It’s not only farmers in Southwest Michigan who have had their eyes on the sky this summer. Nancie Oxley, vice president and winemaker at St. Julian Winery, has too.
“Some days I think the farmers and winemakers are better meteorologists than the meteorologists themselves, because you’re constantly watching the weather,” says the 40-year-old Oxley.
The first professional commercial female winemaker in Michigan, Oxley has been with St. Julian for 19 years. Starting as a lab manager and enologist, she quickly moved up the ranks, being promoted to head winemaker in 2010. In 2017, she was named vice president at St. Julian.
As the award-winning winemaker approaches her 19th harvest with the growers that supply the Paw Paw-based St. Julian, how the weather will affect this year’s vintage is first and foremost in her mind.
“We do stress out about it, but the crazy thing is we can’t do anything about it, so we just adapt to it,” she says. “It’s a love-hate industry. You will either love making wine or, you know, you just want to drink it.”
What drew you to wine?
I was always really involved in food. My sister’s a dietitian and our family always talked about food and loved cooking. I knew I wanted to do something in that realm, and my sister brought home information for me on food science, which is about the science behind the development of food products.
I went into food science at Purdue University and started working with Dr. Richard Vine, who taught the wine appreciation class and was the wine buyer for American Airlines. He started the Indy International Wine Competition at Purdue, and through that I got to taste wines from all around the world while I was learning.
I then did an internship in Sonoma, California, at Geyser Peak Winery under Daryl Groom, who is a very well-known winemaker. We worked crazy 16-hour days seven days a week, but I knew the business was meant for me.
What does a head winemaker do?
I work with all of our growers — we have 15 different growers. When I started, we almost had 50, but have narrowed it down to 15 who have the same philosophy that we do here at St. Julian. During spring I start going out in the vineyards. At least once a week I’m on all of our vineyards and help decide the parameters of when we harvest the grapes. I taste them and grab samples and analyze them in our laboratory.
From there, we decide on winemaking styles such as what yeast to use, when to harvest and if the merlot is going to end up being a red wine or if we’re going make it out of a rosé this year. We do that for all the different products we make — wine and cider and spirits.
What is St. Julian’s philosophy?
We are a Michigan winery, and we work with Michigan fruit. For us to hold true to developing our region, we want to work with Michigan fruit grown right in our backyard. Whether it’s grapes, cherries, peaches, pears, apples, raspberries, blueberries — you name it — we’re committed to the fruit grown in our own backyard.
What’s your biggest challenge?
Mother Nature would be the biggest challenge by all means. Each harvest has been different. What we did last year we will probably never, ever do again, because Michigan doesn’t ever repeat itself. So that’s a fun thing about making wine here — that it’s always, always different.
Then, of course, you know, I’m a woman working in a man’s world, so that causes some challenges. Back in 2002, I was the first female winemaker in Michigan; there were none before me, which is insane to even say. And now there’s a handful of us that are here. We have over 130 wineries in the state, and there are less than 10 women winemakers.
St. Julian has always been very receptive of me, and I have a great crew in back. When first I took over as head winemaker, I think there was a little hesitation of this young girl being the boss, but I think I’ve proven myself.
Do you taste every product?
Yep, all of it. Right now in our barrel cellar, there are 85 different individual lots of wine — close to 500 barrels. Right after harvest we could have another 150, 200 different lots of wine. I taste each one to make sure they are going through their fermentation process in an orderly fashion, and that none are a little problem child. When they are through fermentation, I taste each individual lot and decide whether or not to do blending. Sometimes when you blend two different lots of wine together, it creates a much better wine than one on its own.
You must have an amazing sense of taste.
My mom used to laugh when I was a kid because she could never put any part of my lunch in a Ziploc bag because I can taste that Ziploc characteristic. So she would have to use Saran Wrap; Saran Wrap was fine. Even to this day I can’t have anything in a Ziploc bag because I can always taste it.