We first met Erica Orr in 2018 while doing a story on Washington’s Baer Winery located in Woodinville’s warehouse district. She was (and still is) their consulting winemaker and has also consulted for Mark Ryan Winery, Sparkman Cellars, and Guardian Cellars. At the time, she was producing one wine under her own label which was a Chenin Blanc. We tasted the 2017 together with several Baer Wines and the entire lineup was terrific. Her Chenin was a particular standout being such a rare variety found in Washington, and the quality with every one of the wines we tasted was indisputable. We knew immediately that she was a winemaker to watch.
Fast forward 4 years, 3 additional Orr wines, and 1 global pandemic later, and it was time to meet with her again to find out more about Orr Wines.
Erica is easily one of the most unassuming winemakers we have yet to meet particularly given how well respected she is in the industry. Her name has come up multiple times in winemaker interviews whether in California, Oregon or Washington from those who have either worked with her, gone to school with her, or tasted her wines. Each comment without fail has been interwoven with respect.
She’s come by that reputation honestly having earned her winemaking chops working with some of the very best, starting with none other than Cathy Corison, a veritable wine industry icon. It was Corison who provided a life-changing experience before Erica committed to wine school that cemented the pursuit of her new vocation.
Originally from the Bay area, Erica’s interest in wine started when she was living in San Francisco working in a biochemistry lab. She would frequent restaurants in the city and often go to Napa and Sonoma on the weekend with friends. “I was learning more about food and wine and I had a little bit of disposable income for the first time, and this is what I was spending my money on.”
But the ‘real’ story about when she seriously considered working in wine transpired at a local bar, “I was with a friend and we sat down next to Aaron Pott, a winemaker in Napa Valley. He was explaining his job and that he’d just come back from South America, had worked in Bordeaux, had gone through a program at UC Davis…and I just thought that everything he was saying sounded fascinating. I was amazed that his was what he did for work.”
Aaron’s advice to Erica if she was serious about becoming a winemaker was to work in a winery before applying to school. She put together a list of winemakers she’d read about in the San Francisco Chronicle and Wine Spectator and then promptly wrote them each a letter asking if she could observe, volunteer, or help out in any way, to see what it was like to work in a winery.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, “I heard from a lot of people who are very famous now and some of them said ‘my cellar staff is complete, but I’d love to meet you’, or ‘someone helped me when I was starting out’, etc. It was really amazing.”
Erica ended up connecting with Cathy Corison, and even living with her family when she was making wines at Long Meadow Ranch. That was harvest 1998 and Erica promptly applied to UC Davis in 1999.
Erica obtained her Master of Science in Enology from UC Davis in 2003, adding to her Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry from UC Berkeley. She worked for wineries in California (Rudd Estate and Cain), France (Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac) and Australia (Yering Station).
In 2005, she moved north to Woodinville, Washington and set up her own wine consulting business.
The self-proclaimed wine ‘nerd’ is grateful for her suitability to the chemistry side of wine as her consulting provides her with an alternative revenue stream, relieving the pressure to sell every bottle of her 700 cases under the Orr Wines label.
The choice to produce Chenin Blanc out of Washington was a gutsy one given how limited the fruit sources are in the region, “I liked the idea of it [Chenin Blanc] being part of Washington’s history. This is a blend of 3 different vineyards: a 1979 planting, a 1981 planting, and another one planted in the early 1980s. For Washington, that’s quite old and I think that’s a cool story…these heirloom vines that have not yet been torn out, that someone is saving them.”
Deciding to work with Chenin was also strategic in that there’s not a lot of it being produced in Washington. She’s seen a lot of the small wineries in town struggle to sell Chardonnay purely due to competition. “I made Chardonnay myself for 2 years, but that playing field is very crowded.” She then adds in her typically humble way, “I thought if I did a mediocre job making Chenin, I’d be doing pretty good.” As our tasting notes below will substantiate, Erica is doing far better than ‘mediocre’!
When considering what red she would make as a counterpart to the Chenin Blanc, she wasn’t interested in doing a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc but liked the idea of doing a red wine that was French, flexible with food pairings, and didn’t require a lot of ageing before selling or enjoying. She started making Grenache in 2016 because it was both available and she felt she could make that variety in the style that she wanted.
Erica also makes what we think is a variety that Washington does exceptionally well, Merlot. Sadly the “Sideways” effect still rings true almost two decades after the movie became a cult classic, resulting in her new labels displaying ‘red wine’ instead of Merlot, purely to offset the negative marketing effect. Erica’s Merlot not only provides exceptional value, but we would also challenge anyone in a blind tasting to not see it as anything other than a high quality, delicious wine.
More than 20 years since that serendipitous meeting in a San Francisco bar, Erica has put in the work, worked with some of the very best, and been a crucial component in helping several other wineries achieve very high critical acclaim with their wines. We believe that now it’s her time to shine…though she’ll never say that.
2021 Orr Wines Chenin Blanc
It is a shame so little Chenin is made in the Columbia Valley anymore. We say “anymore” because there was a time as the Washington wine scene was just getting started where Chenin Blanc had a significant role. There still remain a few plantings from those old days and fortunately Erica Orr is able to purchase those grapes. These are now “old vines” having been planted in the 1970s and 1980s. What she is able to produce from these low yielding vines is truly delicious! This is a beautifully textured Chenin possessing a medium body and framed with medium+ acidity. Notes of melon, citrus and pear are joined by a lovely mineral note that adds complexity and a counterpoint to the fruit. Clearly a wine made for the table, it was delightful on its own with a freshness and zip that stays on the palate showing great length.
Excellent (USD $25)
2020 Orr Wines Royal Slope Grenache
Notes of cherry, jolly rancher, and peppery garrigue spice meld together in a lovely 100% Grenache from the Royal Slope AVA. The Royal Slope is gaining in reputation, no doubt aided by some high scoring wines made by Charles Smith using Royal Slope fruit. This wine is worlds apart from the Smith style in that Erica is striving for elegance and finesse and Charles pushes the boundaries on ripeness and heft (and most other things too!). Grenache can easily ferment to high alcohols; at 14.6% this actually shows restraint. The wine has terrific balance a long spice-infused finish.
2019 Orr Wines Merlot
A blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is another grape that helped get the Washington wine scene going but falling behind in terms of popularity (relative the increases being made by Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon). But at AdVINEtures we are enthusiastic Merlot fines and we think Washington does the best wine in the New World. And this Merlot is among the top we have tasted from here. Notes of blackberry, blueberry and plum take turns as the dominant flavour as the wine changes and shifts its character from sip to sip. Textured with just enough richness to coat your palate with out becoming too plush. Expertly judged tannin and acidity put a frame around it all and give the wine precision. Hints of mocha and some baking spice are carried by a long finish. Delicious!
Excellent+ (USD $25)
*A word about prices. These wines are a screaming bargain at these prices! Honestly, the quality level of each of these wines stands well with wines at twice these prices. The Chenin is now sold out so get some of the reds while you still can!