Nicolas Quillé of Pacific Rim, Interview

Ξ April 29th, 2008 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Winemakers, Wineries |

Nicolas QuilléNicolas Quillé is Randall Grahm’s right hand man in the Pacific NorthWest. Yet Mr. Quillé remains independent. He speaks his mind. I think that is precisely why Mr. Grahm paused when, after he put some of his Bonny Doon labels on the market, Mr. Quillé protested that the Pacific Rim line should be retained: Riesling could do great things in Washington State. Mr. Grahm listened, Mr. Quillé went to work.

Supplemental to this interview I suggest readers visit the fine geological vids on Wine Press North West, and this page. View the August 14th, 2007 entry and that of October 30th, 2007.


Born in France, what was your first exposure to American wines?
Nicolas Quillé When I was in high school and then in college, I worked for a small wine shop in Lyon and I recall selling and tasting a Zinfandel from California (I can’t remember the name but it had a hot air balloon on the label). I don’t remember liking it that much but I was only 16 at the time.

The second experience was in California itself. A good friend of mine brought a secret bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and asked me to taste it blind. He then went on to ask me how much I would pay for it. It was good and I thought this could be about $25. Well, it was a Caymus Special Selection, and when it told me the price (it was about $100 at the time) I thought that this was really a great country to make wine in!

Before you came to the US you took university degrees at Dijon, in Bourgogne & at Reims, in Champagne. Could you give us a glimpse into the French university system with respect to viticultural degrees? What was your course of study?
FranceNicolas France has 5 universities that deliver a 2 year degree in Enology (Bordeaux, Dijon, Reims, Montpellier and Toulouse). They recruit only students that already have a 2 year college degree in agriculture (mine was a technical degree in animal production and plant genetics). The curriculum requires students to do two harvests in a wine cellar or a wine laboratory (I worked for Antonin Rodet in Burgundy and Domaine de La Courtade in Provence). The curriculum is a broad mix of Chemistry, Biology, Viticulture, Enology, Accounting, Sensory Evaluation, Fluid Mechanics, etc… They are no elective classes in France, you have to take it all!!! I must say that I was good at Statistics, Enology, Sensory evaluation and Chemistry. I was pretty lame at Viticulture…

A peculiarity of the French system is that each school specializes in its local specialty (Dijon – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Reims – Champagne making…). After my Master’s in Burgundy I went for another year to get a specialization in Champagne winemaking and Champagne laws as I thought I might end up in Champagne making bubbly (My father works for Laurent Perrier Champagne). Not many students go for a specialization year as it requires students to have a Master degree in hand already.

How does viticultural/enology training in France differ from UC Davis or Cornell, the US approach generally?
Nicolas France has many layers of education from certificates to 2 year technical degrees to Master degrees and the possibility to specialize beyond the Master or to acquire a Doctorate. France has also many students trained in the Enological field (they churn about 180 student with a master degree in Enology every year). Most students in this field come from the industry with parents that are in the wine trade in some fashion. In France, winemaking schools are not open during harvest and they require students to work in the industry during that time. I never went to Davis or Cornell but it is my impression that students are more academic than their French counterpart. They often are very technically correct but lack some creativity. Obviously this is a very general statement.
What initially brought you to America?
Nicolas After my military duty in the French Air Force, I was looking for an international experience to sharpen my winemaking skills. I found a harvest job (in 1997) through the Paso Robles Grower Association at J. Lohr winery in Paso Robles. It was supposed to be a 3 months assignment so I came with just a small duffle bag full of clothes. The chemistry was good at J. Lohr and I never went back to France. I ended working for J.Lohr for a year and a half.
We’ve read you took a business degree, a master’s, from the University of Washington. From your point of view how were merlot’s fortunes affected by the film Sideways? Did you enjoy the film?
Nicolas Unfortunately I did not see Sideways. I think that Merlot was in a mature phase of its growth anyway and that the movie just precipitated this. I also truly believe that wine tastes are changing in the country as our food taste evolve toward lighter, fresher foods. Merlot is too big of a wine to be your everyday red. My opinion: switch to Riesling.
And while we’re on cinema, what is your take on Nossiter’s Mondovino?
Nicolas I saw Mondovino twice. It is a very good, thought provoking documentary that I would recommend anyone in our industry to watch. It is obviously a very personal take on the industry but it reinforced two life guiding principles for me. 1) Wine is a beverage for everyone, there is no need to make it a complicated and elitist drink. 2) The magic of wine comes from the people and the land, in the long run this is what makes it such a fascinating drink.
When did you first learn of biodynamics? What was your impression?
Nicolas Like most people I probably read about it in some trade magazine and never paid attention to it. Randall Grahm is really the person that did the most to educate me. I always had a lot of respect for Randall, so when we discussed it I never had a doubt that this was something that I should be more aware of. I have, to this date, some reservation about certain aspects of biodynamics but I am overall in agreement with the principle that the vineyard is a part of a greater organism. I guess that I am not a biodynamic jihadist, I am more of a moderate recent convert.
And now, with respect to the Wallula vineyard, what percentage is biodynamic?
Nicolas All our Riesling is Biodynamic at Wallula. This represents 140 acres total and is without a doubt the majority of all Demeter certified vineyards in Washington State. Our acreage represents about 25% of the Wallula Vineyard and this is, to my knowledge, the only part of the vineyard that is farmed biodynamically.
Could you give us some idea of the insect complex at Wallula. What are the principle grape pests in the area?
Nicolas We are blessed with few pests overall in Eastern Washington. By far the two main concerns are leafhoppers and dust mites.
And soil-borne diseases?
Nicolas None that I know at Wallula. This is pretty much virgin ground so it has never been introduced with weird pathogens.
The last time I was in near the Tri-Cities the wind was howling at 30 mph! How does wind complicate the local viticulture? How is erosion minimized? What inter-row cover crops are used?
Nicolas The main challenges in a high wind viticultural region is evapotranspiration; the vines’ stomata let much water out of the plants which requires frequent watering. Thankfully, the water retention of our soils is quite good which alleviate the need for heavy watering like this is the case for the windy Malborough region in New Zealand. We have also decent challenges with canopy management and cordon rollover on young vines (this is when the cordon rolls and “reverse” spurs position so the shoots are pointing down on a traditional Vertical Shoot Positioning trained vine). Your point about erosion is real because our soils are wind blown deposit and they leave as fast (or faster) as they came. As a result cover crops are a necessity in Eastern Washington. At Pacific Rim we are moving slowly from seeded covercrop to native grasses which are easier to maintain and a bit more “natural”.
There can be significant differences in the depth of loess deposits on the Wallula slope. The hard pan of calcium carbonate there averages to 1 foot thick. How is terroir affected by the shallower vine rooting?
Nicolas Not sure where you got the information about the calcium hard pan or “caliche” as it is referred to (may be you are referring to the Wahluke slope that is rich in caliche in an unpredictable way). This caliche layer is the result of the accumulation of calcium carbonates at the same levels, years after years, due to weathering. We do not have that problem at Wallula because over time the site had received a fair amount of wind blown loess (we think we have 40 feet) that “renewed” the top soil regularly thus moving up the crystallization zone and avoiding a calcium “loading” at the same level year after year. Because we are sitting at 1,200 feet we also have pre-Missoula flood soils below the wind blown loess (may be another 40 feet). Our soils at Wallula are definitely deep and we have buried drips down 3 feet to promote root exploration and lower water usage.
With only 6-7 inches of rain locally, how does Wallula irrigate?
Nicolas It is all irrigated with drips (underground drips). The water is pumped straight from the mighty Columbia River.
My understanding is that 15% of Pacific Rim’s riesling is of German origin. In another interview you stressed its use in blending with Washington juice for ’stylistic’ reasons. What are those reasons?
Nicolas We only use the German fraction for the Dry Riesling and it makes up 15% of that blend. The reason for using the German component are purely stylistic as you are pointing out and it is by far the most expensive part of the Dry Riesling blend. The German component usually comes from Rheinhessen and is selected by our friend Johannes Selbach in the Mosel. We use the German wine for several reasons. First, it is generally riper at lower Brix and therefore help us maintain our alcohol levels low (toward 12.5%). Secondly, it is high in acid and reduces our overall pH while boosting the total acidity of the blend. Finally the German fraction is low in phenolics and rich in minerality bringing an extra twist to the overall blend. I would love to replace it with a Northwest sourcing but haven’t found where it could come from yet.
In addition to practicing biodynamics, what other ‘green’ initiatives does Pacific Rim currently employ or plan to employ, particularly at the Port of Kennewick winery in West Richland?
Riesling labelNicolas The list of our efforts and our dreams runs long. Several themes run through the business and guide our actions; first we want to be as sustainable as possible and second we do not want to greenwash the company. Our path to sustainability so far has lead us to work on 1) growing grapes that are good for your health 2) Reducing our energy footprint at the winery and our waste impact and 3) increasing the recyclability and the use of recycled material of our packaging. Our efforts are greatly helped by the fact that we are focused at 90% on Riesling (which creates great efficiencies).

We have right now 30% of our grapes farmed under Biodynamic practices. We are working with the remaining 70% of our growers to establish an Integrated Environmental Plan where we commonly agree on improving the sustainability of our viticultural practices. We have been putting together a grading system to help us grade each block on about 25 criteria and we are working on classifying all chemicals (organic or synthetic) used in our vineyards. This will lead on some serious progress I believe.

The winery was built with many energy saving features (use of natural lights, special insulation, roof that can support solar panels) and we have very high tech equipment (cross flow filters, centrifuge, Electrodialysis) that allow us to reduce our waste stream and our energy consumption. We are moving toward zero waste rapidly as we do not use diatomee earth in our filtration and we compost 100% of our pomace waste back in the vineyard.

We have greatly simplified our package which reduces waste tremendously. We are also requiring our suppliers to outline their sustainability efforts to understand their position on this topic.

We have a few other venues that we are exploring to reduce our post bottling environmental impact such as warehouse optimization (efficient shipping route, low case good inventory…) or the use of lighter alternative packaging.

You’ve mentioned the desire to let wild fermentations run their course. Can you tell us of Pacific Rim’s success with this approach?
Nicolas Our successes are very good so far. Our single vineyards are 100% wild fermented. In 2007 our sweet Riesling was 75% wild fermented and the Dry was 20% wild fermented. We are moving toward 100% wild ferments for 2008 with the exception of the Vin De Glaciere which is made from frozen grapes (can’t keep the yeast alive on the skin when it is frozen). We have put in place an elaborate system to make sure that we prepare a “pied de cuve” or starter for each vineyard a week before we receive the grapes from that vineyard.
Would you tell us a few of your favorite Washington wineries?
Nicolas My preference is based on several factors such as the winery philosophy, how good they are at their specialty and the personality of the person in charge of QC: Cayuse for its Syrah, probably one of the most Terroir focused wine in the State – Christophe Baron. Woodward Canyon for their cabernet Sauvignon Artist Series – Rick Small. Boudreaux Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon– Rob Newsom. Chinook for their Sauvignon Blanc – Kay Simon.
Why only do Riesling?
Nicolas We believe that to do things well you have to focus. What other varietal than Riesling can provide you with such a great array of styles that allow you to focus while also having fun and diversity? Riesling can fulfill us in many ways and is so relevant to today’s food. It is crisp, very natural and untouched and works with so many different cuisines. It is the greatest grape in the world.

We focus on Riesling (90% of our production) but we also play with Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer. We are not against trying a few other varietal in the future, but we want to stay very focused on Riesling because we want to make the best Riesling in the country and may be one day in the world.

Thank you, Nicolas.


3 Responses to ' Nicolas Quillé of Pacific Rim, Interview '

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  1. on August 22nd, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Just wanted to add a link to a great endorsement from Jancis Robinson about our great Riesling Book:

  2. Greybeard said,

    on August 22nd, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Hi Nicolas, I saw that piece this morning and made a point of spreading the news on the WLTV forums, I thought the e-book was excellent but it didn’t click that it was from you.
    I recommend anyone with a Riesling interest to check out the site direct at

  3. on August 22nd, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    Thank you for spreading the Riesling gospel.

    We also have asign up for folks that want a printed version of the book (Just FYI).

    I saw you won a prize on WLTV, well done. That was pretty funny…

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