As with so many industries, the upper echelons of the wine industry were traditionally reserved for men. The past two decades have brought with them significant change, and the world of wine is becoming more inclusive. Washington wine pioneers like Nina Buty, Mary Derby, Eve-Marie Gilla, and Kay Simon have personally witnessed the shift away from male-only wine events, vineyard management, and seminars. Join us in raising a glass to the women who prune, pick, crush, and bottle some of the best wines in the world right here in Washington State.
Even as a child, Marie-Eve Gilla wanted to go into farming. She grew up in Bergerac outside Paris and spent her vacations in the Jura mountains. She worked on farms as a teenager, but farming didn’t quite stick. Once she graduated from high school, she studied viticulture and then got a masters in fermentation science. She loved the chemistry. Educational programs back then had restrictions on how many women they accepted, but Gilla rose above those constraints.
She said, “I love the challenge of uncertainty—that’s why I really love my job.” Gilla also loves the fast pace and dynamic life that connects both a kind of farming with the highstakes outcome of great wine. Her husband is the winemaker at Long Shadows, so theirs is a winemaking family. “I bore very easily, nd I’m a bit ADD, so this suits me perfectly.” With family, a business, harvesting and bottling, it’s difficult to maintain a good balance, but she manages. “It’s hard to keep everything going. The wine comes first, and then everything has to fit around it.” Winemaking is uncompromising, difficult, and not terribly forgiving. The timing of harvesting, crushing, fermenting, testing, and bottling all has to work together.
But Gilla loves orchestrating all those moving parts. “It’s not like gambling, you’re not going to lose. But the potential is so great.” Gilla began her journey in the Pacific Northwest when she moved to Oregon in 1991. She found investors and started a small brand in 1994. She liked having a smaller label, and liked being in charge. “Winemaking is a labor of love. You invest your whole life in it.” Along the way, she mentored young winemakers, particularly women. “I am bringing a girl over from France this year to study with me,” she said. “It’s good for the interns, I believe, and for us it mixes things up a bit by giving us both different influences.” She believes winemaking is easier for young women because of social media. The marketing is more accessible for the marketers and more direct for the consumers. “Winemaking is evolving. Everyone can contribute to the industry.” And while it becomes more democratic, it also becomes less expensive for those wanting to jump in. Equipment-sharing, cooperative farming, and other crowdsourcing partnerships make wine more approachable as a career. But for women like Gilla, it was all self-propelled. Her favorite memory was the first time she tasted a truly great wine in Burgundy. “I went to lunch and three hours later, I could still taste the wine. That was the first time I knew what wine could do.” She credits their site with the success of the wine. Our success is site-specific.” Geology, soil chemistry, microclimates all come into play when cultivating a perfect grape. “We don’t have bad years here—that is the beauty of Washington State. The weather is never too crazy.” In 2012, there was a hail storm that threatened her malbec, but they went ahead and fermented the grapes. “We tested the wine every day. It was great wine. That was a moment when we knew we had something special in the soil.”
The only wine she doesn’t love much anymore is the very wine that got her into the business: Pinot Noir. “I’m not a big fan of Pinot anymore. You’re not sure what you’re buying. Pinot can be the best, or it can be weak.” Among her favorites are Chardonnay, Barbera, and Rosé from Sangiovese. After 15 years, Gilla is rebranding Forgeron, but keeping the Fleur-de-Lis, the symbol of her homeland, France. “It will still look forged out of iron. Forgeron means blacksmith, so it fits.” The symbol is also a sign of the dependable quality and deep tradition that make Forgeron such an incredible wine—and winery.