"Marie-Eve found French husband,
job in Washington State"
By Christina Kelly
In 1991, Marie-Eve Gilla came to the United States from France to work in an Oregon winery for a few months as an intern.
She did not plan to stay long, but 12 years later, Gilla is still in the Northwest, introducing wines from Forgeron, a new Walla Walla, WA winery.
The opportunities for winemakers in Washington and Oregon were too good to pass up for a young winemaker looking to make a mark in the industry.
"There are more opportunities here than in France," said Gilla, 36. "Every time I was getting ready to head back home, a great professional opportunity would present itself, so I stayed."
She isn't alone. A number of European winemakers are migrating to the Northwest in search of the opportunity to combine skills learned in Europe, with New World methods. They also face fewer restrictions on wine production.
That includes Christophe Baron, a native of the Marne Valley in France and owner of Walla Walla's Cayuse Vineyards, who has expressed frustration from the restrictions and bureaucracy in his native country.
"There are agencies (in France) dictating which grape variety to grow where, the yield, pruning system and so on," Gilla said. "Those agencies were very useful when they were first formed.
"Unfortunately, things seemed to freeze from then on and the goal is not to improve quality anymore but to make sure the practices remain the same forever."
Gilla worked a year at Argyle winery in Dundee OR, making Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sparkling wines. She also assisted small wineries such as Adelsheim and Amity with bottling and other projects.
In 1992, Gilla moved north to Covey Run in Eastern Washington to work the harvest and spent the next four years producing wine. Ironically, she met her husband, French-born Gilles Nicault, (now winemaker at Woodward Canyon), in the tiny town of Zilah, WA, with a population at the time of less than 2,000 people.
"We've joked about it," Gilla said. "In France, we probably would not have met. So, we go to the United States, work in this very small town, and meet. It is quite the coincidence."
Award-winning wines at Gordon Brothers fetched notice for Gilla. She spent four years producing consistently balanced, complex and elegant wines for the Pasco winery. Prior to Marie-Eve, Jeff and Bill Gordon were never able to hold on such consistency.
Next Stop, Forgeron
In the summer of 2000, the petite, almost elfish Gilla struck out on her own, with a group of investors (mostly from the Walla Walla Valley) to create Forgeron, a boutique winery producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and a little Zinfandel. Forgeron is the French word for "blacksmith." The winery is located in a renovated, turn-of-the-century blacksmith shop.
Gilla believes that crafting wines of distinction will showcase vineyards where the grapes are grown. She produces one blend of different varieties from various vineyards—the flagship of the winery. When the fruit allows, she will produce single-vineyard varieties and a varietal blend, with emphasis on complexity, fruit and oak integration.
Even the best winemaker cannot make great wine from poor fruit. Gilla said some sites are perfect, but for reasons such as hail, water restrictions and herbicide drifts, will never produce high quality grapes.
With a Master's degree in fermentation science, Gilla said she does not rely heavily on high fermenting temperatures and heavy toast for the aging process in her wines. The result is the wines may not taste bold and big when they are young, but with barrel aging, are allowed to fully develop.
"I like more elegance in my wines," Gilla said. "I will be on the side of more fruit and less oak with a long finish."
Forgeron showcases fruit from some of the best vineyards in Eastern Washington, including Klipsun, Dubrul, Pepper Bridge, Sundance, Kiona, Cougar Hill and Boushey. Gilla has recently purchased grapes from a new vineyard, Les Collines, at the foothills of the Blue Mountains in Walla Walla.
Forgeron producea a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah. A limited amount of Zinfandel will be sold at the winery only.
With 4 percent Merlot, the Cabernet is a dark ruby color with nutmeg, brown spice and vanilla on the nose. It has plenty of dark fruit on the palate, most notably black cherry and red currants. In a recent tasting, the Cabernet had spice, a little cedar and pepper in the finish. This wine is drinkable now, but would benefit even more so with a year in the cellar.
The Columbia Valley Syrah appears nearly black and inky in the glass. The nose has blueberry and currant aromas, followed by a hint of cinnamon and a floral scent—could it be lilac blossoms? It has a little barnyard aroma, which is typical of Boushey fruit—lots of heat in that vineyard, but it integrates well in the Syrah.
The wine is young and tight, but very quaffable now and even better in six to 12 months. This is a blueberry Syrah—loads of thick blueberry flavors on the palate.
Gilla has a Chardonnay hidden at Forgeron, ready to be released on a very limited basis at the end of August. She made Chardonnay for Gordon Brothers that was delightful, refreshing and definitely not over-oaked. It illustrated her skill to produce that particular varietal with restraint and balance.
"Nobody wants to make a Chardonnay anymore, but I think it is the one grape that really shows the place of origin very well," Gilla said. "I think this one will be gone quickly."
In addition, Gilla has a Bordeaux-style blend in the barrel and will probably be available in the summer of 2004. She produced a red table wine with her extra fruit that will be released by the end of this summer.
Co-Winemakers Raising a Family
Marie-Eve and her husband Gilles live the two-winery family in relative harmony. Gilles Nicault says his wife is a wonderful winemaker who really works with the fruit from various vineyards.
"Although I think we are pretty similar in our tastes, Marie-Eve is very focused on what she produces and what she works with," Nicault said. "Where I work (Woodward Canyon), we try a lot of things. It is why we have so many varietals.
"With Marie-Eve, she stays very focused on what she produces."
Marie-Eve says her husband Gilles likes a little harder and a tiny bit harsher wines than she prefers, but she respects his opinion. She equates it to the masculine and feminine aspects of winemaking.
"We don't make the same wines, so no matter where we are, the wines would be different," said Marie-Eve. "Gilles makes his wines just a little more extracted. I respect his opinion, especially when we do blind tastings."
The couple had a new addition to their family last year, Olivier, who is now 10-months-old and keeping his parents hopping. Although Marie-Eve hasn't figured out yet how she will handle the long hours of harvest this fall at Forgeron, with her husband working harvest at Woodward Canyon, she knows many other Walla Walla winemaker families are in the same boat.
"Maybe we'll start a daycare for harvest babies," she laughed.