Women of Washington Wine: Marie-Eve Gilla of Forgeron Cellars

By Kori ~ May 25th, 2009.

Today’s post is part of a series featuring the Women of Washington Wine. In an industry once dominated by men, more and more women are joining the ranks as winery owners, vineyard owners, and winemakers. Being a woman myself, I am fascinated by these women and what they have done and continue to do. Through this series, I hope to introduce you to some of the brightest female faces in the Washington wine industry.

Marie-Eve Gilla of Forgeron CellarsMarie-Eve Gilla, part owner and winemaker for Forgeron Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington, was born in Paris, France. She earned her Master’s Degree in enology and viticulture at the University of Dijon, also receiving practical training in the wineries and vineyards of Burgundy. In 1991, she traveled to the United States to further her winemaking experience. Realizing the incredible potential of the wine industry in the Pacific Northwest, she stayed, helped found Forgeron Cellars in 2001, and became a U.S. citizen in 2004. Marie-Eve is married to Gilles Nicault, the director of winemaking and viticulture at Long Shadows.

Marie-Eve was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for me and our Wine Peeps readers.

Highlights from Q&A with Marie-Eve Gilla:

How did you first get involved in the wine business?
Although I grew up near Paris, I always wanted to work on a farm as I would go back on vacation near Burgundy and really enjoyed the lifestyle and the feel of the country. I first learned to grow grapes and got a bachelor in viticulture but getting employment in that field 20 years ago was no walk in the park! So I branched out and got a master in fermentation science and some practical experience at local wineries in Burgundy. I then travelled to Oregon to gain additional practical experience and better skills in the English language.

What were the steps that led to where you are now?
Employment was not very good at the time in Oregon where I worked for Argyle. There were very little opportunities overall, even less for a young French woman! I moved to Washington State after a year (1992) and worked for Covey Run and then Hogue before starting with Gordon Brothers in 1996. I then got more well-known and was able to become a part owner and manager at Forgeron Cellars.

Has being a woman been an advantage or a disadvantage in your wine journey? Please explain.
It was hard at first because I was not as strong physically which makes it hard to secure employment in a small Burgundian winery. They do not have forklifts there and barrels are sometimes stacked four high, at 120 lbs per empty barrel and 650 lbs for a full one; it takes pure strength. I lifted my share of barrels through my life but I really understand why small wineries, where the winemaker does it all, would not employ females. It is easier now to be a female, there are so many of us in the field. It seems even an advantage for PR to be a female! Another example is style, wines crafted by women are more balanced and refined and half the population is female so there is a great demand and following for our wines.

Marie-Eve pouring barrel samplesDo you believe a woman has certain built-in traits than can make her a better winemaker than a man? If so, please explain.
Not better, just different. I believe that because traditionally women do not have to be the bread winner, they are not so driven by success and fame and will not give up their style to pursue something they do not believe in. Women also favor balance so they are less likely to go with the most extracted, most alcoholic, most oaky wines that usually garner more favor. I also believe that men are at an advantage during the 7 days workweeks of harvest in September or October or other marketing/PR times because they do not feel as guilty about abandoning their family. Also, women do not seem so worried about numbers (whether ratings from writers or extensive analysis from laboratories) as long as the wine is achieving their goal.

Are there more opportunities available to women today in the wine business than when you started?
Yes, there are more of us now so we are better accepted. When I went to school in Dijon, they would not allow more than 5 females out of 32 students, I had to push really hard to get in because I had no family in the business. Enrollment is equal now.

What advice do you have for a woman wanting to get involved in the wine business today?
Think about it, it becomes very difficult during harvest if you have children. Also, to be successful, you need a lot of perseverance and you have to like the challenge and want to win; this industry has become extremely competitive lately.

What are your thoughts about the Washington wine industry, in general?
It’s growing, it’s exciting. I’ve seen it almost in its infancy back in 1992. The best vineyard sites have yet to be discovered, wine growers are getting better and better and they will lead the industry to its full potential in the coming years.

In recent years the Washington wine industry has grown at a rapid rate. Do you expect that trend to continue?
I expect the wine industry growth to keep going but at a slower rate. There are many consolidations happening behind the scenes and wineries changing hands currently.

What is your vision for the future of Forgeron Cellars?
My vision is ever changing but my focus is to make the best white wines in Washington State. As we get more known and people appreciate the aging potential and complexity of our reds, we are also developing a very loyal customer base for our reds. We are a small winery and can afford to have our own style as long as we stay focused and consistent.

Many thanks to Marie-Eve for sharing her story and thoughts with us. I wish her all the best and will be following her work and wines with great interest, and I hope that you will too.

(Photos from Forgeron Cellars)

Filed under: American Wine, Interview, Washington State Wine, Women of Washington Wine

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