Elizabeth Bourcier is a superstar wine producer to watch. For those who have not had the chance to sample her 2012 La Rata, a stunning blend of Grenache (60%) and Cabernet (40%) from the stony Cayuse vineyards, the wine is a spellbinding and memorable experience that is not to be missed. Elizabeth began her winemaking career at the age of 18, studying at Walla Walla Community College's Center for Enology & Viticulture. Following graduation she finished her degree in Viticulture in California, worked harvest in the U.S. as well as abroad and was hired by Christophe as a lab tech in 2008. Since then she has taken on the role of Assistant Vigneronne. At a recent visit to Cayuse, I had the chance to sit down with Elizabeth. She talked about her background in wine and how she was introduced to Christophe Baron, the pioneer of the Walla Walla Rocks region. I found Elizabeth to be incredibly humble and articulate as she talked about her successes with La Rata and Cayuse wines. I think you will very much enjoy learning more about her story. Here is my interview with Elizabeth Bourcier, Assistant Vigneronne of Cayuse.
WWB: Can you talk about your winemaking experience prior to coming to Cayuse?
EB: I grew up in the Seattle area and in high school I was trying to decide what I was going to do. My family has generations back a winery in Bordeaux, in the Cote de Blaye. My dad has been in touch with the winery and the owners there so I maybe wine has been in our blood?! I grew up with parents that love wine and we had wine with dinner each night. I was always learning about wine and asking my parents about wine. Eventually my dad couldn’t answer all of my questions. I was so intrigued with the world of wine. They had brought me to France when I was young and I can still remember the vineyards there. As I was growing up I became more and more interested in studying wine. I learned about the program here at Walla Walla Community College. Myles Anderson was a teacher there and was starting the program there. I came out here when I was 18 and met with Myles. They didn’t have the facility set up yet but I graduated from high school wanted to move to Walla Walla to study wine. I wasn’t even old enough to drink wine legally. Honestly at that point I didn’t know much about wine. I couldn’t have told you what Cabernet Sauvignon was but I had the thirst to learn more about it.
This was in 2002 and jot a lot was going on in the valley and vineyards are kind of just starting to develop. Walla Walla Community College was the perfect fit for me. I graduated from college and then studied at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and completed my degree in viticulture. I worked a harvest in Paso Robles at a winery called Summerwood. I had also been working at Bonny Doon in the tasting room on weekends during school and that was a great experience. Bonny Doon was producing many different kinds of wines and I learned a lot working there. I also wanted to have a different kind of experience so I worked a season in Argentina. I was in Mendoza, working at a small, custom crush facility. They have actually closed their doors but at the time had their own label. I was fortunate enough to be in South America for six months just traveling and learning about wine. I was able to visit Chile as well and learned there but mostly I had a lot of time in Mendoza. Being there was a great learning experience and I was able to see some different farming methods, which gave me some good exposure. International wine experience is good for anyone, I think. It is hard there because of their relationship to the Andes Mountains which makes growing grapes tough. They have a lot of vineyard issues and they have these crazy hailstorms that can come through and ruin a vintage. The hail that is golf ball size! They also have very different irrigation methods there.
Eventually I made it back to Washington. Originally I was hoping to be close to my family in Seattle and was thinking about Woodinville but I saw the potential in Walla Walla. I wanted to be close to the vineyards and I wanted to have that connection. For me, to be here in Walla Walla was really important. This is where I started my career and I love it in Walla Walla. I saw the potential for growth here when I moved back in 2007. I first started working a harvest at Bergevin Lane. After I finished my harvest there I was connected through a friend with Christophe [Baron] and I had an interview with the company. That is how I started here at Cayuse. I knew Christophe casually from living in Walla Walla earlier during school. I was hired in 2008, and at the time I was mostly doing lab work and that turned into more. We formed a good relationship and worked really well together. I have been at Cayuse since 2008 and the 2016 vintage will be my ninth harvest.
WWB: You’ve been training under one of the most famous North American wine producers, Christophe Baron. What kind of techniques have you learned from him in terms of creating wines and vineyard management?
EB: I come from a wine school background where you are taught what you can and can’t do. You are taught to manipulate the wines in school but working here as a Vigneronne you go with the vintage and respect the vintage. If it is low alcohol or a warmer year you do what you can to make the wine that best that it is without having to intervene. A lot of people are now working on changing things and putting additives in the wine. For me that was the biggest learning process to wrap my brain around this way to create wine. I have learned a lot through biodynamics and the importance of biodynamics in the vineyard and in the wine studio. Really, we have the easy job inside the wine studio and the hard work is out there in the vineyards. It all starts in the vineyard. Also, I felt so disconnected growing up in Seattle with not knowing where your food or meat comes from or where the grapes come from but here in Walla Walla you feel so connected. I think we are all becoming more connected with farm to table type things like that and I think that trend will continue.
WWB: Your 2012 La Rata was a stunner of a wine, with wonderful terroir, a silky texture and plenty of fruit. Can you talk about the winemaking behind this wine and what we can expect from your future La Rata releases in 2013 and 2014?
EB: The 2012 La Rata was an idea that turned into something much bigger than what we expected. That’s how I relate the zodiac sign to what we do today because my sign is the Rat, hence ‘La Rata’. It all started with a wine that I tasted that morning from Clos Erasmus. The wine comes from a female wine maker and I was inspired by it. We tasted her own label, the Laurel blind, as usual during harvest we regularly do blind tastings. We also had good food for lunch and the wine was inspiring. During that time we were picking Grenache and Cabernet and everything came together for a reason that day. I probably would have never thought to put Grenache and Cabernet together. It is not something that we usually do here at Cayuse Vineyards. I remember writing a note to Christophe and I told him that I wanted to put Grenache and Cabernet together. He seemed to support the project. We followed through with the process with fermentation and thought that this wine was something special and different. In the past we had leftovers and tried different Grenache blends and if you have something left over, sometimes we don’t end up something that we enjoy. But the Grenache and Cabernet really work well together. With the wine I want you to see how the Grenache is the star but the Cabernet works well to elevate it. I think we have created something special with La Rata. I think for the 2013 and the 2014 La Rata you will have that same elegant wine and a lot of finesse. Both of those wines have lot of bright and lush, fleshy character. That’s what I love about the wine. It is something so different from the Cayuse wines. Nothing that we make is quite like La Rata.
WWB: The 2012 Horsepower Sur Echalas Vineyard Grenache was a stunner of a wine that landed on my Top 10 of last year on my 2015 Washington Wine Blog Top 100. Can you talk about that wine and what made it so special? Also can you talk about the special vineyard, the Sur Echalas Vineyard?
EB: The Horsepower project is Christophe’s vision and it is something he has always wanted to do. I think with the project what you are getting is a lot of hard work in the vineyard and that is something that not a lot of people are doing. This 3x3 spacing is not really something that other wineries can do. This spacing in the vineyard makes the wines different. Something special is going on with the tannin and the structure in those wines. I think that also it is the vines competing with root space and the shading but there is something magical going on in the glass. There is tremendous work that goes into the vineyard with the horses and the biodynamic sprays that is done with people using heavy backpacks. The results are in the wine. It is something magical when you are out there with the horses that are working the vineyard. You can’t really describe it. Bringing that animal component to the vineyards is really cool and unique. I will never forget when I first saw the horses working the vineyard. That was something really special. I love being out in the vineyards with the horses. It is hard to believe that the massive animal fits through the vines!
WWB: You and Christophe Baron have produced some fascinating projects in wine. Can you talk about plans for future projects and your desire to innovate?
EB: That is one thing with Christophe is he wants to take things to the next level. Each year just trying to figure out what we can do to make the wines better. We really strive for that. I think a lot of that is constantly tasting and tasting wines from around the world and pushing ourselves to getting something as good as these old world wines. We have those inspirations to be just as good as the top producers in the world. We always want to be at the top and we never stop striving for that. I have a strong desire to be better. I am not happy with just staying at one point. I want to make wine that inspires people. When you try the Cayuse wines, the No Girls, Horsepower and La Rata, you want that ‘wow’ factor. If the wines aren’t inspiring then it is not fun for us. When you go through the lineup of wines, it is making a product that makes you think about what it is. It is not just wine, it is something that is always changing and evolving. For the future projects, I am really excited about Tempranillo and the future of Tempranillo here in the stones. The 2012 No Girls Tempranillo was just released in March and I am excited about that wine. I think that Washington has a ton of potential with Tempranillo and the plantings are going to be better and better. It is a varietal that I love working with and maybe that is me getting more involved with Spanish wines and creates a lightbulb in my head.