IN RETROSPECT, says Audra Lawlor, “It wasn’t the smartest idea to start a jam business in the middle of the Salish Sea, but I get to live here.”
“Here” is Orcas Island, where the Vancouver, Washington, native started her company, Girl Meets Dirt, seven years ago. What began as a one-woman cottage business now employs 19 people. Customers visiting the shop and tasting room on Enchanted Forest Road in Eastsound can peer through windowed doors into the kitchen and warehouse beyond. There, workers pit, peel and zest fruit that will simmer in a row of Mauviel copper pots set over gas burners, while others fill, label and pack jars and bottles. The space was expanded to 3,200 square feet just before the pandemic shutdown in 2020, but it’s bustling now and packed nearly to the exposed rafters with product and processing equipment, including a mill and a bladder press that will rev into action this fall, when Girl Meets Dirt makes its first “fruit pét-nat,” a sparkling wine fermented in the pétillant naturel style.
Best known for their small-batch, mostly single-varietal fruit preserves, nearly two dozen in all, Girl Meets Dirt also makes eight shrubs and three “tree bitters,” both byproducts of the jam-making process. Excess juice goes into the shrubs, vinegar-based fruit syrups used to flavor cocktails or sparkling water. Bitters, their first “true full-circle product,” allow them to wring every bit of flavor from their waste. Plum and peach pits, and the pips and stems of apples and pears, along with locally foraged ingredients like dandelion and tree bark, steep in a base of apple brandy from Orcas Island Distillery. This year, their Plum Tree Bitters snagged the company’s seventh Good Food Award, an annual competition that recognizes outstanding American craft food producers.
The common thread among all Girl Meets Dirt products is a sense of place: the San Juan Archipelago, and especially Orcas Island, where Lawlor and her Dublin-born husband, Gerry, were married, and where they intentionally chose to settle when they cashed in their chips after roughly a decade on Wall Street.
Lawlor grew up in a boating family and knew the San Juan Islands well, or at least she knew their harbors. Until she moved to Orcas, she’d never been to Eastsound. She had become a successful — though she says “accidental” — investment banker, with an economics degree from Seattle University and an M.S. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia. But city life had started wearing thin. She yearned for a different path than making partner and moving to the suburbs to raise a family. She also wanted to move back West. The couple considered relocating to San Francisco but felt they’d just be “sucked into their old careers.” A move to Seattle or Portland would mean reinventing their careers completely. In that case, they thought, “Why not go where we really want to go?”
By February 2011, four months after making the decision to move to Orcas, they were unpacking boxes at their newly purchased, 5-acre “farmette.” The goal was to start a business and a family. The first proved easier to accomplish than the second. Girl Meet Dirt got off the ground a year before their son, Life, was born, after five miscarriages.
To handle the devastating string of losses, Lawlor sought “grounding.” She spent her first two years on Orcas teaching herself how to grow things, starting everything from seed, reminding herself how food was made. She watched the island’s century-old orchards bloom and bear fruit. A single shiro plum tree on their property yielded 100 pounds of fruit. “That’s a lot of pies,” she thought. Instead, she got busy making jam on her kitchen stove.
It’s laborious work, especially when it is all done by hand, which is the way they still do it here. In September and October, the peeling, pitting, zesting, crushing and cooking intensify as plums, apples, pears and quince come in, not to mention the Amish paste tomatoes and the Czech black peppers that local farmer John Stewart grows for their Tomato Jam and Hot Damn Pepper Jam, two products that are rare departures from orchard fruit. People were asking for a pepper jam, and Lawlor found a way to “put the GMD stamp on it” by mixing in heritage apples and quince, which help the jam set, because they don’t add pectin to any of their preserves.
Sweet and tart, with a definite kick, Hot Damn Pepper Jam is an all-around great condiment, as good an escort for cheese as it is for a plump, grilled pork chop. It has proved so popular, they can’t make enough of it. Orcas simply can’t grow enough peppers, Lawlor says, for them to scale up the recipe to meet demand, so this year Caruso Farms in Snohomish and Boldly Grown Farm in the Skagit Valley are growing peppers for them, too. Lawlor started out determined to source fruit only from the San Juans, but as the company has grown, that’s not always feasible. When they do source fruit off-island, they don’t go far. This year, cherries for their new Cherry Fig Leaf preserves came from Smallwood Farms in Okanogan, but the fig leaves were harvested on Orcas.
Lawlor’s first allegiance is to Orcas Island’s heritage orchards. She established a stewardship program to help preserve their legacy, which goes back more than 135 years, to when the San Juans were Washington’s fruit basket. Among the “old dames” are 13 Gravenstein apple trees. Lawlor plans to start with those for her first experiment in winemaking.
She says her core plan is to try both “method ancestral” (barrel fermentation, then transferred to bottles before initial fermentation is complete; the classic pét-nat style) and “method traditional” (barrel fermentation, then tirage with sugar, honey or more juice for a second fermentation, a la Champagne). At least one of the blends will combine all the old orchard fruits — Gravensteins, Bartlett pears, Italian plums — into a single wine that will be “a real expression of the island’s terroir and the orchards’ history.”
Making wine is the company’s first real foray into fermentation. Their shrubs do a kind of ferment, despite the raw vinegar and mother, if there’s enough sugar in the fruit juice, because the shrubs age at room temperature. That’s what started them thinking about wine. “One of the biggest constraints to our growth is the need for cold storage and freezer storage,” Lawlor says. “The more things I can do at room temperature helps. Natural fermentation fits the bill.”
Their goal is to have it be completely natural, with nothing added. “The cool thing about a truly natural wine,” she says, “is that when you open them, they continue to change and might actually get better after a few days in the fridge.” They hope to produce 250 to 500 cases the first year, all of which will likely be sold to customers on Orcas, through the retail shop, the farmers market and the expanding restaurant scene.
The fact that winemaking is totally new to her and has a lot of variables she can’t control does not worry Lawlor, who says, “I didn’t know anything about jam-making either.” It might be that two more miscarriages after the birth of her second child, daughter Neve, spurred the need for a new project. What excites her about winemaking is the idea of creating a living product. She’s confident in her ability to master things, in her “very skilled, all-female leadership team” at Girl Meets Dirt and in “a great community of people who will support me, answer questions and help me get things right.”