As the resident winemaker at Long Shadows Vintners, Gilles Nicault nimbly curates a unique collection of Washington wines: the concept being to bring the best winemakers in the world to Washington to make the best wine with Washington grapes. This assignment may be a lofty one but Nicault wears it with capable ease. This is a man who obviously takes great joy from life and the making of wine. His enthusiasm is infectious and it shows in the quality of his own label, Chester-Kidder, as well as those of his partner winemakers - celebrated personalities ranging from Australia's John Duval to Germany's Armin Diel.
Who wouldn't want this guy's job?
When you came to the U.S. what was the hardest thing about that transition?
Besides speaking English? It was probably not eating French bread and cheese for a while! I mean, it was in 1994 and I arrived directly to Yakima. And in 1994 in Yakima there was not much French bread or cheese.
But I loved it right away. That's why I signed up for one year and am still here after 18 years. I just love the Northwest. The people are amazing, I think, but the same time all the wildlife you know - the salmon and all the incredible fishes everywhere, then you go on land and you see like coyote every day! And deer and all those incredible eagles and moose and everything...it is just so rich in nature and the nature itself is so diverse. It has the ocean, the big mountains and then Eastern Washington - which so much warmer, so desert-like...and, with rattlesnakes! It's an incredible place in the world.
I have two kids that were born here now so it's definitely home, you know. But now, look at Walla Walla - I get really good cheese, really good bread, really good everything!
A lot of people would say you have the best job in the world.
In the world? I don't know about that. And as far as a winemaking job, I am still just a winemaker. I do think it would be hard for me to find a more complete job as a winemaker than this since I am able to work with incredible, celebrated vintners from different wine regions around the world. They all come to Washington state, to Walla Walla, and work with me. They give me their vision on how to make wine and they share with me their techniques and practices in the vineyard. So, as far as being a winemaker, yes, I love my job - that's for sure.
Are there other wineries that operate like Long Shadows does?We are a very unique concept - which was established by Allen Shoup in 2003. Allen was the President and CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle for over 20 years, from like 1980 to 2001. There he created this collaboration with Piero Antinori from Italy which became Col Solare, which has been the same kind of partnership as Long Shadows. Allen also created Eroica with Dr. Ernst Loosen from Germany to make Riesling in Washington. So, this idea of collaboration was already established and when Allen retired from Chateau Ste. Michelle he realized he really loved bringing these winemakers with so much knowledge to Washington. It's still kind of a young wine industry and they bring new techniques and a lot of savior faire.
Allen has been thinking this collaborative way for some time. Even before Col Solare, he was a really good friend with Bob Mondavi and when Bob Mondavi and the Rothschild family started Opus One, that kind of a collaboration - with old world winemakers coming to the new world and making better wine with the combined knowledge of a lot of different people. So, anyway, that's when he really started thinking about it.
So Allen established Long Shadows Vintners and it is made of seven collaborations like those. We have Randy Dunn, he is like the God of Napa Valley for 100% Cabernet Sauvignon; Michel Rolland, who has worked for incredible wineries all around the world; John Duval, who has been making Shiraz in Australia's Barossa Valley for something like 37 years; Phillipe Melka and Agustin Huneeus, Sr., both known for Bordeax-style wines; Armin Diehl, who is one of Germany's most prestigious makers of Riesling; Giovanni Folonari from Italy, and myself. So, anyway - Allen really kind of went BIG.
A selection of wines from Long Shadows Vintners
That's a tall order to oversee. So is your day-to-day mostly in the office or are you able to get out and about?
I get out quite a bit. I am the resident winemaker, so am the one here on site, and I get to work really closely with each one of our winemakers. Sometimes I will work more with a guy from Germany to make or blend Riesling - or even just talk about the practices in the vineyard or what not. Then I can be working with Randy Dunn from Napa, or Giovanni Folonari from Italy, or Augustin Huneeus from Chile or whatnot so - it's never exactly the same. I also do quite a bit of marketing so am on the road at the same time. So yeah, I don't have like a daily schedule that's always going to be the same. It's always really diverse - which I like.
How did you get this amazing job?
Well, I came to Washington in 1994, when there were only something like 65 wineries, and everyone was really moving toward quality and I just enjoyed it very much. I was able then to work for Rick Small at Woodward Canyon from 1996-2003 and he tought me a lot about making incredible wine without cutting any corners. I really love trying to make the best wine. Then, once Allen established Long Shadows Vintners in 2003 and offered me the job, I thought, "Wow, this is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me."
Was that a hard decision?
Yeah, it was really hard because Rick Small is the best winemaker - I really respect him for his vision on how to make wine. You know, from the vineyard to the bottle I learned a lot from Rick. When I was in France I went to school for four years for viticulture and winemaking but my actual winemaking career was really here in Washington state and I love it.
But now I have hired Rick's, Jordan, daughter full time here. She works in our lab - so it's kind of like keeping it in the family.
Washington is not all that "old" in wine industry terms but do we have things like "old vines" here?
I still get some grapes that were planted in 1972 - so it's incredible to be buying those - there are three blocks planted the same year I was born. I never was able to find older blocks than that - but somehow they were born the same year as me!
In the late 70's/early 80's they ripped out a lot of the Riesling to plant some Chardonnay. Then they ripped out the Chardonnay in the late 80s to plant some Merlot. Then they ripped out the Merlot in the late 90s to plant more Riesling. So, you know, it kind of went around. But some of the vines are now very mature and you can kind of get some old vine now, which is really great.
At what point are they actually considered old vines?
Um, you know, there is "mature wine" and "old vines" - two different things, I think. if you ask John Duval from Australia, he's going to tell you that 40 years is still not that old. But that's as old as it gets for us. "Old vine" I think is once you start going to 25-30 years you really get the vine with the extensive root system and the bigger trunk that brings the structure to a nice canopy. So, 25 -30 is old enough. In Washington the winters are so harsh that if you go too old it's not necessarily good because the trunks get damaged by the harsh winter. But right now, some of the grapes I get from 20 year-old vines are just incredible.
It's a little bit like humans: when you are very young you are just racing around and running everywhere - it is the same with the vines. Even though they are young and have a small structure, they want to push everything like babies do - they just have so much energy and over do everything and then they are so tired. Then they grow up into teenagers and they are a little stronger and a little more structured. Then they get older and smarter and better. And tire more easily. When they are not running around and screaming all the time you can think about how to restrain how much you produce - concentrate more on quality. With the bigger structure you need more photosynthesis for less grapes so it's kind of more controlled. Less energy, but better quality.
You obviously have a lot going on. Do you ever get overwhelmed?
You know, somehow, I am not just a regular winemaker but the way Allen established this winery makes it easy to focus on the wine. All of the winemakers are actually partners with us - not consultants - so we work on the same thing and we want the same things. Like most wineries have one white, and we have one white. Everyone has a Cabernet, and so do we, and so on. So, we have seven signature wines, which is not very many wines. And for each wine, it's almost easier because the winemaker has 100 percent say on those wines. For example, if I need more details on the Cabernet Sauvignon I just talk to randy Dunn, so it's almost actually easier for me.
At the same time, Allen was able to give me a really great tool - the winery. It's very large, very efficient, and very high-technology. We have some positive displacement pumps - which are very gentle with the wine - we have some wood tanks, we have the hydraulic basket press for Syrah (I use that now for all the reds because it's so gentle). I have all the tools there to produce quality wines. Also, we have a lot of fermenters so I don't need to compromise extraction during harvest. There are three steps for harvest - picking picking the grapes, the extraction and pressing it off. This is when you're going to shape the wine so if you don't have enough tanks and the harvest is going really fast - like in 2009, '10, and '11 the harvest was much faster than usual - and there aren't enough fermenters you would have to rotate it way too often. So, with all of the tanks I have at the winery right now, I don't need to compromise on extraction. And if I want to harvest some grapes, I don't need to press off some grapes to bring in more grapes - I have a lot of flexibility, which is really important.
Inside Long Shadows
And then we have a great team here at the winery - I have an assistant winemaker who really helps me keep everything on track and stay organized and then I have Jordan in the the lab - she takes care of all the quality control - so we have a really great team here, you know. I don't get overwhelmed too much.
Do you spend a lot of time in the vineyards?
Not too much right now but then as bloom comes, I'll go over there to see how much crop we have and if we need to adjust anything. And as the growing season goes, I will go more and more to the vineyard. Obviously, as the grapes ripen I'll be in the vineyard many times a week to follow the ripening, the maturity. I love being in the vineyard, it's really important. You know that's where the quality starts? If you get incredible grapes, you can make *good* wine. It's hard to screw it up. But if you get shitty grapes it's really hard to make good wine so, you don't want to limit yourself with just O.K. grapes - you want to push your chances and get the best grapes you can. If you have the best grapes, then your job gets much easier at the winery - you just have to nurture it along. The vineyard is everything.
Our whole concept is to make wine from top winemakers - and for them to be able to put their name on a Washington state wine it has to be top-notch. For us, we really wanted to invest a lot at the beginning to make sure that we are the best. And this includes the vineyards. We own a benched vineyard on Horse Heaven Hills. It's south facing, the river is at about 300 feet and then the vineyard goes all the way to about 1400 feet, so we have a lot of natural benches. It's just amazing there. But at the same time we are sourcing grapes from different vineyards so I can be very diverse in the allocation of grapes to different winemakers because they all need different terroir.
What do you do in your spare time?I cook for the family and we like to go around and jog a little bit or what not. When we are on vacation we go to Hawaii during Christmas and to France during summer. We have travelled quite a bit and since my wife is also French we have all the family in France so we try to go quite a bit. We don't really speak French too much to our kids and when we do, they reply in English, so they need to learn more!
What really excites you these days?
I think it's all - how you say that again - gastronomic? Like when you go to France or some old world country and usually somehow the wine and the food goes so well together. It's like over the years they grew together and really "match". I think with the quality of food in Washington - we talked about all the fish and the wildlife - and the quality of the wine, the Northwest is going to be a big gastronomy region where all the food and the wine is all kind of one big business.
Is there a certain food and wine pairing you prefer?
Um, yeah... anytime I enjoy it!! So, it's like to me because I do a lot of winemaker dinners for example, quite often we do Chester-Kidder with venison. So, it's always a perfect match. We have used our (Nine Hats) Sangiovese with a lobster bisque and I thought it would be strange but no, it was just incredible together. But most important is that you enjoy it. I can be something simple like our Poet's Leap Riesling with a braised scallop. But also, sometimes it's important just to sit down and drink a glass of wine without even thinking about it.
Do you think there's currently a bias toward red wines in Washington?
Yeah, but I think it's not necessarily having to do with Washington - I think it's a new world thing. Somehow people think red wine is better than white wine. You know people who say, "I don't like Merlot" or "I don't like white wine", they just need to keep trying more and more. And maybe some people think white wine is for wimpy guys? I remember once I was in the vineyard with some people and we came back all sweaty and it was really hot and I made sure I had some Riesling in the fridge - nice and chilled. So I said, "Ah, a refreshing Riesling!" and someone said, "I want red" and I was like, "Ugh! You're all dusty and sweaty and you want some red wine?"
So each wine has a very specific time where it will be perfect and will excel. It's just like with eating and gastronomy - as time goes on, and people try more things, they will discover the whites from Washington and begin to appreciate them. It is a little bit the same with the Rose, but right now some of the Rose's are just amazing, you know? So I think as people get more comfortable drinking the wine they will really open their eyes to these really well-made white whites that are so refreshing and balance out so well all the seafood we have here - like halibut, scallops, salmon, sturgeon and...everything!
Your advice to someone who might not like a certain type of wine is to keep trying - because they might be missing out?
Right! Because it is so diverse. Don't pass on anything or you might miss on something good. But still you have to drink what you want and what makes you happy - but sometimes it is good to be pushed around a little bit. Like, my daughter does not want to eat any veggies but I keep trying until she finds something she likes.
And people like all kinds of things - It's like when there are some people who maybe have a lot of money and they find a wine they really like? So they order maybe a nice bottle of Petrus or something - and then they order coke to go with it. I mean, they should really not do it - but on the other hand, if that's what makes them happy... They probably should buy something much cheaper than that but if it's what you really want, it's what you really want.
Your wife, Marie-Eve, is also a highly respected winemaker. Do you ever find yourself feeling competitive?
Be sure not to back into one of these babies when you're at the Long Shadows tasting room.
Yeah, quite a bit! Like every time we talk about different things! But when it comes to the wine industry, we are more like I team. We are 700-something wineries in Washington so there is some competition but still, you go to say, New York, and I going to want my neighbor to have the best wine possible. He may be considered competition here in Walla Walla but once you're in New York and someone opens a bottle from this neighbor that is crap - people are going to say, "Washington state wine is crap!" So right now it's really important for everyone in Washington not to compete, but to help each other as brothers because we are competing with California and the rest of the world. We are still a young wine industry and we can not wish for a neighbor to have bad wine because that is not going to help us. You have to look at the big picture.
So with my wife, we compete even less and are actually a great team. She is from Burgundy so she really brings more of the balance and the feminine side in the wine. Myself, I more think about the extraction and kind of pushing the wine and little bit more. So, she reminds me of the balance of the wine and I get to push extraction on her a little bit too. We complement each other a lot.
When you go to France to visit do you take wine with you?
Yeah, quite a bit!
And are they impressed with the quality of wine from Washington?
Uh, no. Not at all (laughing). The thing is, all their lives they have drank much more balanced wine with lower alcohol, higher acidity, almost no oak, very fruity - more like a fresh, fruity table wine. And then you bring them a wine that's 15 percent alcohol with a LOT of oak, and a lot of concentration of fruit, and they're going to taste it and it's just going to take their mouth out! It just can be overpowering to their taste. This is why when you take French wine and bring it to the U.S., people sometimes think it's kind of thin tasting and there is no alcohol because those wines are a lot more refined. So, when you think about the first sip, they don't know what to expect. But then they're just like, "Wow! What is this thing? It is just way over the top!" But then they try the wine again and acquire the taste everything is quite amazing and they understand it better. But the first taste is like, "Holy shit!"
Actually, you could do it to yourself. If one day you had the chance to go to France for like three weeks, make sure you take one bottle of heavy, young, new world wine. Then, for three weeks drink just french wine. On your last day there, take a taste of that bottle of American wine and you're going to see what I am talking about!