Elizabeth Bourcier is but a mere babe in her 20's but in winemaking years, it could be said she's approaching middle age. At just 18 she enrolled in the first class of Walla Walla Community College's Center for Enology & Viticulture and has worked her way into an enviable position as assistant vigneronne at the most cult of "cult" wineries, Cayuse Vineyards. Under the wing of Christophe Baron, whose biodynamic winemaking philosophy, personality and parties are the stuff of legend, Bourcier is helping to craft some of the state's - and country's - most sought after wines. So we wondered - what is it like to work in the scrutinous spotlight of this celebrated a winery? What we found is a cool, quietly fierce, woman dedicated simply to making wine for nothing but the sheer love of it.
Is it true that you got started in the wine business as a teenager?
I did. It's really funny when I think about it now because I was only 18 when I moved to Walla Walla to go to school.
Most people have no idea what they want to do with their lives at that age. When did you know you wanted to be a winemaker?
I knew when I was 17 what I wanted to do. My parents loved drinking wine, they weren't like aficionados or super serious about it, but they'd pull out a bottle at dinner and we'd enjoy it. My family - my last name is Bourcier - we have a winery in the family. It's generations back but there's a Chateau Haut Bourcier in France and so my dad's always been really intrigued by that. When I was 16 my parents took my brother and I to France and we just tasted wine and toured around. I was young, but there it's part of the culture regardless of your age so after that trip I kept asking my dad questions about wine - many of which he didn't know the answer to. So I was like, "Someone's got to know this stuff. There has got to be someone teaching people how to do this." So I did a little research and saw they were starting the wine program at Walla Walla Community College and I just moved out here to do it.
So you were in the first class of Walla Walla Community College's program for enology and viticulture - there was no problem with your age?
Yes. They didn't make a big deal about it. I mean they definitely weren't putting the word out to kids in high school to do this before they were 21 but I think because I came and told them I really wanted to do it, they let me. When you're tasting wine in school you're spitting anyway. But it was really weird - I mean I didn't even know anything about wine at all. I couldn't even have told you what Cabernet Sauvignon was. It was just fascinating and it came easy to me. I've always been so intrigued by the chemistry and science of it - and the art part of it. There are all these different parts to be involved with so to me when I started the opportunities were endless. I'm glad I just went for it and it ended up working out.
It was hard when I first moved here. I packed all my stuff in my Jeep Cherokee, moved in and cried for like three hours thinking, "What am I doing here?" I didn't know anybody and there was no "scene" at all. Even in the program I was so much younger than everyone else - a lot of people in the program were starting second careers, so I was really lucky that Stan Clarke was my teacher. He became my mentor and like a second dad. I would not be here without him. He was an amazing person - one of those people you want to live your life like because he was there to help everyone. He kept me getting out and doing things and I was really lucky to have him. I think a lot of people wouldn't be where they are now without him. He really was an inspiration to so many of us.
And now you focus on enology - which is winemaking - versus viticulture which is grape growing?
Yes. My official title at Cayuse is the assistant vigneronne because in France there's not a "winemaker" - everyone is a vigneron and that's pretty much a person who works in the cellar but also in the vineyards. They don't really use the term "viticulturist" because the trade is usually always to know both. That's something that Christophe has always been adamant about: that we don't always do just one thing and our involvement in the vineyard is so important to making the wine. It makes a lot of sense - you have to have that side of it too to really be in touch with the making of the wine. But I mostly spend my time inside. We also don't call ourselves a winery, but a wine studio. It's not really a place where wine is made, it's more like a studio where we craft wines - where we create art. Christophe likes to keep a lot of the traditions from France like this - the things he's grown up with - they mean a lot.
Cayuse grapes are grown biodynamically. Does biodynamics also affect how you make the wine?
It does. We try our hardest to stick to the biodynamic calendar, which can be hard especially with things like bottling and wine tastings. Sometimes it's hard to carry on what needs to be done daily so you can't always follow a fruit day. Things have to be done and if you wait for that one day of the month, you're never going to get them done. So we try our hardest to follow the calendar inside but there's things like topping wine that we have to do more often than if we waited for a fruit day. So, yes and no. We try our hardest to be aware of it but it's not always possible.
Did you know there's a biodynamic App?
No! What would Rudolf Steiner think? I don't think he'd be very happy with that. That's funny because it's kind of the opposite of what biodynamics is all about.
What's your favorite part of the whole process when you're creating your work?
My favorite part about wine is that it evokes memories through the sense of smell. I can smell a wine and actually be brought back to a place or memory. Maybe it smells like a special food I ate or cooked. Sometimes I think of an actual place I was. I think it is so special that wine has the ability to do this. Once you are in that moment and can make that
connection, it is a very special thing. An example of this is one of my favorite wine experiences: I was drinking a beautiful vintage bottle of champagne and it had this smoky campfire nose to it. I was immediately brought back to camping with my family when I was younger and each time I brought the glass to my nose, I was right there in that moment. I am mesmerized by a wine that can do this.
It seems like the majority of people you've been speaking to really love harvest but I don't know about that! It scares me kind of. When someone says the word I kind of get a chill. Not that I don't enjoy it, but it's just like - it's mentally challenging to me. But I love putting blends together and tasting them, that whole part of it is really interesting to me. How different wines come together and using all of your sense to do it. That's something I really enjoy. And I like this time of year when it's starting to get nice out and things start to grow and you look outside and the vines are growing - it goes really fast. I love Spring and Summer - it's kind of a time to rejuvenate because I don't have as much going on. Everyone hibernates through the Winter and then suddenly in Walla Walla everyone emerges - you now, on that day where it's like, "OK, this is why I live here."
And you play soccer, right?
Yes - Team Hangover! We're supported by the Green Lantern tavern. There are a lot of artists and winemakers on our team - but we are not very good. Most of the other teams are more competitive than we are. We look pretty bad when you see us on the sidelines. Everyone's usually drinking and it's just like, "Oh those people..." It's really fun way to spend a Sunday.
In the whole scheme of things, you've been making wine a long time. Was there a first time where you made a wine and were like, "BAM! I totally nailed this one."
Before Cayuse I worked at quite a few places but usually as an intern, so I never really saw the true development of the wine until I worked here. So definitely being able to work through the whole process and remember tasting those grapes and then to bottle the wine and reminisce about that harvest and being out there - that's pretty special. A particular wine, I don't know if I remember, but I remember that feeling of knowing I'd finally been through the whole process and that was really cool.
I think it's been both difficult and interesting. Christophe definitely is a - I don't like the word "perfectionist" - but he is very detail-oriented and he runs his company in such a particular way, and this is why he's so successful. His plan and his vision is very special. He never lets go of that vision and he never just lets the small things go. It's a different mentality than places I've worked before where it's like, "OK, let's just do it." It's about making as much as you can by a certain time. This is the first place I've been where that's not what it's about. We'll take all day, if we have to, to do it the right way. Everything is slow and everything is done perfectly. So it's a lot of pressure, and I had to learn that. I think in the valley a lot of people have their opinions and a lot of people have a lot of respect for Cayuse, but a lot of people also don't understand it. So there's a lot of pressure just to maintain a level of professionalism, I guess. I mean you can't get too involved in what people say or people's opinions. Christophe has really taught me to just do it for the love of the wine. Because that's what it's all about and I don't think that's something you see a lot of.
I'm kinda like an 8 to 5'er. Except for harvest. I try to maintain that schedule because I work with a crew of about 30 - well, I have 2 people who work directly with me inside the wine studio - but in the vineyard it can be anywhere from 20 to 40 people, so their schedules can be very different and I try to work around those. But I'm a morning person so it's fine. Especially when it's hot - you want to be done early. Harvest, I start at 6.
Have you worked in wine outside of Washington state?
Yes. I've been to Italy twice and I just went to Ensenada, Mexico, and spent some time in the Valle de Guadalupe, the wine valley there. It's a really beautiful place and they're producing some pretty neat wines - Italian varietals like Barbera and Sangiovese, a lot of Merlot, Cab and Syrah. Kind of all over the place. I finished my degree at Cal Poly and worked there a bit. I also worked a harvest in Argentina.
What's been your favorite place so far?
Well, I love Italian wines so for me, that's been my favorite. I would definitely keep going back there. The people...the food...it's just amazing. Like a painted picture with the buildings and everything - it's just perfect. I would love to travel more though. I think it's important for the profession. I spent some time in the Barossa valley of Australia too - I was actually surprised how much I liked it. Especially the food. I thought the food was really amazing.
Really? Australia's not really a country known for its culinary prowess is it?
No. But they just have this great Asian influence to their food that's crazy. At pubs - you know we'll have a burger special, there they have a curry special every night. The food was really local and fresh and the people were amazing, so I really liked it too.
Do you have a favorite meal and wine pairing?
Yes. I love to cook Mediterranean food. Part of my heritage is Lebanese so I grew up with some Lebanese dishes in my family and I love to cook. There are wines in Lebanon but I don't know if that's really what I would pair food with it. But some kind of Lebanese dish - like some lamb with just a beautiful Grenache or something with some Tempranillo maybe?
Is seeing one of your wines on a menu kind of like being in a band and hearing your song on the radio?
I don't see our wines on a lot of menus but I hear people talk about Cayuse all the time. I was at Lark, across from Cafe Presse, in a booth and there were people behind us just talking about Christophe and talking about the wines and I was just like, "This is so weird." I once told someone where I worked and they asked if they could touch me. That was weird.
I guess in a way, if you are a collector of Washington wines, you do represent something everyone wants to get their hands on.
I'm so happy for Christophe that he has this following because it's so well-deserved. The company is unbelievable and we have a waiting list to get the wines. Sometimes I don't tell people that I work there anymore because all they want is for me to help them get on the list. It's crazy, but it's really neat to be a part of that. It blows me away like, "Wow, this is where I work!"
My parents stopped telling people where I work after an incident at this little wine bar in Kirkland they used to frequent. Someone brought up that I worked at Cayuse and this guy was like,"See my wife's shoes? They're Prada. I will give you the shoes on her feet if you can get us on the list." My mom was so freaked out she decided never to say anything again.
As a Seattle native, is there anything you miss about being in the city?
I really miss Seattle. We're just lucky to live in this State and have such quality wines in such close proximity, it's amazing. When I first moved here there was nothing here, so it was really hard being here at 18. But it's turned into this amazing place and I think a lot of it has to do with Seattle's influence as a culinary and musical city. We are starting to get a little more music and concerts here - not that I want it to get "there" but I think it's just great that Seattle also supports our industry so much over here. You go there and see so many wines from Walla Walla and that feels good.
Mostly, I miss music and concerts. I grew up when it was all about the Redmond Firehouse, where all these bands that are now huge used to play, like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, and it amazes me to see where they are now. I saw Death Cab for Cutie play in a senior center once and I got in with a can of food - there were like 30 people there. No other city has the kind of music scene Seattle has. It's changed a lot with not so many little clubs anymore but you can still go to the Tractor - I miss that place a lot. I also really miss swimming in the lake. But, it's not far from here!
What I don't miss is traffic. That's why I'm here - it's too much stress. The turning point for me after I came back from California and was going to try and work in Seattle was realizing I was spending more time in my car than I was with the people I wanted to be with or doing the things I wanted to be doing. That's not why we're here on Earth - to sit in a car and pollute. That's not our purpose - there's so much to do in a day and sitting in traffic is NOT it. Walla Walla gives us complete freedom from things like that - it's a lot healthier for the mind and the body.
Seattle bands need to come to Walla Walla and play some music! It's a small town but people are just as in to food and wine and culture as they are in Seattle. People in Walla Walla really know how to take these small things and create a whole experience out of them. It can't just be all about wine - you have to have stuff other than that, like music. Otherwise, it's no fun.