Marie-Eve Gilla remembers her amazement at the wide-open spaces she saw on her first drive into Yakima Valley, which took place during a thunderstorm, in 1992. When Jürgen Grieb arrived in Mattawa, in 1982, he had never been to a place with so few trees. Renzo Cotarella was not exactly sure what to expect on his first visit to Eastern Washington, in 1995. These are some of the impressions these notable winemakers, who each hail from Europe, had as they came to Washington when the state’s wine industry was still small. And each, in her or his own way, has had a profound influence. I recently spoke to each of these remarkable individuals for an article I wrote for the Washington State Wine Commission’s 2020 tour guide. And I’m using this space to showcase a few more of the insights and perspectives they shared during our conversations.
Born in Burgundy and raised in Paris, Gilla only planned to stay in the United States for one harvest when she took a job at Willamette Valley’s Argyle Winery, in 1991. With a double masters in winemaking and viticulture from the University of Dijon, she says she mostly just wanted to improve her English. But the following year, she found another job, sight-unseen, with Covey Run, then based in Zillah. And the first time she drove into Yakima Valley came amid lightning and pouring rain as she dropped down Hwy. 97 from Goldendale. “Yes, it was a bit shocking,” she says.
Eastern Washington’s wide-open spaces reminded her of the scenery from the old American Westerns she watched growing up in France. Meanwhile, her work with Covey Run led to jobs with Hogue Cellars and Gordon Brothers (now Gordon Estate). Along the way, she met a fellow French ex-pat, Gilles Nicault, whom she would marry in 1999. (Nicault has been director of winemaking and viticulture at Long Shadows since its inception in 2003) Gilla’s stock rose after her 1998 Gordon Brothers Tradition bested prestigious Napa Valley and Bordeaux selections at a blind tasting in San Francisco. And in 2001, she helped launch Forgeron Cellars, as founding winemaker, before joining Valdemar Estates, in 2018.
As she nears 30 years in the Northwest, Gilla considers herself more American than French. Still, her winemaking styles are rooted in old-world sensibilities. By keeping her alcohol levels and oak influences in check, she brings out the complexities in her reds and whites. But she also recognizes the differences between American and European preferences.
“I gravitate to wines with more acid, because I think acidity is the spine of a wine,” she explains. “But it doesn’t matter to me if the wine is 13 percent or 15 percent alcohol, as long as it is complex and balanced. I also think many American people drink wine more like an aperitif, not necessarily with food. That is part of why the high alcohol wines are going to be successful. Because there is less acidity, they are more luscious. So they are going to be good wines to have as an aperitif.”
Grieb, who studied still and sparkling winemaking near his hometown of Trier, Germany, was just 21 when he arrived in Mattawa in 1982 for a job with F.W. Langguth’s winery. The large German producer had had just opened its facility in Washington. And the sage lands were a far cry from the verdant landscapes of Grieb’s hometown, a Spokane-sized city along the Mosel River, about 20 miles from Luxembourg.
“I got there [Mattawa] at like two in the morning, and I was half asleep, so I did not see a lot,” he recounts. “When I woke up the next morning and looked outside, I went, ‘Oh, my God!’ There were no trees, and everything was brown, because it was the middle of summer. But after three of four weeks, I realized that there’s a different beauty here.”
The differences between Old World and New World growing conditions were also dramatic. In Germany, when the sugar levels in riesling reached 16 brix, for example, it was time to pick, he remembers. But Washington’s rieslings reaching this same sugar level still needed time to mature.
“In 1983, I believe there were 24 wineries in Washington, and you actually had to learn what the fruit would give you at these different levels,” he explains. “So we started experimenting with different sugar levels in the same vineyard. We started at 18 brix, then 19 brix and so on to see what flavors we could get. And we decided that 21 to 21-and-a-half brix was perfect.”
Langguth pulled out of Washington after a few years. But Grieb stayed. For about 20 years, he was a winemaker for Coventry Vale, a custom-crush facility that is one of the state’s largest producers. And in 2010, he launched Treveri Cellars, the only Washington winery focusing exclusively on sparkling wine. (Treveri is a variation of the ancient Roman name of Trier.)
Needless to say, these experiences have given Grieb a unique perspective on winemaking in Washington, now home to more than 1,000 wineries. In the early 80s, white wines were far more popular than reds. But today, Washington is better known for cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. This poses unique marketing challenges for Grieb, whose lineup of méthode champenoise wines include sparkling riesling, gewürztraminer and Müller Thurgau.
“When we are out of state and I say I am from Washington and make sparkling wine, people say, ‘Oh, I thought you guys only made reds,’” he says. But they usually come around after they sample his wines. His fans include the culinary team the U.S. State Department, which has served Treveri wines during its annual Fourth of July celebration and on other occasions.
By the time Cotarella first visited Washington in 1995, he and his employers at Tuscany’s Marchesi Antinori winery, whose family ownership dates back to the 14th century, had already established Col Solare, in partnership with Chateau Ste. Michelle. (Piero Antinori had come to Washington to explore winemaking opportunities a few years earlier, upon the recommendation of legendary winemaker and consultant André Tchelistcheff.)
“At that time, there was no Internet,” he says. “It was quite complicated to understand what was happening in these places. And the idea of Washington state always related to Seattle, a cooler area. I was surprised, because I realized that it is a place that is quite arid and a nice place to grow grapes. A lot different than the Old World, but also completely in line with the New World.”
Today, Marchesi Antinori’s holdings include seven wine estates across Italy, as well as wineries and vineyards in Hungary, Romania, Malta, Chile, California and Washington. As chief enologist and CEO, Cotarella oversees the winemaking teams at these locations. This brings him back to Col Solare’s Red Mountain estate two to three times per year. And he likes what he sees in Washington.
“I think in the last 10 or 15 years, the agricultural approach has improved a lot,” he says. “Generally speaking, there is a better understanding of how to grow grapes in order to produce great wine. The canopy management. The density. The clonal selection. The water management, in terms of irrigation. It is all oriented to quality.”
He also sees an industry-wide move, globally, toward wines with more complexity.
“At the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s, most people were trying to produce wine with muscles,” he explains. “Full body. Dark. Black. Ripe. Overripe. Over oaky. Over fruity. Overly alcoholic. Wines with a lot of intensity. A lot of weight. Sometimes too muscular. I think now, in most places, we pay attention to the grace of the wine.”