Michigan’s First Female Winemaker: The Art and Science of Winemaking

It may seem that women enjoy drinking wine more than men, but when it comes to winemakers, it is a male dominated industry. The amount of women entering the field has been increasing. When Nancie Oxley became St. Julian Winery’s head winemaker in 2010, she also earned the title of Michigan’s first female winemaker in 2002 when she was hired.

During the May 10, 2016 Startup Grind Kalamazoo fireside chat, Oxley stated that a few other women in Michigan have earned the head winemaker title. Before she had settled on being a winemaker, Oxley began her studies in food science at Purdue University.

While a student, Oxley became involved in a winemaking competition and loved it, continuing the path with an internship. Internships meant 16 hour days, which tested students’ interest. Out of 18 students, Oxley and one other student still loved winemaking when their internship finished. Oxley commented that people either love or hate winemaking, and it is easy to see that she is happy about her choice.

Although Oxley’s internship was out in California, it turns out that the midwest, and definitely Michigan, are prime places to have wineries. In fact, Oxley stated that “10 new wineries open every year. There is a boom. It’s just not advertised.”

Oxley grew up in the midwest and wanted to stay. When a position opened up at St. Julian Winery in 2002, Oxley applied, and worked her way up to head winemaker by 2010.

Winemaker's goal: consistency of taste year to year

As a winemaker, one goal is consistency of taste from year to year. Much of the consistency is based on science, or the specific numbers, according to Oxley. Since the weather affects how the fruits and vegetables grow each year, it also influences the taste. One reason Oxley loves winemaking is that differences from year to year. The most artistic part is creating something new.

Oxley, slightly embarrassed that a wine called “Sweet Nancie” is named after her, recalled that her boss asked her to create the wine without much instruction, leaving the creativity up to her. Michigan can grow 85% of the 350 fruits and vegetables used in winemaking, which gave a wide choice when deciding. After further discussions with her boss, Oxley crafted what became the award winning “Sweet Nancie” wine.

The relationship with her boss and president, David Braganini, is an important one, since he is determining the company's path. St. Julian Winery is a family owned business in its 95th year. Oxley highlighted that you do not have to work at St. Julian to be a part of the family. The relationships with the growers, the customers, and the employees are family oriented. Oxley stated:

“We all try to help each other grow, not within the walls of St. Julian but within the wine industry altogether.” ​The wine club participants, for example, are the ambassadors of St. Julian.

When it comes to beer, brewers are partners, not competitors. “We’d much rather you drink wine than beer, but we drink a lot of beer, too" since, "a lot of beer is drank when making good wine,” said Oxley. Cider is the biggest thing connecting the beer and wine industries. Although St. Julian won’t be making beer because that is not what they do, there has been local collaboration between the two industries.

As head winemaker, Oxley has tasted it all, from new St. Julian products to an old favorite. For her, it takes both art and science skills to approve a product. Oxley will look at the numbers and taste the same product, and will not be satisfied until both areas pass her close inspection.

The chat ended with Oxley urging the audience to come visit St. Julian Winery. You know when you are in Paw Paw, which also hosts Welch’s, because “The air literally smells like grapes,” Oxley said.

Watch Oxley's full fireside chat: