Erica Orr of Orr Wines and Baer has a longstanding history in the Washington wine industry. Orr has worked at some of the finest wineries in the world, including Rudd Estate, Cain Vineyard, Domaine Dujac and Yering Station. In 2005, she moved to Washington State and started an independent winemaking consulting and enology business in Woodinville, where she has consulted for wineries like Baer, Mark Ryan, Guardian, and Sparkman. Founding Orr Wines in 2013, her winery is dedicated to Old Vine Chenin Blanc. Her 2015 ‘Old Vines’ Chenin Blanc comes from a challenging vintage, where many white wines have struggled with producing high acidity. Her effort was exceptional in this vintage, showing the brightness and lovely structure combined with rich baked fruits.
Erica has achieved considerable acclaim with her Baer releases. Her 2012 Baer ‘Star’ (WWB, 93) was a Washington Wine Blog 2015 Top 100 performer, that showed incredible structure and ripe fruit flavors from a fantastic vintage. Erica talked about that wine, her background in wine and the wines she has in her glass. I found her a delight to speak with and I think you will truly enjoy her very special interview. Learn more about her and her wines at http://www.orrwines.com/ Here is my interview with superstar winemaker, Erica Orr, of Orr Wines and Baer winery.
WWB: You have an incredible background in wine, previously working at Rudd Estate, Cain, Domaine Dujac and even Yering Station in Australia. Can you talk about how your range of worldwide winemaking experience has shaped you as a winemaker?
EO: Thanks for the kind words. I take my training very seriously and in many ways it is work that’s not work. I love learning and it’s fun to challenge myself, to develop my palate and taste wine with people who know way more about wine than I do. A solid basis in wine chemistry is important to me but as a complement to wine school, I’ve made travel a priority and I’ve organized my life so that I am frequently exposed to winemaking and grape growing from all over the world. I have been very lucky to work with some incredibly talented and generous winemakers and those experiences have been both personally and professionally fulfilling. Mainly though, I love eating and drinking and talking about eating and drinking with people who love eating and drinking.
WWB: I have been a big fan of your Baer wine releases for many years. You have a signature Bordelaise style with those wines that are restrained and have balance and tension. Can you talk about your signature style of winemaking with the Baer wines?
EO: Thank you, that’s so nice to hear! Baer wines have been made from 100% Stillwater Creek vineyard fruit since 2004 and I’ve been at the helm since 2007 so largely those factors keep the Baer style consistent from vintage to vintage. I am reluctant to describe any of the wines I work on in a French context, I feel like they are essentially Washingtonian. The Baer wines are grown in a part of the Columbia Valley where Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are especially well suited. The grapes get ripe but not too ripe, they retain acidity, they retain freshness, and they retain some of the herbal characters that can be blown out when Bordeaux varietals are picked later in the season from hotter sites. The red wines I make for Baer are lighter bodied than some of the more extracted and concentrated Bordeaux style blends from Red Mountain, for instance, but I appreciate a “light on its feet” character in the palate. I’m crafting the wines to have a lifted finish, like a mouthwatering sensation in the aftertaste. These wines have the structure and harmony to age and develop in bottle over time though, too.
WWB: Your 2012 Baer ‘Star’ Red Wine was a silky and beautifully textured effort that landed at #49 on my Top 100 Wines of 2015 (washingtonwineblog.com/top-100#/2015). Can you talk about this wine and what makes it and the 2012 vintage so special?
EO: Of the Bordeaux varietals, Merlot can get outshined by the sheer power of Cabernet Sauvignon. It took me a while to understand that we shouldn’t be making Merlot in the same way we make Cab. Merlot can be really lovely and delicious in its own right. I skew early rather than late on Merlot picks because I want to retain freshness and I know that Merlot is never going to get that black fruit, cassis, black cherry, blackberry intensity like Cab with long hang time so what am I waiting for in terms of the Merlot harvest? It tastes good now so let’s pick it. In the winery, Merlot requires more delicacy in the extraction and oak treatment. The Merlot from Stillwater Creek has a purity and precision that I work to feature and show off in the Baer Star bottling. The aromatics are red fruited, fresh red cherry, red plum and herbal, a bay leaf, roasted thyme character and in the mouth the wine feels full and silky and round.
WWB: You have gained considerable acclaim for your Chenin Blanc project. Can you talk about how you decided to start Orr Wines? What is the potential for Chenin Blanc in Washington and do you feel that this varietal could be affected with warming trends in eastern Washington?
EO: It’s really learning by doing … I’ve been self-employed as a winemaking consultant since 2006 and I defined my job very strictly to be behind the scenes of the wineries I consult for. 2013 was an auspicious time to launch my own brand, Orr Wines, as I was able to call in a whole bunch of favors at once. The Chenin Blanc vineyards I work with for my project were planted in 1974 and 1979 - these vines are old timers, they are survivors, real heirlooms from the beginnings of Washington viticulture and they are special, if only because they haven’t been ripped out or grafted over to Chardonnay or Merlot over all these years. My project became a very intimate way for me to learn about wine marketing and branding and sales. A lot of “Nobody said it would be fun, they said it would be worth it” life lesson sort of stuff. Why Chenin? I love white wine, I eat a ton of fish and shellfish and oysters and I wanted to make a wine that would complement the world-class seafood of the Pacific Northwest. Fortuitously, in the marketplace, Chenin Blanc seems to be undergoing a little hipster somm renaissance right now. Thankfully my distributor, Guy Harris and his team at Cru have done a fantastic job placing my wine on great restaurant lists and cool wine shops all over Seattle. I feel very lucky to be working with these guys.
WWB: When you are not enjoying Orr, Baer or Guardian wines, what is typically in your glass? What are some of your favorite Washington wines?
EO: Washington is such an exciting place to be right now, there are so many great wines and tremendous values coming out of here. I’m serious when I say I love white wine, I love the refreshing feeling of drinking something crisp and cold and fresh and clean when I get home from work and while making dinner. At home I drink Chablis and Kabinett Rieslings, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnays from around the world, Italian whites, Chenin blanc of course. I love Champagne, Cava and Bugey Cerdon – it’s cool how starting with a fun sparkling wine sets a celebratory tone for the evening. Or morning, as it were. Together with my friends from Guardian and Sparkman, we popped a bottle of the 2005 Pierre Peters Les Chetillons Champagne to toast the start of the 2015 harvest. For sure it was the earliest drink I’ve ever had, but at 8 in the morning, waiting for my press cycle to finish, it hit the spot. Red wines at home tend to be light to medium bodied, highish acid, over delivering at their price point, from regions like Bierzo, Mt. Etna, Chianti and the Southern Rhone. Let’s be real - there are a lot of wines that I love that I can’t afford.