Winemag Winemag James Frey

The Wine Enthusiast Guide to Art & Wine

James Frey of Trisaetum Winery on Art in the Bottle and on the Canvas

In 2003, James Frey founded Trisaetum Winery with his wife, Andrea. The winery and estate vineyard rests at the top of the Ribbon Ridge American Viticultural Area (AVA), in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Its expansive tasting room also serves as an art gallery, where Frey displays and sells his photographs and paintings. He worked full-time as a newspaper photographer throughout high school and college, where he earned an MBA. We chatted about the synergy between the visual arts and the winemaking craft.

“The great thing is I can always paint over a canvas. I can’t paint over a vintage.”

What first piqued your interest in painting?

As a photojournalist, I wasn’t creating emotion, just capturing reality. There was no abstraction. Everything was black and white, and two-dimensional. I wanted to do something creative that was the opposite of photography: big art, bold colors. I wanted to create the emotion, not just capture it. The painting grew slowly as I started a career in business and advertising. But I would spend my weekends doing two things: tending to a little vineyard in my backyard and painting.

No. 95, by James Frey

You had a vineyard also?

Growing up, we didn’t have wine in our house. But on my honeymoon, we got snowed out of a camping trip and decided to go wine tasting in Napa. Walking the vineyards, we fell in love with wine. Just after our first child was born, I told Andrea I wanted to put in a vineyard. I planted a half-acre in Laguna Hills [with] Cabernet and Syrah. So I would turn our house into a fermentation hall every fall. The kids would crush the grapes, I’d tend the vineyard, and then set up outside and paint. My art is big and messy. It’s better the more energy I put into it.

“People tell me exactly what they think of my art and what they think of my wine. You have to be willing and open to evolve and change and get better.”

Big and messy?
Too much control means the art gets staid and overworked. In winemaking, I always have to deal with Mother Nature. I think about what I want to do and what I want to achieve. I control all the things I can, but I have to react to what nature gives me.

With art, I don’t really plan out much of anything, other than selecting a group of colors. I don’t sketch anything out. I just start painting. The great thing is I can always paint over a canvas. I can’t paint over a vintage. Over time, I’ve learned that I make better wines when I don’t try to manipulate the process. It’s very much the same thing as art. I don’t try to control the process. I just taste and react.

James Frey walking among his vines in the Ribbon Ridge

You’ve had no formal training in either field?

I’m not trained as a winemaker. I’ve never taken an art class. But I do have an MBA. So the one thing I should be qualified for is actually running a business. But I’d rather spend all my time making wine and making art. There is a legacy to leaving something to future generations. A great bottle of wine will be around for my grandkids to taste. And my art will be around for my great-grandkids.

Art and Wine Through Time

1795, Simple Corkscrew with brush, Samuel Henshall; wood and iron, Britain 
1820, Royalty in a Rage or Family Quarrels, Isaac Cruikshank; hand-colored engraving, Britain 

How has the move to Oregon impacted your art?

I do more and more landscapes now, because I want to depict this place. I drive around and take notice of the way the hills move, the sky, the clouds. I spend most of my time looking at the skies. I think they’re incredible.

No. 34, by James Frey

Why skies?

As a photographer, light and contrast are what it’s all about. I want the viewer to be reminded of the moodiness of a winter sky, the joy of a summer sky. So my influences currently lean more to old-school, 19th-century, William Turner-type landscapes.

How did you conceive of your tasting room/gallery?

I designed the winery myself on PowerPoint. First, I designed a barrel room, a 100-foot underground room that was 20 feet wide. So I had to decide what to put on top of it. It was way too long to be a tasting room. So I thought, “Well, I’ll put my art up and give people something to look at in that space.” There was no thought of selling art. And the first day, two paintings sold. And now, it’s become a big part of what we do. The challenge is to keep it filled.

There’s a natural affinity between wine and art. They are creative processes. Somebody is putting their soul out on a canvas. And you get a lot of feedback. People tell me exactly what they think of my art and what they think of my wine. You have to be willing and open to evolve and change and get better. Ultimately, the consumers will be the judges, but I personally am really happy.

Published on March 23, 2018
Topics: Interviews
About the Author
Paul Gregutt
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from Oregon and Canada.

Paul Gregutt is a Contributing Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, a founding member of the magazine’s Tasting Panel, and reviews the wines of Oregon and Canada. The author of the critically-acclaimed Washington Wines & Wineries—The Essential Guide, he consulted on the Pacific Northwest entries in current versions of The World Atlas of Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine.


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