White Heron celebrates 30 years of pouring it on
Cameron Fries has come a long way, and he’s not alone.
Long gone are the days of working in a modified gas station and importing winemaking supplies out of California, because nobody in Washington had them.
Nowadays, not only are the supplies available, but a whole host of Washington wineries have sprouted since he first opened up shop in 1986.
“We are the oldest winery north of I-90 that has been in continuous operation,” says Fries, who learned to make wine in Switzerland during the first part of the 1980s and then returned home to work for Vince Bryan, who started Cave B Winery as well as the Gorge Amphitheatre.
“He’s the true pioneer in this area,” Fries says of Bryan, who started his winery as Champs de Brionne before closing and resurfacing as Cave B.
As to who gets the credit for staying in business longer than anyone on the top half of the state, he points to his wife Phyllis.
“Our continued existence would have been impossible without her,” he wrote in an email.
Thirty years ago, the idea of wine juggernaut Ernest & Julio Gallo moving to Washington seemed unlikely. But that’s exactly what has happened. The nation’s largest winery now makes wine in Washington, too.
“If you want to grow wine for bulk, Washington state is a pretty good place to do it,” Fries says. The presence of the big companies has no impact on the smaller wineries such as his, he adds.
“It’s a whole different ballgame,” he says.
Staying at a certain size gives winemakers some advantages, like the ability to partake in every step of the process, from planting the grapes to serving the wine at the tasting room.
“At the big wineries, the winemakers are figureheads, because everyone wants to meet them and they have to travel all over,” Fries said.
The relationship between wineries in North Central Washington is a friendly one, he says It has to be. Oenophiles are notoriously fickle, and if a winemaker expects too much brand loyalty, he or she may be waiting awhile.
“People like to visit multiple tasting rooms,” Fries says. “It’s not like they just want to come see me.”
The exit to his winery sports a sign indicating where the nearest wineries have their tasting rooms. That includes some of the newer wineries, which may or may not show up on a person’s search engine.
Now that wineries are allowed at some farmers’ market, the ballgame has changed, too. Last month, Fries celebrated one year serving his wine at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, one of the top tourist attractions in the state.
“We were allowed way back in the late 80s,” he said. “But we couldn’t taste, we couldn’t sample, so I never thought it would be worth it to drive all the way to Seattle.” Nowadays tasting is allowed.
Farmers’ markets have become “extremely important for us” winemakers, says Fries, (pronounced ‘frees’.)
For a Quincy-area winery, farmers’ markets have become key because tourist-wise, they don’t have the muscle of Chelan or the Yakima Valley.
“When people hit Ellensburg, they are either turning right to go to the Yakima Valley and Walla Walla, or they are turning left to go up to Chelan,” he says. “They miss this area.”
The proof of a wine’s success is in the tasting, and “you gotta get the product in front of the public.”
That is specially true for Fries, who describes White Heron as “not the standard style of Washington wine.
“Our wines have a little more structure to them, more bitterness, more acidity to them,” he said. “You have to be a more experienced wine drinker.”
Aiming to please the developed palate is a gamble, Fries says, but then again, he says, there’s no shortage of wineries trying to please everybody.
What he does instead is make wine that he would drink. That includes growing Swiss varieties.
“We are the only people in the U.S. growing them,” he says.
Since the public is the boss, he also makes one wine he wouldn’t drink.
“People drive up my driveway and say ‘we like you and we like your wine but all you make is cellar wine,’ so I make one sweet wine for those people. They want to spend money here and I don’t want to prevent them from doing that.”
Another chance to drop a little cash Fries’ way comes at 6 p.m. July 9, when he will celebrate his winery’s 30th birthday with concerts and food.
In the last 30 years, the microbrew beer craze and the coffee bean craze started. Fries says he’s sticking with wines.
“The thing about wine is, it’s infinite, you never know all there is to know about wine,” he says. “There are over 1,500 grape varieties in Europe alone.”
Beer is different, “There’s only so many beers you can make before you run out,” he added.
He’s also sticking with grapes. No need to mess with apple wines or ciders.
With three decades under his belt, Fries says there’s no reason at all to retire.
“It’s just by perseverance that I have done it,” he said. “It hasn’t been intellectual brilliance. I just kept doing it.”
There have been tough times. When the economy crashed in 2008, millions tightened their belts and said no to, among other things, tourism, trips and wine.
“Our traffic to the tasting room dropped dramatically, I mean, by 60 to 70 percent,” he recalled. Those times are past, sort of, but he still gets customers vowing to come back for a bottle, “the first of the month.”
Struggles aside, he loves being part of the whole winemaking process.
“There’s 2,023 plants to an acre and I have to deliver water to them, so I feel like the owner of a small city,” he said.
That doesn’t mean he loves the whole process.
“Sales is the hardest part,” he said. “The interface with the public, having to be pleasant with everybody. All of us have a boss, in essence, and that boss is the public.”
The boss doesn’t mince words, either.
Fries says he has been told to his face how wonderful his wine is, and asked by a customer five minutes later how a swill like his ever found itself inside a bottle.
Criticism is part of the ballgame, too, so he doesn’t take it to heart.
“You learn to not be egotistical about this fairly quickly,” Fries says.
Sebastian Moraga, firstname.lastname@example.org