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.
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.
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
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.
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.