Marie-Eve Gilla is huge. Her reputation, that is. One of Washington's most recognized female winemakers, Marie-Eve's petite stature belies her larger-than-life wine pedigree, sensibility, and>"/>
Marie-Eve Gilla is huge. Her reputation, that is. One of Washington's most recognized female winemakers, Marie-Eve's petite stature belies her larger-than-life wine pedigree, sensibility, and sense of humor. As part-owner and winemaker at Walla Walla's Forgeron Cellars, Marie-Eve's insight and experience have earned her wines coveted spots on the top of many a wine reviewer and blogger's lists. In Walla Walla "off the beaten path" is a matter of blocks and wine fans who hoof it the extra few to Forgeron Cellars will be richly rewarded with tastes of solid wines hand-forged by this fearless Frenchwoman.
It's definitely not a very womanly occupation, I think. But I think it's also because of the style of this business, which is maybe why there are more men: it's more geared toward maybe pushing people around a bit - not something that women do very well. But also, as far as the style of the wines themselves, I think women are maybe more for balance and complexity and being precise - I don't know if it's a female trait but it seems we are more preoccupied with the "whole" - where guys are probably more preoccupied with the "goal" and they just seem to understand better what it's going to take to get there, and they just go do it. Don't you think? Just like the time when they were the hunters you know?
But it's a lot easier now. When I went to school - we are talking now 25 years ago - it was restricted how many females could be in school. Like in my class, we could not have more than five women and I had to push really hard to be one of them because I wasn't married and I wasn't already within the wine business. But now if you go back to the same school, about half the people are women. When I came to Washington in 1992, to my knowledge, we were only five so we were very few. So there has been a big change.
But now, female winemakers are "all the rage" right?
Sometimes I am blunt, so I hope my comments don't come across wrong, but something that is kind of an issue is if you look at the proportion of women winemakers - I mean we are now about 10 percent of the work force - and if you stop to look a the 100 wines of the year, and other lists, wines made by women do not show up at that percent. It's because, I don't know, somehow those wines fail to get the recognition that others do. I think there is a credibility issue with being a woman and I don't think it's just in winemaking - I just think you're not seen as as credible as a man. Don't you think? Which is odd because half of the people buying wine are women so somewhere there's a little bit of a disconnect.
With so few women in the business when you were getting started, did you tend to stick together or was it hyper-competitive?
I think at the time we stuck together probably more. And now, after we get to a certain age, we stick together more - after I turned 40 I was like "Oh, yeah, it's hard enough". When I can hire a girl I do. Like for harvest, I don't do all girls because it's very physical but you need a bit of both. But I always try to have women to help me out, you know to give them a chance whenever I can because it's important.
As far as sticking together right now, we are all so busy and kind of distracted, just trying to make it work so I don't know that we do very much. My friend Katie Nelson, who works at Ste. Michelle, we were joking that we should just have an all female winery; it would be so different. I think for a woman it's got to be harder to do it. I am lucky because my husband (Gilles Nicault, Director of Winemaking and Viticulture at Long Shadows) is a winemaker too, so I really have an inside view of the way we both operate - but it helps to be two, obviously
Do you find yourself competing at all with your husband Gilles?
We used to compete a lot more I think. But when he was working at Woodward Canyon there was a review that said be careful not to promote someone else's wine - meaning mine - which makes sense because you are in it for you. I mean, I actually had an assistant who had his own winery and it became an issue because he was promoting his own winery too much. But, we don't compete because I have found my strengths and he's found his strengths and we have a very different sense of qualities. I used to feel the competition a lot more and now I really just feel the partnership.
I will take wines home sometimes if I am not sure - especially the reds, but you know with the whites I am still my own crazy white wine person - but with the reds he has a very good understanding. He works with seven different high-end winemakers at Long Shadows and he knows what it takes to be successful. He takes wines home too and if I don't think they're going to work I tell him. Sometimes I feel there might be issues where my co-workers are a little bit scared of me and sometimes don't really express what they really believe because of that, but Gilles and I have no problem doing that to each other. With wine it's just too important to gloss over things because once it's blended and it's in the bottle it's over. You are done.
What are you most excited about in terms of wine these days?
I have really been having fun making the white wines. On the whites we put different winemaking techniques like delaying fermentation, so you have so many more variables to work with. And on the reds we are now bottling the '09s, which was a pretty big winter so that wasn't too difficult, and we'll be bottling some 2010's in the later bottling, which is in August. So, for me, I am excited with it all but especially the whites because it was a kind of odd vintage and it was fun to experiment with it. But I also kind of moved a little bit more toward Red Mountain this year for the Cabs and I feel that's going to be really a bonus. I find a lot of Cabernet are towards Benton City now and a few years ago I found a 40-year-old vineyard, Dionysus, for the Cab which is really good. So we're more focused and I am understanding better what I need to be doing - and it's really cab and chardonnay. It's much easier to make decisions when you really know where you're supposed to go. So after 10 years, with some really good years and some more challenging years, I think it's nice to be able to look back and to say consistently, we have done very well.
There's not very many people interested by white winemaking here. Reds are more masculine, more challenging. Actually, not more challenging - just more serious. At least I think that's how people feel. I have a different vision because working in Burgundy you get some of the best whites in the world and you just understand about persistence and balance and everything that happens when you taste the wines. But maybe you don't get that perspective if you've been born and raised here. After so many years, it's always cool to do something different and learn something new - you know not all the time but sometimes bringing in an outsider is good way to open your eyes - my consultant, he picks my stuff apart and it's hell but it's good because I see how something could be different and just a little bit better.
Washington does have a bit of a red wine bias. What can you say about whites to alleviate that?
You know in France particularly, you have a little bit of white wine at the beginning of a meal and then you switch to a red. I think the whites, they are a lot more refreshing so, especially here when it's 100 degrees in summer, I don't want to drink a big red Bordeaux. I am going to want wine so I am not so thirsty, I want something crisp and refreshing and something to cleanse my palate.
I think maybe people can be a little bit more flexible and open to having it. Try it at the beginning of the meal and with cheese, you know, it's actually better than most reds! I mean you fight the tannins and the acid and the bitterness of red with this really creamy cheese and it's really kind of odd tasting. With the whites it can be more complimentary. I think once you get into that then it flows a lot easier. We always have white wine at the beginning of a meal when we have people over. Sometimes it's champagne and sometimes it's my whites.
When I first came here I think the state was about 60 or 65 percent white and the balance was red and at the time, the wine commission was like no no we need to be like two-thirds red and one-third white so that's part of that shift that you're seeing - the shift that's been happening for 20 years - and now I think it's a little bit of push back and a lot more people are liking whites. I think the problem is with white wine it's a lot harder to hide the flaws and so people are turned off completely if they get a bad white. It's harder to get a nice, fresh balance with a white than to drink an average red, right? But they're out there - you just have to find them, like ours. It's getting better all the time.
When did you decide to become a winemaker?
I was raised near Paris, and born in the Jura - which is close to Burgundy - and all my mother's family lived there. During the school year we were near Paris but we had this country home and I always wanted to be in the country. Early on I worked on a farm with goats and geese and it was really fun but if you're not actually from a farming community and are coming from Paris it's hard to find a school. So, after I did my equivalencies and started general studies I was like, "I am not going to go and get my PhD in something just because." I wanted to do something that I liked, so that's when I went into viticulture. And then from viticulture it was kind of a really, really tough field to find and job, so I went into the winemaking. When you start studying viticulture anyway you're exposed to the wine and understand a lot more and are kind of sucked into the winemaking. And also, I love chemistry - maybe not as much now - but that's really what I liked when I was studying. The chemistry part of winemaking.
So working on the farm when you were younger was part of your inspiration?
Yeah, definitely I always loved to be outdoors. I still get to do that with harvest. I will go usually out to the vineyards in June and July, and of course September, so we can see what's going on and decide when to pick the grapes.
How do you choose your vineyards?
We have vineyards with long term contracts so I have my own rows and my own block so it's really like having a vineyard with a little more flexibility - if there is a bad year it's good because you are a little more spread out. Like last year it froze in Walla Walla, but we were OK because we get grapes from all over. Also, because of my background in viticulture, when I first came here I got to do some vineyard work with some of the growers so I got to know which would fit my very specific needs. And by being more spread out I can satisfy those needs.
When I worked for Gordon Brothers, it was all estate and we made some very good wines but we are also at the mercy of the weather - we froze in 1996 and there were just no grapes. It's tough. Washington is very brutal so flexibility gives you peace of mind. Like for the Chardonnay - that's our biggest program - we have grapes on cooler sides and warmer sides for our Blacksmith label so we have more opportunities to put all the pieces together. It's almost like if you have one kid or if you have three. If you have one kid it's so much stress and when you have more it's easier - you have more options and can be more relaxed. I have two kids so I know this!
Since your kids aren't old enough to drink, do you think they understand what their parents do?
They hear us a lot talking about things and I can see my son is always paying attention to what we say. I have a strong feeling my son will be maybe into cooking or something because he's really got strong sensory attributes - he is very sensitive too. But they like to come to the winery and see the juice and understand the difference between that and the wine and how it gets produced. My daughter came during harvest and she was helping me run brixes on the barrels - she was all proud of herself and very excited so that was very cool.
It is difficult during harvest because we have to work seven days a week without a break. And like now, our busy season is coming up so we have a lot of events out of town and on weekends and it's stressful to not see each other so much. And since our families are in France, we don't have any backup. Like emotional systems. We have a good support system here but still, it's difficult, because it's not their parents. It's getting easier though - and the few times I've taken them to the vineyards they have really enjoyed it. You just can't stay too long because after 10 minutes it can be very boring for a kid.
So your path in American wine started in Oregon - how did you get to Washington?
I went to Yakima first and worked for Covey Run for, I think, six years - you have to remember there were about 80 wineries at the time and so it was very small and Oregon was really small too. Nothing like it is now. And so for me to get employment it had a be a bigger winery because I do have good qualifications and this is why I went to Covey. It got sold and I switched to Hogue - which was also getting bigger and bigger, but kind of in a different way. Then from Hogue I found employment at Gordon Brothers and I was there for six years as well. So, the plan was to come to Walla Walla at some point because in that time I had met my husband who was doing an internship at Sagelands and then found a really good position at Woodward Canyon. So, that was the pull for us. But it was really hard because - when we started this winery, we were number 23 in Walla Walla, now there's like 120 - I couldn't really find anything that was a really good fit. You know, winemakers have really big egos so you have to work with people that can work with you. It took a while, but then I got the opportunity to start Forgeron and invest in this winery. I really like the freedom it has given me.
How have things changed here since you started Forgeron Cellars?
I think growth is good. It is definitely more difficult but we have been around for a while, it has been 11 years now, so we are pretty well established. Where we find it's more difficult is when people come to town, they don't necessarily come here because we are a little bit out of the way. We have the production facility for the wine here so we can't be on Main St. We're looking at opening something maybe closer to downtown to try and get more exposure. Because usually once I can get people to taste the wines, the wines are solid, they're almost sold once people taste them - but you have to get them there to taste! It's also good because now there are more things to do here. You compare it to what it was 15 years ago, before Christophe (Baron, of Cayuse Vineyards) even started Cayuse, we would come and see him and there was nothing - it was totally dead. You'd drive downtown on Sunday and think maybe there was a law that people couldn't walk outside or something because there was just nothing, you know? So it has been good.
Salsa the dog is sitting here with us - what is her story?
I found her in the vineyard when I worked at Gordon Brothers - and I am actually scared of dogs - but she was so nice and very sweet and after a few days I took her home. She is now 13! She's really healthy for a lab. Where there is food, there is Salsa. And now she's getting very demanding as she gets older so she'll say "wooo! wooo!" and you can't ignore her.
Yes, it is French and Swiss - sort of like fondue. Where I am from in the Jura, it's very close to Switzerland. There are the Alps and then Switzerland is on the other side, so lots of skiing and it's really cold, so that's why you get those cheeses which are really healthy food for that land. it is SO good.
Where I am from in the Jura we go even further with the whites and make what's called a Vin Jeune - so it's a yellow wine. It's a grape we don't have here and they ferment and then we leave it in the cask for seven years without topping it. It's really odd, and there's a film that develops on the top, and when it's right it makes it really nutty and like a green walnut-y taste. It's not for everyone - it's kind of like oysters, you have to have a taste for it or work at it but it's just amazing when you do. It's amazing the possibilities of white. All the way from the fresh and crisp to that crazy yellow wine that takes seven years. We French are crazy - we go out and we get grapes after they are fermented and then we put alcohol on them or referment them - we do all kinds of things. Every small region has it's little specialty that it's proud of you know.
So what would you say is this little region of Washington's specialty?
For the wines or for the town? Both? Well, for the town I have been all over eastern Washington and I think it's almost like a little island of culture. Not culture in an uptight way, just culture as in diverse ideas and different people coming from all over the place - artists and students and people really wanting to be here. And the reason why you see so many French people here is because they have done such a good job at keeping the infrastructure so it has a little more of a European feel to it. And for the wine, you know, we are more well known for the big Syrahs like Cayuse and K Vintners so just those big, bold wines. That's why also I have done so well, because we are a little bit different - I mean we can make those big wines but we really like to explore a wide variety of styles.
What do you want people to know about Walla Walla or Washington wine?
It's a short drive!! We do it all the time and you need to start doing it this way! I have friends who come from California and say they eat much better here than there. I think people don't realize all the things we have to offer. It's a bit of a drive but you do it in spring and it's beautiful - I mean with the apple orchards and the cherry orchards and the flowers - it's great. You don't need to fly somewhere goofy to go somewhere great. We have so many good restaurants and everything now which makes it more like a destination. And roundabouts - we have one of those here too though! Though sometimes you do what you're not supposed to do and keep going around with the blinker on. But ours have more gentle curves though - the French ones are not so gentle you know?
The first time I went to Paris I sat in awe at the Arc de Triomphe watching cars navigate that rounadbout - how do they figure that out?
Easy. Half of those people have NOT figured it out.