Winery and Lodging

brands of wine. The original Bear Creek brand offers nine wines year-round and five seasonal wines. The Glacier Bear brand offers five different wines made from Alaska-grown berries and fruits that celebrate in-state flavors and local growers. Each brand has earned multiple awards at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. At the Rochester, New York, event, the winery’s 2019 entries brought home three silvers and three bronzes.

Alaska-grown ingredients come from across the state, with golden raspberries from Nenana traveling the farthest.

In 2018,

Bear Creek’s

apple

picking team

harvested

more than

1,200 pounds

of Schroer’s

neighborly deliveries of raspberries,

blueberries, black currants, strawberries,

gooseberries, lowbush cranberries,

rhubarb, or apples. Two of their largest

suppliers are Don and Nancy Dyer of

Polaris Farm and Greenhouse in Palmer

and Dave Schroer of Homer. The Dyers

provide Bear Creek with black currants;

Schroer provides apples.

Similar to Bill, Don Dyer’s vision for

his Palmer property began as a hobby

farm. After discovering there were

hundreds of black currant plants on it,

he researched the plants’ commercial

value and has been selling to Bear

Creek for the past six years.

Using a drip-watering system, Dyer

is able to pump as much water on the

berries as needed. A healthy, well

established bush can grow to six feet.

Harvesting occurs during the month of

August. Dyer and his crew pick, wash,

and freeze the berries “and then, when

we have the season finished, we get

a truck and take them to Bear Creek,”

Dyer says. “They [Bear Creek] really

have a good thing going and I love

them as a customer.”

Schroer has been growing apples in C

the Homer area since the 1970s. His small, half-acre orchard is home to more than thirty trees, most of them

M

Y

bearing varieties of apples that were

CM

bred in Canada specifically for northern MY

climates. Harvesting occurs around mid-September.

Now in his 90s, Schroer leaves the

CY

CMY

ladder-climbing needed to harvest the K

fruit to others.

“So I worked out a deal with [Bear Creek] that they’d come pick them,” he says. In 2018, Bear Creek’s applepicking team harvested more than 1,200 pounds of Schroer’s apples.

At one time, a South Peninsula Fruit Growers Association with a list of 100 growers existed in the Homer area, but due to a lack of officers, the group disbanded five years ago. Apple growing on the southern Kenai Peninsula has continued to grow, however.

“I’ll bet you now there’s close to 500 to 1,000 apple trees around Homer,” says Schroer.

According to Kelly Mazzei, excise tax

manager with the Alaska Department of Revenue’s Tax Division, there are six wineries licensed with the state for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, but two of them produce only cider. The four wine producers sold approximately 7,400 gallons to retail, bars, restaurants, and package businesses between July 1, 2018, and June 2019. The number of gallons the four wineries transferred to their warehouses is confidential taxpayer information that Mazzei could not divulge; however, she says that transfers by one of the wineries exceeded 80 percent of the total. Taxed at $2.50 per gallon, the 7,400 gallons of wine sold during the July 2018-June 2019 fiscal year resulted in $18,500 for the state.

Bear Creek sells and ships wine throughout Alaska. Bear Creek's wine can also be ordered online, and the winery is licensed to ship wine to forty other states. That means it is required to be licensed and pay taxes in each of those states.

State and federal licenses and permits are needed for multiple phases of the winery’s operation: a winery license, a license for bottling, and a liquor license AlaskaBusiness_2019.pdf 1 4/15/19 10:41 AM

are a few of what’s required.

“Anytime we have to do anything— change the shape of a building or make ownership changes—it’s about as much work as opening a winery,” says Louis Maurer, the Frys’ son-in-law.

In March 2019, the Frys made an ownership change, officially passing the business to Louis and daughter Jasmine.

Jasmine met Oregon-grown Louis at Oregon State University, and the two began dating about the same year Bear Creek Winery and Lodging opened. When Jasmine would travel home during breaks in classes, Louis often accompanied her and helped out at the winery. After the two obtained their degrees (Louis in engineering and Jasmine in marine biology), the couple married and settled in Homer in 2010. “I feel pretty privileged to have seen every aspect of the growth and evolution of the business and to have actively participated in it,” says Louis. “It’s not so much the wine but the family aspect of it and the small business aspect that is the big draw for me. That it happened to be a winery, that’s even better.”

Landscaping has added flowers and fruit-producing gardens of golden raspberries, rhubarb, currants, and gooseberries used in Bear Creek’s wines. A koi pond is a mesmerizing and calming focal point near the front of

“Anytime we have to do anything—change the shape of a building or make ownership changes—it’s about as much work as opening a winery.”

Louis Maurer Co-owner, Bear Creek Winery and Lodging

the two suites. A trail winding through the surrounding woods allows guests to explore the countryside. A covered

pavilion has been used more than once for a wedding.

In 2017, the pavilion also was used as a stage for musical groups performing at the first of what has become an annual music festival. This year, concert-goers enjoyed music by two Alaska bands, Ukulele Russ from Fairbanks and Blackwater Railroad Company from Seward. Also performing were Cousin Curtiss from Colorado and Hussy Hicks from Australia. The $65 admission included two drinks, food was available, and proceeds from the one-day event benefited the Nikki Geragotelis (Fry) Memorial Scholarship, created in memory of the Frys’ daughter, Nikki, who died in 2013.

The Garden of Lights’ display of holiday lighting, music, hot chocolate, and a bonfire in December attracts a wintery crowd of locals and guests and transforms the grounds into a winter wonderland.

The winery’s connection to community service is evidenced by Hospice of Homer’s Compassion in Action award received by the Frys and Bear Creek Winery and Lodging in 2013.

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Inserting corks and applying labels to make Bear Creek Winery’s wine ready for distribution both in Alaska and in the forty states where Bear Creek is licensed.

© Scott Dickerson | Bear Creek Winery and Lodging

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Though they’re no longer the business owners, Bill and Dorothy continue to stay involved, traveling to special events and various shows as representatives of Bear Creek Winery and Lodging, serving wine and talking to people about what’s happening with the enterprise they founded. It’s a role they enjoy.

“I’m glad my parents can relax and enjoy where they’re at, and that Louis enjoys it and what it provides,” says Jasmine. “That’s what’s important to me.”

Bill and Dorothy also have moved off site, and their former home has been remodeled as a three-bedroom apartment, adding to the overnight accommodations Bear Creek offers. It is complete with a full kitchen and bath, as well as views of the Kenai Mountains on Kachemak Bay’s south shore.

Looking ahead, the winery is in the process of adding 2,500 square feet to its winemaking and storage area.

“This will almost double the size of our existing warehouse and winemaking space, and this will allow us to

keep up with demand,” says Louis.

He’s not the only one looking ahead. The couple’s four-year-old daughter Maggie may already be considering taking the business to a third

DOWNTOWN ANCHORAGE

The only Alaskan place to stay for charm, culture and cuisine.

Featuring four distinctive restaurants, full-service espresso bar, 12 shops as well as separate men’s and women’s athletic clubs.

Beginning in 2017, Bear Creek Winery and Lodging’s annual music festival has drawn an international cast of musicians and music lovers to the foothills above Kachemak Bay.

© Janel LeBlanc | Bear Creek Winery and Lodging

generation.

“She’s helping wash barrels, test fruit before it’s pressed, and sweep the parking lot,” says Jasmine. “This is a space to be proud of.”

THE SPAN ADVANTAGE

In March, Louis Maurer (center) and his wife Jasmine became owners of Bear Creek Winery and Lodging. Jasmine is the daughter of the business’s founders Bill and Dorothy Fry.

© Scott Dickerson | Bear Creek Winery and Lodging

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