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Marie-Eve Interviewed for EnoBytes.com "Women in Wine" Series

"My training in Burgundy has prepared me to deal with the unique growing conditions of the Columbia Valley... a firm believer that great wines are made in the vineyard..." - Marie-Eve Gilla

Pamela Heiligenthal, Enobytes.com, March 9, 2015




Women in Wine: Interview with Marie-Eve Gilla

Posted 09 March 2015.

Marie-Eve Gilla, Forgeron Cellars: A French Farmer in Downtown Walla Walla

Born and raised in Paris, Marie-Eve Gilla always wanted to be a farmer.  She came to the United States in 1991, after completing her Diplome National d’Oenologie (Masters) from the University of Dijon. 

Marie-Eve had already gained national recognition for her Bordeaux-blends prior to moving to Walla Walla in 2001 to become Founding Winemaker and part-owner of Forgeron Cellars.

Marie-Eve keeps a close eye on weather patterns and temperatures, just like all farmers do.  “My training in Burgundy has prepared me to deal with the unique growing conditions of the Columbia Valley, such as 2011’s cool and wet ripening season. “ A firm believer that great wines are made in the vineyard, Marie-Eve spends hours visiting sites around the State, checking on each growers fruit like it was her own.  “If you know what’s going on in the vineyard, you will know what to expect at harvest,” she says.  Marie-Eve especially likes the fruit that comes from older vineyards– there’s that farmer mentality coming out again.  Or maybe it’s more like Farmer/Mad Scientist, judging from the 10-years worth of harvest and production spread sheets piled on the conference table.

As winemaker at Forgeron Cellars, a full-production facility located at 3rd & Birch in downtown Walla Walla, Marie-Eve started this interview by saying she always wanted to be a farmer, and somehow, she has managed to do just that in Walla Walla.

Did the first bottle of wine you made match your expectations? I started slow, first harvest worker then cellar master, assistant winemaker and finally winemaker. Technically, the first vintage of wine I was responsible for making with my hands from start to finish was 1998 and one of these wines was my 1998 Gordon Brothers Tradition which won National Recognition from the press in a blind tasting in San Francisco against other WA wines, CA and French wines. So yes, my first wines matched my expectations and it was great to gather such recognition for my work (I’d been working in the NW since 1991 at various wineries).

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in winemaking since you started in the industry? Extreme growth in the number of wineries, challenging economy and a couple of unusual vintages have all been quite challenging the last 10 years.

Growth: There were around 80 wineries when I came in 91 in WA State, and now around 700, or is it 800? Lots of these wineries do not have their own production facility and are owned by savvy business people who contract the making of their wines and devote their time to marketing. These owners have been successful in sales and promotion in other activities and are marketing their products very well. This trend has affected many small brick and mortar family wineries where winemaking is an art and an expression and selling is not at the forefront of the business. These traditional wineries have to adapt or die.

Economy: most businesses in America and the world have suffered the last couple of years but things are looking up now!

Unusual vintages: cooler vintages in 2010 and 2011 have kept Washingtonian winemakers on their toes! However unusual these years have been, they are still a far cry from the challenges I used to face in burgundy so this is more a welcome diversion for me.

Where do you think the Washington wine industry will be 10 years from now? The best is yet to come! As we discover new sites and focus on the symbiosis between terroirs and varietals, we are getting better at matching the best conditions to obtain better grapes. We are shifting from an orchard derived viticulture to a knowledge based viticulture with over 20 years of active viticultural experience. We are getting a better understanding of air drainage, average daily temperatures, soil drainage… for each site. We are following in the path of established viticultural regions which will lead to an even brighter future. Also compounding these benefits is the fact that our vines are getting older and there is nothing more exciting than a thirty years old vineyard established in the proper site and self regulating to produce the best grapes a winemaker can dream of!

Is winemaking an art or a science? Or both? If you ask a winemaker who did not go to winemaking school, they’ll tell you it’s an art. Woodward Canyon, Leonetti and many others were very successful without schooling. These days with increased competition, I believe that both art and science are needed to establish a consistent style and understand how to achieve and maintain that style.

Do you have any favorite food pairings to go with your Barbera, Petit Verdot and Roussanne?

Barbera: Salmon with a Barbera reduction cream sauce and also pork loin or grilled sausage

Petit Verdot: Peppercorn steak

Roussanne: Nothing for me but if I must Dungeness crab or crab salad.

You source grapes from a number of different locations including Yakima, Columbia and Walla-Walla. What does each vineyard bring to your blending regimen? I studied viticulture prior to winemaking so vineyards are like a religion to me. Each site has its own character, Yakima Valley is cooler and I love it for my whites and my Syrahs, and I can fin older, established vineyards there. The Walhuke slope has both very hot (Stonetree) and cooler vineyards (Weinbau) and it gives me beautiful masculine reds and generous whites. Alder Ridge on Horse Heaven Hills has the potential to ripen Zinfandel which is very special. Finally, Walla Walla is still getting established and I find newer vineyards there that show incredible potential, the area gets more precipitations and the growing season seems condensed, so the fruit is bigger and softer.  Having different growing conditions allows me to consistently make complex and generous wines whether we are facing an extremely hot or cold vintage by blending the sites that did best for the vintage.

What advice do you have for a woman wanting to get involved in the wine business today? It is still a men’s world, not because women are less skilled, but because the demands for marketing and travelling are so extensive. Know before you get involved that it will be an ongoing choice between staying close to your family or garnering success, recognition and exposure by travelling and showing the wares of your art.

What’s your favorite grape to work with and why? Chardonnay because it can produce the best wines (Burgundy) but does not receive the care, attention and love it deserves in other growing areas.  Additionally, whites do not lie as they cannot be hidden behind oak, they are very precise and reflect their maker more than any other grapes.

If you had the opportunity to work in another wine region, which one would it be? A cool region where I could make beautiful and racy whites as well as well as cerebral reds, how about Burgundy? But then I’d miss the plentitude of WA state opportunities. 

What else can you tell me about yourself? I am scared of dogs but still rescued a beautiful black lab when I worked at Gordon Brothers as she was so desperate and mellow. She has been an incredible companion, taught me about fear, happiness, and everything in between. I love horses and horseback riding although I always struggle with balance and staying in rhythm.

Pamela Heiligenthal, Enobytes.com, March 9, 2015