Virginie Bourgue: A Lullaby from a Globe-Trotting Winemaker
By Christina Kelly, Avalon Senior Editor
Virginie Bourgue is a winemaker's winemaker. With great passion, she creates Washington State wines with a delicate touch and subtle nuance - a glass with seamless heft and flavors that spark conversations.
As owner/winemaker for Walla Walla, Washington's Lullaby Winery, the soft-spoken French native is much like her wines - there is so much more underneath the surface than one could ever imagine - truly delightful discoveries.
Bourgue's Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend, Lalayee, is one of those discoveries, with red berries and currants lingering in the mouth, dusky, savory and hints of much more. Bourgue's wines are full of things to come, not only of her current vintages, but what she can do with grapes in the future. One sip of her wines tells you there is more than meets the eye, and makes Lullaby Winery a standout in a sea of Northwest wineries.
If wine is always evolving in the bottle, Virginie Bourgue is a human wine bottle - ever-changing and transforming, with intensity and contrasts, morphing into something vibrant, something to talk about.
At right, Virginie Bourgue - photo by Tim Kelly
Shaped By Terroir
As a French farmer's granddaughter, Bourgue grew up in the Luberon foothills of Provence, France, and, in the kitchen with her mom and two sisters, creating worldly flavors, smells and gastric wonders using simple ingredients and fresh foods. The family has an olive farm, and Bourgue's passion for food and wine was inevitable, as was her entry into winemaking.
After studying viticulture and enology in Avignon (and a subsequent master's degree in Champagne) Bourgue worked at several well-known Champagne houses before taking an internship at Chateau Ste Michelle Winery in Washington.
"I never intended to stay in the United States," Bourgue said. "My intent was to improve my English during the six-month internship and then return to France and travel the world."
Lalayee is Persian for lullaby, and this wine holds up to its name - it will lull you with a dream of exotic eastern flavors. A blend of Walla Walla Cabernet and Merlot.
Mysterious and enthralling, the nose is savory and dusky - cardomom, saffron, smoky cinnamon, and nutmeg intoxicate the senses as they float over dark fruit. Black plum and cherry flavors are intensified by notes of pomegranate, walnut, fenugreek, saffron, smoke, and dried figs.
Lalayee screams for a fabulous meal - it's like an exotic dancer looking for a place to show her skills. What comes to mind: Duck roasted with figs and walnuts, lamb kebabs spiced with cinnamon, lime, and saffron, couscous with spiced and roasted chicken and dried peach. But the Lalayee will blow your mind with a burger just as well. - Jean
As fate has it, Bourgue ran into a couple of women who were starting their own winery, Annette Bergevin and Amber Lane, in Walla Walla around 2003. Given the opportunity to be a winemaker at start-up Bergevin Lane Winery, Bourgue moved to Walla Walla and launched their wine program.
"It was a great time for all of us to learn," recalled Annette Bergevin. "Virginie was our very first winemaker. We had a lot to learn and Virginie did a nice job for us getting things going."
In 2006, Bourgue started consulting as a winemaker to Cadaretta, and in 2007 decided to launch her own boutique winery, producing just 300 cases. She was hired as winemaker at Cadaretta in 2007 and worked there through the 2009 vintage.
While she exhaustively researched Persian culture to name her Lalayee red wine, her winery's name, Lullaby, came naturally to Virginie.
"Lullaby evokes serenity," Bourgue said, explaining that lullabies are an intimate connection between the singer and the person the song was meant for. "It is soothing, feminine and always something nice. There are lullabies sung in every single culture in the world. I wanted that kind of imagery."
World Traveler, World Tastes
Bourgue recently returned from a three-week backpacking trip to China, where she traveled alone, after visiting a cousin in Beijing. A daunting trip for most people, the 36-year-old quickly learned a few dos and don'ts from her cousin and set off to see that part of the world, eat the local cuisine and sample the wines, mostly made from rice.
This world traveler intends to see every part of the globe and learn more about cultures, food and wine. ("I'll leave Antarctica as the last place I will travel," she added). With each trip, the tastes, aromas, scenery and experiences will be recorded in her mind and incorporated, where possible, in her life.
"Every where I go in the world, I find wines that are well made," she said, adding that one of her favorite trips was to Japan a few years ago, where she said the rigor and precision of Japanese cooks was very impressive.
"Wines with that type of Japanese food have to be pretty complex," she said. "There is no cheating with Japanese food. The wine has to have balance and elements of subtle minerality to work."
Food is as much a part of Bourgue as wine. Both her grandmother and mother were passionate cooks, and her two sisters have a restaurant in Avignon, France, called Le Petit Creux, featuring local fresh produce in traditional regional cuisine. She is working on a side project to provide custom dinners and wine pairings in people's homes once or twice per month.
From Cocoon to Butterfly
Like the butterflies on her wine label, Bourgue is constantly evolving and transforming during different stages of her life. She thought the butterfly fit her personally and what she is doing with the wine.
"There are many symbolic meanings associated with the butterfly," Bourgue says. "Transformation and soul is the most common. It also symbolizes the different steps one goes through within a lifetime. It parallels my life; it parallels winemaking.
"There is a soul in wine," she added. "It is not just a beverage - it is a life product. In the bottle, it is alive and changing."
The petite winemaker says everything in her life has come full-circle, tied into terroir, tastes, evolution and ultimately change for the better. Lullaby's business plan includes growing 1,000 to 2,000 case production during the next few years. Her portfolio includes Laylalee (Persian for lullaby), Viognier and two rosés - Grenache based and Syrah based. A Syrah will be in the offing soon.
Bourgue admits that her wine palate is French-formatted, so her wines are produced in more of an Old World style - some restraint, with intense Washington fruit. When tasting American wines, she finds them stronger and more powerful than European wines. The stronger aromas give more fruit to the nose than she is accustomed to. On the other hand, she says many Americans smell Old World wines and think they are stinky. The French, she says smiling, think stinky is good.
Spreading the Word
Kathy Charlton, owner of Olympic Cellars and Working Girl Wines, hired Bourgue last year as her consulting winemaker when her winemaker of six years, Benoit Murat, returned to France to pursue a master's degree.
"She is amazing, and has an amazing palate," said Charlton. "When she first tasted our Cabernet franc, she closed her eyes and told us it was a wine where she could really taste the terroir and she proceeded to describe it.
"Virginie can tell the story from grapes to bottle and then describe what you have in the glass, and she does it graciously," Charlton said, adding that the winemaker can remember every barrel in the winery.
Charlton said Bourgue will have her stamp on future wines as well.
Intensity is how one could describe Bourgue in the vineyard. Like many in the industry, Bourgue believes wine begins in the vineyard, and she spends many hours hovering over the grapes. Charlton described one day last fall when Bourgue spotted a Syrah grape that was split - just a slit in the grape. She said Bourgue immediately called the vineyard owner and said she wanted the fruit picked immediately. It was a good call, said Charlton.
Bourgue has the X-Factor - that something special to distinguish her from the crowd. In a region where wines can taste very similar to each other, Lullaby wines gently pop in the mouth and signal to the brain that something silky and tantalizing has just coated your mouth.
"This is a way of life for me - renewal all the time," said Bourgue. "It is not just a lullaby. It isn't just a butterfly. It is the way I live, the experiences I have and the stories I will collect and tell."