Meet Amy Lillard, who with her husband, Matt Kling, owns La Gramière vineyard in the southern Rhône Valley of France. She is one of the featured winemakers at the Wine Festival of Colorado Springs, which runs Friday and Saturday.
Her winemaking journey has its roots in Colorado Springs, where she grew up and graduated from Mitchell High School. A student of the French language since elementary school, she got her first taste of French wine at the University of Denver where she attended college. She used her language skills to get a summer job as a guide leading bike tours through the French countryside. It wasn't long before she was hooked on living in France and pursuing a career in winemaking.
When she graduated with a degree in international business and European studies, she returned to France where she rented a room at a vineyard in Burgundy. She helped the woman who owned the vineyard, working with her daily to tend the vines and grapes. This fueled her interest and passion for winemaking even more. Upon returning to Colorado Springs, in 1994 she sought out what she had heard was the best wine shop, Coaltrain Wine and Liquors, and asked for a job.
"I vividly remember not being able to explain to Peggy (McKinlay, co-owner with Jim Little of Coaltrain) the difference between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc," she said, "but they decided to give me a chance anyway."
Thanks to all the wholesalers who drop by the wine store with samples, Lillard got to taste a lot of wine.
"It's the best way to learn," she said.
The next several years she traveled seasonally between France, Coaltrain and California's wine country. In 1996 she landed a job at Wine Merchant in Berkeley, Calif., owned by Kermit Lynch, the renowned wine importer. While working at Lynch's store, she also met Kling, a networking consultant for Cisco Systems.
Luckily for the couple, he got a chance to transfer to Europe and they settled in Paris. Their next step was finding a house in the south of France so he could continue to work for Cisco Systems while she led wine tours. In 2005, they got an offer they couldn't resist: A small vineyard in the is Côtes du Rhône region was for sale. They took out a loan to buy the 4.5 hectares (12 acres) of vineyard planted with grenache, syrah and mourvedre for 150,000 Euros ($191,600).
"We have no employees and so we do everything ourselves," she said. "We farm organically, pick by hand and vinify naturally. I am the farmer, the winemaker, the head of sales and marketing, the bottler, I pack the boxes and stack them on palettes. It's a very small operation with an annual production of less than 1,000 cases."
Although the production is small, the couple's wine is available in limited quantities all over the world. And you can sample their wines, along with those of the other featured winemakers at the festival. Visit csconservatory.org for ticket information.