August is Washington Wine Month and we think we kicked it off in grand style with a visit to Baer Winery. Baer definitely is one the stars that shines bright amongst what has grown to over 1,000 wineries in Washington State. Though they have remained small by intention, they have received numerous 90+ point scores by the mainstream wine reviewers including being named number #6 in the Wine Spectator Top 100 for their 95 point 2008 Ursa. We met up with Les Baer and winemaker Erica Orr at their Woodinville winery to hear their story.
Baer got its start from wine-lover and animal-lover Lance Baer. Like many within the Woodinville warehouse wine district, Lance came to winemaking from a day job at nearby Boeing, where he was a structural mechanic, assembling aircraft. After work he would indulge his passion tasting all sorts of different wines. In 2000 he made the leap and started the winery. Volunteering at nearby DeLille, he picked up the subtle art of making wine by rubbing shoulders with some of the greats like Chris Upchurch and Chris Peterson. In 2007, sadly Lance passed away. His father, Les, and sister, Lisa, took over the winery.
We began our tasting by meeting Baer’s current and very talented winemaker, Erica Orr. Erica moved up to Woodinville from California in 2005 and set up her own enology (wine consulting) business. Her office/lab is right next door to the Baer Winery in Woodinville’s warehouse district. In addition to Baer, Erica has consulted for Mark Ryan and Sparkman and currently consults for Baer, Guardian and her own label, Orr wines. She has worked for wineries in California (Rudd Estate and Cain), France (Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac, no less!) and Australia (Yering Station). Erica obtained her MS in Enology from University of California, Davis in 2003.
First up in our tasting was her own Orr Wines 2017 Chenin Blanc. Erica sourced this fruit from some of the oldest vines in the state. Fruit comes from Chenin blocks at Rothrock Vineyard near Prosser planted in 1974, Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain planted in 1979, and Roza Hills Vineyard in Zillah planted in 1982. It was great to hear directly from Erica why she decided to make this Chenin under her own label. “I really love seafood dishes and I wanted Washington to be able to show a wine that pairs well with that food. This old vine Chenin has great minerality and the right amount of acidity that works so well with many seafood dishes”. We couldn’t help but agree with her as soon as we tasted it. We noticed the lovely texture that made a nice foil for the acidity. “It comes from a bit of lees stirring I do.” (Stirring the spent yeast cells or “lees” adds a bit of body and texture to a wine).
We left her lab and walked next door to the Baer facility. The winery is small, producing only about 3,400 cases per year. Les Baer, Lance’s father, explained that they prefer to keep things small and manageable. “Lance had a vision to produce elegant wines and it was never about trying to become a big producer. We are just trying to honour that vision.” Lance’s memory lives on, not just in the style of wine the winery makes today, but in the conversations that many visitors share about him when they come to taste at the winery. Particularly poignant is a picture in the winery of a handsome Lance with a wide grin next to the pair of boots that he loved to wear. One could not look at that little homage without becoming emotional.
As we tasted through the Baer line up, including some terrific back vintages, we got to hear more of this winery’s story and in particular how they are able to make such delicious wines. Of course, as any really serious student of wine will tell you, great wine has to start with great fruit. We have written many times about how Washington State is now producing wines that compete and stand tall on the global stage. That result can only occur because the state has the climate and soil conditions that will produce world class grapes. Baer sources all of their fruit from one of the top vineyards in the state: Stillwater Creek. Stillwater Creek is found on the Royal Slope, just outside of Royal City in the Frenchman Hills region of Southern Washington. The Royal Slope consists of 154,389 acres of which only about 1,400 acres are under vine. It is currently under application for designation as its own AVA (American Viticultural Area, the US equivalent of Appellation Controlee, or a separate, distinct wine growing region). Only 13 vineyards are presently in the area, but make no mistake about it, this is top quality terroir.
Stoneridge Vineyard, a neighbour on the Royal Slope, provides the fruit for the Charles Smith Royal City Syrah, a wine that since 2006 has earned a score of 98 or 99 from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate in every vintage but one. It also received a 100 point rating from the Wine Enthusiast. Stillwater Creek is a 235 acre site on the Royal Slope that was planted in 2000. It is the creation of Tom Arlberg Sr. who in the 1960s acquired the site and produced mostly orchard fruit off of it. His son, Tom Jr., hired uber winemaker Mike Januik, currently of Januik Winery and formerly of Chateau Ste. Michelle fame, to consult on the planting of the vineyard. The site’s fractured rock provides great drainage and its south facing, steep hillside gives plenty of sun exposure, ideal for fully ripening thicker skinned red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. 20% of the vineyard is planted to Chardonnay, expressed in four different clones. The red varieties mentioned are expressed in 13 different clones. Januik believes that clonal selection can be almost as important as variety selection in properly expressing a site.
The winemaking philosophy at Baer is simple and consistent. First is site: they are buying fruit from one of the top sites in the state and they want to craft wines that let that site shine through. They produce one white wine, the Shard Chardonnay, a 100% varietal wine that is raised solely in stainless steel and cropped at about 5 tons per acre. The reds are all blends and are cropped at a very low 2.1 to 4.3 tons per acre. Elevage for the reds is all in French oak barrels (Demptos, Sylvain, Taransaud, Tonnellerie O, Atelier and Mercurey) of which for most of the blends a third to a half is new.
The fruit from Stillwater Creek is such that the reds will spend 22 months in oak (a comparatively long time) and yet none of the wines we tasted would at all be described as “oaky”. These wines showed only texture from the oak and not flavour, exactly what you want in a premium red wine. This is because of the intensity of the Stillwater Creek fruit. All wines are left to ferment and draw flavour from their skins for 10 to 23 days. Wines are then further aged in bottle before being released into the market. Today you will find in the market reds from Baer from the 2014 vintage, yet from many other producers you will find 2015s and some 2016s. Holding back their wines is another testament to the commitment to quality that Erica and Les have to their wines and to their memory of Lance.
One final word about prices. Even though Baer uses only French oak barrels, much of which are new, and holds back the release of its wines a year longer than many (both of which serve to drive up costs), they have kept the prices of their wines very fair. Given the quality of these wines, each could stand tall against a line up of Washington wines that were a third or more higher in price, or a line up of Napa wines at twice the price.
2017 Orr Old Vines Chenin Blanc
All the grapes are harvested by hand and the fruit is whole cluster pressed. The juice is fermented in old oak barrels and stainless steel drums with native yeasts. This is a wonderfully fresh wine redolent of lemon/lime, honeydew melon and a minerally streak. The body is medium+, very good for a Chenin, and balances perfectly with the juicy acidity.
Excellent $25 at selected Washington restaurants*
*Orr Wines are only currently available through select restaurants in Washington State, Idaho & New York–see the full list here.
2016 Baer Shard Chardonnay
Raised in 100% stainless steel, Erica co-ferments three different Chardonnay clones to create a wine that is very refreshing and quite complex. Granny Smith apples and citrus are delivered in a medium body that shows great balance. Though completely unoaked, this is not the lean and mean style that gained a bit of reactionary popularity a few years ago. There is lots of texture (she stirs the lees here too) which makes a great counter point to the bracing acidity.
Very Good+ (US $25 at their tasting room)
2010 Baer Arctos
From their library, this is a blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc and 12% Merlot. Still inky dark in colour this wine shows plenty of black fruit character: cassis, blackberry and raspberry. Maturity has brought out notes of espresso and spices on the long finish making for a very complete and complex wine.
2009 Baer Star
From their library. 77% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine showed classic Washington Merlot: plum and black cherry with big, ripe tannins on a medium/full body frame. Secondary notes of cocoa powder, mocha, and baking spices give terrific complexity. Very long finish. Drinking these library wines showed just how long Baer wines are capable of ageing. Each of these showed the potential for further development over another 5 to 10 years.
2014 Baer Star
This vintage Star is a blend of 76% Merlot and 24% Cabernet Franc. Again it is classically Merlot from Washington. The black cherry and plum flavours are joined by notes of dried herbs and hints of tobacco leaf. The body is medium and it has a soft roundness to it that is very seductive. Swirling brings out a bit of spicecake. The finish is very long.
Very Good+/Excellent (US$35 at their tasting room)
2014 Baer Ursa
Ursa is usually the star in the Baer lineup and 2014 was no exception. The blend came in at 38% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Franc, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Malbec. Already very complex, we picked up spice cake, mocha and Christmas spices layered on top of the black cherry and plum fruit base. The structure was medium and showed capability of carrying this wine easily into its 15th year.
Excellent (US$43 at their tasting room)
2014 Baer Callisto
Callisto is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Syrah, 15% Petit Verdot and 1% Merlot. The Cab/Syrah blend we think works really well in Washington (DeLille and Charles Smith are two others who also have shown great success with this blend). Black cherry and blackberry dominate the profile of this blend. The structure shows roundness and makes this wine very approachable at an early age. Erica explained that Washington Petit Verdot is not too tannic and that is why she can use so much of it in the blend.
Excellent (US$39 at their tasting room)
Coming in with 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot and 4% Merlot this wine showed size in terms of body and structure, but stayed approachable due to it not having the sharp edges that some bigger, young wines can have. Plenty of black currant flavours with good back end spice notes. This shows lots of potential for cellaring.
Excellent (US $43 at their tasting room)