When Marie-Eve Gilla opened Walla Walla’s Forgeron Cellars with a group of investors in 2001, there were only about 170 wineries in the entire state of Washington. Most produced the same three varietals—cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay—and there was only one real college-level winemaking program—in the country.
What a difference a decade makes. The number of wineries in Washington now exceeds 700. Winemaking institutes are opening up and down the West Coast and elsewhere, and Washington’s vineyards now cultivate more than 30 varietals. These range in quantity from the 5,992 acres of chardonnay grown throughout the Columbia Valley to the roughly five acres of white grenache planted at Boushey Vineyards near Grandview.
This latter varietal seemed to be the apple of Gilla’s eye during a recent informal lunch at Seattle’s 35th Street Bistro as we discussed one of her newest creations, a blend of the white Rhone varietals roussanne, viognier and white grenache called Ambiance. Viognier and roussanne have become widely available throughout the state in recent years, but Gilla says the white grenache virtually fell into her lap in 2009 when a different Boushey client decided that he didn’t need the vintner’s entire supply of the grape. Gilla used it to add food-friendly acidity to the fruity characteristics of its companion varietals when she created the blend. (The 2009 Ambiance was released last January, and a 2010 version is in the works.)
“I snoop around a little bit,” she explained, recounting how she procured her supply of the rare-for-Washington varietal. “I like to know what’s going on, but sometimes, you have to get lucky. You have to be there at the right time—when somebody else decides they don’t want four tons [of a grape varietal], they only want two tons, and you just happen to be there to snatch them.”
The words themselves seem to echo the type of sentiments that you might hear from many of the free-spirited entrepreneurs that make up Washington’s wine industry, but Gilla’s native Burgundian accent give them a unique lilt—just one of her distinguishing features. Gilla studied enology and viticulture at the University of Dijon before an internship at Argyle Winery in Dundee, Ore., brought her out to the States some 20 years ago. The internship led to stints at other Washington wineries before she teamed with investors to open Forgeron, the French word for blacksmith. Her experiences give her a unique perspective on the similarities and differences between Old World and New World winemaking that, I suspect, help her both respect and reign in the intensity of Washington grapes. A consistent feature that I found in the Ambiance and the 2007 Forgeron zinfandel that I also sampled was a level of restraint that allowed me to relish the nuances of each wine’s respective flavor profile.
As Forgeron marks its 10th anniversary, Gilla’s sights seem more focused on the future than on the past. Though the winery’s main focus has long been on chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and zinfandel, she is clearly not one to hesitate when an opportunity arises to add a new varietal or blend to the mix. In addition to bringing new wines such as Ambiance into the Forgeron fold, she launched a second label called Blacksmith last year. Priced for value, the first release, about 196 cases of 2009 pinot noir retailing for $16 a bottle, sold out in about three months, while a 2008 merlot and 2010 chardonnay are coming soon to wine shops across the Northwest (the Blacksmith wines are not available in Forgeron’s downtown Walla Walla winery and tasting room). Gilla is also gearing up to launch an ultra-premium label called Anvil in the months ahead. This label will debut with a 2007 Klipsun merlot and 2008 Klipsun cabernet sauvignon.
When she does reflect upon the past, it only seems to make her bullish about the future—for Forgeron and Washington wines in general. “In Washington, the wine industry is young, and look at what we’ve accomplished. It’s dry. It’s sunny. We don’t have phylloxera. We irrigate and can control the vigor. We can grow anything. If we had a little more focus, it would be good, but right now, we can grow everything from riesling all the way to zinfandel, barbera and tempranillo. It lends itself to grape-growing very well. I think when you look at what the industry has accomplished in the last 25 years, there’s no doubt that it’s going to do even better.”