Fries family departs Washington wine industry with Desert Wind sale

By on May 14, 2021
Greg Fries, and his father, Doug, and their family recently sold Desert Wind Winery and 470 acres of vineyards to a group led by Columbia Valley growers Josh Lawrence and Tom Merkle. (Photo by Lynn Howlett Photography/Courtesy of Desert Wind Winery)

PROSSER, Wash. – Less than three years ago, the Fries family owned a combined 1,017 acres of grape vines in Washington state and Oregon while producing 120,000 cases of wine under brands in each state.

This week brought news that the Fries family has sold all of its holdings in Washington — Desert Wind Winery in Prosser and 470 acres of vineyards on the Wahluke Slope — to a group led by acclaimed Columbia Valley growers/vintners Josh Lawrence, Tom Merkle and their families.

“It’s nice to sell it to another family enterprise,” Greg Fries told Great Northwest Wine. “They seem to be excited about the Washington wine industry and are continuing to build upon their reputation.”

In 2018, Fries and his family sold Duck Pond Cellars in Dundee, Ore., and their 300-acre Coles Valley Vineyard in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley to The Great Oregon Wine Co. 

“Four years ago, we decided that the best quality of life for us was to exit out of the wine industry for the most part, and this is the natural progression of that,” Fries said.

The Lawrence and Merkle families plan to explore the possibilities that come with Desert Wind Winery, which includes amenities such as boutique lodging, an expansive commercial kitchen, dining, a spa and event space.

“Desert Wind Winery is an unparalleled destination in the Yakima Valley, and we are excited to expand the offerings there with an even greater emphasis on food and wine pairings, private events and lodging experiences,” Josh Lawrence said in a news release.

The new owners have scheduled an open house at Desert Wind Winery for Saturday, June 6 from 1-4 p.m. Food, wine and live music will be available, and guests can schedule an appointment for that day.

Lawrence, Merkle families deepen relationship 

Tom Merkle, left, and Josh Lawrence inspect fruit from the 2019 vintage during their first harvest as owners of Conner Lee Vineyard near Othello, Wash. (Richard Duval Images)

Lawrence and his wife, Lisa, own Gård Vintners and operate three tasting rooms while Merkle — the 2017 Honorary Grower for the Auction of Washington Wines — and his wife, Tami, are partners with famed winemaker Jessica Munnell in Wautoma Springs Winery. The namesake estate vineyard is near historic Cold Creek Vineyard and a short drive west of the Wahluke Slope, where Merkle manages several sites for the massive Zirkle Fruit Co.

However, it is Chilean-born Matías Kúsulas who will take over the winemaking at Desert Wind. He moved to Washington state in 2016 after receiving winemaking degrees from the University of Bordeaux and University of Montpelier and working in New Zealand, South Africa and France.

“We are excited to add Desert Wind Winery to our portfolio with the Lawrences,” Merkle said. “The addition of the winery to our Desert Wind Vineyard property will continue to build on the long tradition of producing remarkable estate wines at Desert Wind Winery.”

In 2019, the Lawrence and Merkle families joined forces to purchase Conner Lee Vineyard, a historic 150-acre planting near Othello. They began negotiating with the Fries family the following year.

The Gård wines will continue to be produced in Walla Walla under the direction of Aryn Morrell with fruit from the Lawrence family vines in the Royal Slope American Viticulture Area. Kúsulas, who worked for Morrell and served as viticulturist for both Lawrence Vineyards and Wautoma Springs, owns two labels — Massalto and Valo Cellars — that share a tasting room along the waterfront in downtown Vancouver USA. 

In the fall of 2019, the Merkles and Munnell opened their Wautoma Springs tasting room in Prosser’s Vintners Village. In recent years, Munnell has produced those wines at Mercer Estates, where she served as the winemaker for five vintages, but that will change with acquisition of the Desert Wind vinification facility, according to Lisa Lawrence.

According to Benton County records, their group paid $2.4 million for Desert Wind Winery’s two commercial buildings at 2258 Wine Country Road in Prosser. Financial terms involving the sale of the two vineyards on the Wahluke Slope were not available.

Fries remains Willamette Valley grower  

Greg Fries conducts a media tour of his family's Willamette Valley plantings in the South Salem Hills.
Greg Fries, who grew up in Sunriver, Ore., and graduated from the University of California-Davis winemaking program, continues to farm more than 300 acres of vines in the South Salem Hills near Oregon’s state capital. (Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

In 1982, Doug and Jo Ann Fries moved from the Central Valley of California where they farmed row crops and entered the Oregon hazelnut industry. They grew their operation near the Willamette River to 500 acres of orchards, which at one time was believed to be the largest of its kind in the U.S. They established their first vineyard in 1985, a 13-acre site near Dundee.

Greg graduated from the famed wine program at University of California-Davis and soon began making the wine for his parents as they transitioned from nuts to grapes. In 1993, they opened Duck Pond Cellars, which they named as a tribute to their home along Duck Pond Lane in Sunriver, Ore.

Remarkably, they also began planting Desert Wind Vineyard that same year, and in 1997, they launched their Washington brand. A decade later, it became a destination winery in Prosser when Lisa Jenkins — Greg’s sister — opened the tasting room with nicely appointed lodging and a restaurant all under the same roof. Lisa’s husband, Scott, served as the national sales director for both brands.

By 2012, the Fries family ranked as Oregon’s fourth-largest producer at more than 120,000 cases while Desert Wind had become an 11,000-case brand. In 2013, the Fries family toasted the 20th anniversary of Duck Pond Cellars with a celebration at the tony Allison Inn & Spa in nearby Newberg. Five years later, they began to part with their holdings.

“It’s more sweet than bitter — looking back on all of the accomplishments and good times we had in building those businesses,” Greg Fries said. “There were definitely had a lot of great experiences working with my folks and my sister and her husband through the years.”

His parents even put down some roots in the Wahluke Slope community of Desert Aire, near the airstrip and not far from their Sacagawea and Desert Wind vineyards. The sports fans now divide their time between Sunriver and the Del Webb-designed community of Anthem, Ariz.

“They go to spring training and play a lot of golf,” Greg said.

Fries, his folks, and his wife, Amber — a certified sommelier from Lake Chelan — still own 320 acres of vineyards near Salem, a collection that includes Delaney, Hylo, St. Jory and Willow Creek as well as younger sites Champion Hill and Squirrel Hill. The focus of those plantings is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, although Greg plans to plant Aligoté and Melon de Bourgogne in 2022.

He will likely excel with both Burgundy varieties. Between the Desert Wind and Duck Pond brands, Fries and his winemaking teams earned 10 career Platinum awards from Wine Press Northwest magazine through its year-end regional judging of gold medal wines.

“I’m leaving the door open to a return to winemaking within the next five years,” Greg said.

Meanwhile, the licensed airplane pilot, who lives in Portland where he and Amber are raising their two young children, decided the skies were right to add a tailwheel endorsement.

“I’m trying to figure out ways to fly for fun now that I’m not flying between Roseburg and Prosser to check on vineyards,” he said with a chuckle.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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