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Sisters in Vinifera

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Written by
Julie Arnan

Women are often praised for their ability to balance—work, life, family, personal, professional. Over the past few years, as more women than ever are entering the winemaking business, women are starting to balance the male-dominated industry.

They bring passion, talent and steely determination to the craft. Most are drawn to the profession’s unique relationship between science and creativity. And all are producing beautiful Northwest wines.

Marie-Eve Gilla

Growing up on the outskirts of Paris, Marie-Eve Gilla (who goes by Eve) also spent extensive time at her family’s country home in Jura near Burgundy. She loved the countryside, trying her hand with goats and geese as a teen. Her parents enjoyed simple wines including champagne and occasionally older reds. When it came time to declare her major, Gilla chose viticulture and “soaked in the magic of winemaking.” However, in France, it is difficult to secure a field position if your family does not own property, so Gilla followed her love of chemistry into a master’s degree in fermentation science known as a diplôme national d’œnologue. Winemaking fulfills Gilla’s desire to be outdoors in the country during harvest as well as her creativity making wines from the grapes with which she has become intimately acquainted. Since founding Forgeron Cellars in 2001, Gilla has mentored dozens of younger winemakers. 

Reflections magazine: Was there a particular bottle of wine that sealed the deal for you?

Marie-Eve Gilla: The first wine I had that opened my mind was a 1953 Gevrey Chambertin, which I drank in 1988. This was “une grande occasion,” and we all paid special attention to this noble pinot noir as the master of the table decanted the old wine. What blew me away was how alive that wine was—first very faint and restrained, then opening up with incredible beauty and giving me beautiful aromas and flavors. This wine was so classy yet kept changing, and I was totally hypnotized by its evolution.

RM: Tell us about the French perspective on wine.

MEG: The French are very practical about their taste in wine. We do have collectors of the most famous Bordeaux and Burgundies, but most of the French people are just delighted to find wine they like and to share it with friends. They quest to find the hidden gem—the affordable yet tasty and delicious wine that will accompany food with dignity and delight the senses of the buyer and his friends. I believe that generations of tasting and drinking wine have afforded the French a tranquil arrogance regarding their taste, and they do not feel that they should rely on scores or other people’s opinions as much as their American counterparts do. Also, the French drink wine with food while Americans often drink wine by itself.

RM:
What is your go-to bottle of wine?

MEG:
I would have to choose a white Burgundy because chardonnay will truly express itself—whites do not lie as they cannot be hidden behind oak, they are very precise and reflect their maker more than any other grapes, which is very interesting for me.

RM:How has the wine industry evolved for women over the years?

MEG: Being a woman in the industry is a lot easier now. When I went to school (we are talking 25 years ago), it was restricted how many females could be in school. Like in my class, we could not have more than five women and I had to push really hard to be one of them because I wasn’t married and I wasn’t already within the wine business. But now if you go back to the same school, about half the people are women. When I came to Washington in 1992, to my knowledge, there were only five women winemakers out of 70 wineries—very few. So there has been a big change.

RM: How has being a woman in the industry been an advantage?

MEG: I think women are more for balance and complexity and being precise. I don’t know if it’s a female trait, but it seems we are more preoccupied with the “whole,” whereas guys are probably more preoccupied with the “goal” and they just go do it.

RM: How do you feel about being singled out as a “woman winemaker” instead of just “winemaker”?

MEG: I am a woman and a winemaker. That’s just what I am and makes me strong, connected to my wines and aware of everything.

 

Melissa Burr

Melissa Burr’s interest in wine began while she was pursuing a degree in science. When her husband’s family purchased property with a vineyard on it, the whole family jumped on the wine bandwagon. Burr decided to take an internship with a winery in 2001 and loved it. In 2003 she joined Stoller Family Estate, one of the Willamette Valley’s largest vineyard properties. Burr loves the diversity of wines as well as the tightly knit community in Oregon, which she says fosters collaboration and authentically artisan wines (even in large-scale production).

Reflections magazine: Tell us about one of your first wine memories.

Melissa Burr: Delicious (at that moment) Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine in the late 1980s.

RM: Has the wine industry evolved over the years for women?

MB: The Oregon wine industry has grown tremendously in the last decade as has the consumption per person in the United States. Many young women are getting into the industry, and Oregon has a high percentage of female winemakers in comparison to other regions.

RM: What are your feelings about being singled out as a “woman winemaker” instead of just “winemaker”?

MB: It’s something I have gotten used to. Some people are surprised by the fact that women make wine. Some people are also surprised when a high-end wine has a screw-top closure or that Riesling can be dry.

RM: What is your go-to bottle of wine?

MB: Stoller Dundee Hills Chardonnay—it goes with everything and is also lovely on its own. I appreciate aromatic, bright, acid-driven wines in general, and this fits.

 

Jessica Munnell

Jessica Munnell, head winemaker at Mercer Estates in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills, comes by her purple stripes via a green thumb. During her undergraduate horticulture studies at WSU, Munnell took an internship at the WSU research station in Prosser with Dr. Robert Wample, the leading researcher specializing in Washington’s viniferous grape industry. Wample mentored Munnell all the way through a master’s degree in viticulture. Munnell’s first gig was in the vineyards of Chateau Ste. Michelle. Though she loved the vineyards, Munnell felt drawn to the winemaking end of the spectrum and decided to quit her job, hop on a plane to Australia, and train through a vintage at a winery. The experience convinced her to pursue winemaking full-time. Munnell claims it is one of the best decisions she ever made.

Reflections magazine:
Tell us about one of your first wine memories.

Jessica Munnell: Drinking Chateau Ste. Michelle gewürztraminer in

college and thinking I was very fancy and grown-up.

RM: How has the wine industry evolved for women over the years?

JM: Now that there are more avenues for people to study winemaking and viticulture, there are far more women entering the industry than just 10 years ago. It’s a very positive change.

RM: How has being a woman in the industry been an advantage?

JM: I think the advantage is that there aren’t many of us, for now, so that sparks an interest from both consumers and trade. There are restaurants that feature women winemaker–only wine lists. We have people who come visit us simply because they heard the winemaker is female. 

RM: What is exciting about making wine in Washington? 

JM: I think Washington is one of the best places in the world to grow grapes and make wine. The climate, soils and growing season are perfect for growing wine grapes. We are able to produce wines with amazing quality at affordable prices so consumers can actually get their hands on the wines and enjoy them, which is so satisfying. 

RM: What do you love about the community?

JM: The people involved in the Washington wine industry are exactly what first inspired me to continue my education and complete my master’s degree. It is a group of people extremely passionate about their work, who collaborate together, share their discoveries and help one another out.

RM: What vintage are you looking forward to opening?

JM: 2014 was such a phenomenal year. The whites have fantastic aromatics and bright acidity. It will be fun to see how they age. I think the reds will not disappoint, and I look forward to enjoying them. 2014 was a very hot year, so the reds are very fruit-forward with great structure. I think they will be powerful yet balanced.

RM: What is your go-to bottle of wine?

JM: Our Mercer Estates Malbec—it’s my “if you are stranded on a deserted island” wine.

 

Hillary Sjolund

Hillary Sjolund, owner and winemaker at Sonoris Wines, fell headfirst into wine as a freshman in college. A premed major at UC Davis, Sjolund had no idea she was at such a prestigious winemaking school. She simply needed to fill an elective slot in her schedule, thought the Introduction to Winemaking class looked interesting—particularly the tasting component—and a passion was born. At age 20, Sjolund took an internship at Pine Ridge Winery in Napa and stuck around for several vintages. She then won several 90+ scores for vintages during her tenure at DiStefano Winery in Woodinville before branching out on her own in 2011. Sjolund specializes in wines sourced from Red Mountain and loves how winemaking combines her skills in chemistry with creativity. 

RM: How do you feel about being singled out as a “woman winemaker” instead of just “winemaker”?

HS: Honestly, I would rather be rewarded on the merits of my skill rather than the fact that I’m a “woman winemaker.” Winemakers sink their heart and soul into their craft because it’s their passion. We do this because we love it. Otherwise, the work is just too damn hard for anyone, male or female. 

RM: How has being a woman in the industry been an advantage?

HS: It has given me access to certain events and tastings that focus on women, including women chef and winemaker events. The Women Stars of Food and Wine is one of my most favorite events of the year because we are giving value to many great women who have achieved so much. I feel honored and humbled to be included among so much incredible talent.

RM:
Was there a particular bottle of wine that sealed the deal for you?

HS:
After completing my first vintage with Pine Ridge Winery in 2000, we had a holiday party and I was given the opportunity to choose any bottle from the owner’s cellar, blindfolded. I spun around three times, reached out, and my hand landed on a bottle of 1962 Latour. It still tasted incredible. 

RM:What is exciting about making wine in WA? 

HS: We have an amazing natural acidity to our wines here that you don’t see too many places. We are able to grow many varieties of grapes, and we are just scratching the surface of matching clonal varieties to soil types. We have a lot of opportunity here to make world-class wines, and we are doing it. Washington is attracting a lot of attention and talent, and because of that, our industry is gaining knowledge and expertise. Having a new wine science facility at WSU is huge for us. This will expand our research capabilities, as well as providing us with well-trained winemakers for the future. It is
an exciting time to be making wine in Washington in so many ways! 

RM: What is your perspective on mentoring younger winemakers?

HS: I believe you should always pay it forward. I’ve had several mentors, and it made all the difference in my career. Teaching has always been something I have enjoyed, and I was formerly an adjunct professor for an online winemaking program called VESTA. I taught wine chemistry and intermediate production classes to students across the country. I’ve also mentored interns from WSU. It is very rewarding to see them excel and progress into various functions of winemaking. 

RM: What vintage are you looking forward to opening?

HS: The 2013s. Some feel the vintage was too hot, but I think the heat was spread out perfectly. The wines were rich, concentrated, and beautifully balanced going into bottle last summer, and I’m looking forward to pulling them out in a few months. The weather was perfect for cabernet sauvignon. The heat progressed through September, then cooled down, providing the perfect conditions for the extended hang time of cabernet.

 

Anna Schafer

Anna Schaefer may have the title of winemaker at àMaurice Cellars, but there is no doubt it is a family operation. Schaefer’s father, whom she describes as a Francophile, introduced her to wine appreciation at an early age. Though she ultimately studied art history in college, family discussions around the dinner table eventually redirected her into the role of winemaker. “We literally grew the vineyard from the discussions around food and wine,” says Schaefer. “The table drives most of the decisions in my family.” Schaefer constantly hones her craft, studying up on vineyard and soil biology in her spare time. She laughs when people assume winemaking is a romantic endeavor, citing that most of the job entails manual labor. However, she concedes that the magic of the vineyard is getting it to sing. “Grapevines in Washington are so happy, and there is so much energy in the vineyard. It pumps you up for harvest!”

Reflections magazine: How do you feel about being singled out as a “woman winemaker” instead of just “winemaker”?

Anna Schaefer: I think it is weird that anyone would really care. Proof is in the wines, and it shouldn’t matter that I am a woman. Either the wine is good or it isn’t.

RM: What is your perspective on mentoring newer winemakers?

AS: I love talking to fellow winemakers! It is one of the best working communities for mentorship. But I might be a little too real when I describe what it is actually like to be a winemaker—it is not all glitz and glam, if you know what I mean.

RM: What vintage are you looking forward to opening?

AS:: I love the cold years like 2010 and 2011—lower alcohols, higher acids and secondary notes.

RM: What is your go-to bottle of wine?

AS: The àMaurice Cellars 2014 Boushey Marsanne Viognier. My go-to Rhone is the 2007 Fonsalette.

 

Casey Cobble

Casey Cobble was no stranger to the wine-growing regions of Washington, having grown up east of the Cascades. However, it wasn’t until she returned fresh out of college with a degree in psychology that Cobble reoriented toward the wine industry. She was tasting wine with her mother at Michael Florentino Cellars (formerly located in Prosser), and as the winemaker elaborated on his life, Cobble’s fascination was piqued. “It sounded so interesting!” remembers Cobble—a perfect marriage between science, creativity and physical work. Cobble enrolled in the Northwest Wine Academy at South Seattle College. After graduation, she worked as an assistant winemaker at Betz Family Winery, and then moved to head winemaker at Robert Ramsay Cellars in Woodinville. 

Two years ago, Cobble cofounded “Sisters of the Vinifera Revolution”—a play on Daughters of the American Revolution and a sort of support group for women in the wine industry. They share contacts and resources in an effort to lift each other up and promote an alternative to the industry perception of winemakers as “dudes.” That may sound serious—and she would like to take the 30-person group to a more serious level soon—but Cobble is a fun-loving woman and the monthly get-togethers are a good time for all. They rotate hosting at each of their wineries, do specialized tastings and often seek advice on a “problem child”—a wine everyone seems to have that just isn’t coming together.

Reflections magazine: How do you feel about being singled out as a “woman winemaker” instead of just “winemaker”?

Casey Cobble: I get a kick out of surprising people when they find out I’m a winemaker. The more women winemakers in the public eye, the better it will get for everyone. We want our group to be taken seriously as winemakers, not “winemakerettes.” The demographics of the industry in Washington and worldwide are shifting, and women are becoming a larger part of the makeup. We are a significant part of that “next generation,” so we really hope not to portray ourselves as a curiosity or anomaly. 

RM: What vintage are you looking forward to opening?

CC: Everyone was nervous about the amount of heat in 2015, but honestly I’m really excited for that vintage. 

RM: What is your go-to bottle of wine?

CC: I’m a huge fan of sparkling wines.  

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