Becoming the head winemaker at one of the oldest, largest and most well-known wineries in Michigan is pressure enough. Add age (early 30s) and sex (female) into the mix, and Nancie Oxley knew she had her work cut out for her when she ascended to the top of the team at Paw Paw-based St. Julian Winery.
"I always joke, saying I'm a woman working in a man's world," said Oxley. "If you look at St. Julian, we are dominated by a male workforce in production. If you look at our contracted growers, they are all men as well — families running the operations, but the men in charge.
"I think it was a bit of a change for everyone at first, to have someone my age, in my position, being a female, running harvest,” she said. “I can easily say some of the men were a bit skeptical, but I can confidently say I've won them over!"
When Oxley, then an assistant at St. Julian, took over for longtime head winemaker Dr. Dave Miller — who left to launch his own winery, White Pine, in St. Joseph — a few years ago, she joined a short-but-growing list of female Michigan winemakers. Those ranks include Holly Balansag of Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Connie Currie of Blue Water Winery, Cristin Hosmer of Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery and Deborah Burgdorf of Burgdorf’s Winery.
“It’s my passion, my life”
Most of these women didn’t grow up dreaming of crushing grapes, monitoring fermentation or working the bottling line. For some, winemaking was a slight deviation from their original career path; for others, a major departure.
Currie’s introduction to winemaking came amid a self-imposed uprooting from her previous “intense corporate life” in downtown Chicago. Weary of the daily grind, she and husband Steve Velloff wanted to do something “radically different” from their careers in the computer industry.
So they formulated plans — inspired by Velloff’s research indicating that vinifera could grow in southeastern Michigan; a chance to reside closer to family in Currie’s native Detroit; and, Currie joked, by “too many issues of ‘Mother Nature News’” — to trade in the hustle and bustle of the Windy City for a quieter existence in the agricultural business.
"So, in our innocence, we took on farming for the first time and commercial winemaking for the first time," she said. "There are five words that often get me in trouble: 'How hard can it be?'"
For Currie, the answer was challenging — but not insurmountable. She returned to college to take a year of chemistry and biology before enrolling in the University of California-Davis Winemakers' Certificate program.
When Oxley entered the Food Science Department at Purdue University, she foresaw her career involving creating new food products.
“Growing up in Indiana — in the middle of corn and soybean farms — I thought I would work for Frito-Lay, or a grain-based company, or even for Red Gold Tomatoes,” she mused. “Wine never crossed my mind.”
A summertime gig assisting with the Indy International Wine Competition, a role she snagged through her job in a food science laboratory, changed everything. Tasked with organizing the 3,500 wines submitted into the competition, Oxley found herself overwhelmed by the slew of unfamiliar varietals.
“I grew up with my parents drinking White Zin and Asti on the holidays,” she said. “So when we were receiving wines like Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Chenin Blanc, Foch, Vidal Blanc … I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.”
But after tasting through countless varietals under the guidance of her mentor, Dr. Richard Vine, learning and analyzing the varietal nuances and characteristics, she was hooked. The experience prompted her to seek a fall harvest internership at Geyser Peak Winery in California, and “even after working 16-hour days from August to December, I fell in love with the industry, and I knew then that winemaking was my career path,” she said. “From then to this current day, this ‘wine thing’ is not just a job — it’s my passion, my life!”
Hosmer earned her master’s degree in agricultural economics, where, she quips, she learned that "the best way to make money from farming is to take whatever you grow and turn it into alcohol." But she truly became enamored with the world of wine via her husband, Brian Hosmer, whom she met while they were both students at Michigan State University.
After college, Brian headed to Northern Michigan to work for Charlie Edson, the winemaker and owner at Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery; armed with grant funds, Cristin accompanied him to study how townships, cities and villages work together in the region.
A few years later, when Edson needed "harvest help," Cristin, who'd also worked as tasting room manager at 2 Lads Winery, volunteered — and she's been at Bel Lago ever since.
She recently completed her sixth vintage on Bel Lago's winemaking team, while Brian is currently a winemaker for Chateau Chantal and Hawthorne Vineyards. The couple recently began making wine from their own fruit, as well.
Burgdorf was drawn into winemaking 30-plus years ago, after her husband, David, suggested they craft a wine from a particularly great crop of blackcap raspberries.
It took off from there. They quickly became passionate hobbyists, then decided to take the venture commercial.
At that point, Burgdorf enrolled in online courses through the Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance, but she was no stranger to fermentation and the science behind the process. She already had a bachelor’s degree in biology with an emphasis in botany and a master’s in science with an emphasis in microbiology/fermentation. She’d also worked for 15 years as a research scientist with the Michigan Biotechnology Institute in Lansing, where she was involved in the manufacturing of products ranging from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics to ethanol for fuel.
“My experience over the years couldn’t have been any better preparation for entering the role of winemaker,” she said.
Balansag, meanwhile, grew up surrounded by wine at home.
“I remember my dad making wine my whole life,” she said. “I'm sure he started before I was born, sometime in the ’50s.”
Yet, she didn’t originally set out to become a winemaker; she earned an associate’s degree in photography and was doing freelance photography and owned a pet-sitting business when her family decided to establish Sandhill Crane.
Leading up to the winery’s opening in 2003, Balansag helped facilitate the requisite licensing, began handling vineyard tasks like pruning and spraying, and started assisting her dad with his home winemaking, gleaning as much knowledge as possible along the way.
Father and daughter worked on the first few vintages together, but soon, Balansag took the reins. With the exception of a few seminars and training sessions, she picked up everything she needed to know under the tutelage of her dad and good, old-fashioned trial and error.
"I have learned how to deal with problems in the wine, how to resolve flaws, and what to do to prevent them," she said. "I have learned to make wines for the public that is enjoying them, and not just (for) myself. I have learned to use my creative background to create these wines."
In fact, she credits that creativity for not only helping her shape Sandhill Crane's extensive lineup of unique blends, but also overcoming obstacles. She recalled how an attempt to fix a wine destined for the bargain shelf resulted in one of the winery's bestsellers, Rhapsody in Red.
"In the early days of the winery, I came up with a blend of some Chambourcin that had a flaw that I had resolved with a little raspberry wine to add some fruitiness and pizzazz," she said. "It was a fun blend, but very different from anything I had tasted. My dad said that we should price it low, because it would never sell. Ever since then, it has been our number one seller. I have trouble keeping the Rhapsody in Red in stock!"
A hands-on education
Regardless of formal education's role in their careers, the winemakers agreed that on-the-job experience has been infinitely more invaluable.
Even, that is, when it comes in the form of comic relief — as Hosmer learned when she accidentally put a tank valve on backwards and unleashed 8,000 liters of wine when she tried to flip it around.
"I had to stand there … and hold the wine in the tank with my hand until Charlie (Edson) came and saved us," she recalled. "Lesson learned: Always keep an extra set of clothes in your car in case of a cherry wine debacle."
Joking aside, Hosmer said her years in the industry also have taught her to follow her instincts. The most important revelations? "Fruit matters: Take excellent care of your vineyards, and fantastic wines will follow," she said. And: "I have an excellent palate — trust it."
Oxley’s education focused on the technical and chemistry-related facets of producing wine, but "I can say the biggest 'on the job' part that I learn has been the art of winemaking," she said. "Each year is so different here in Michigan, so the 'numbers' you expect to see aren't always what's 'right' for the wine. Taste, flavor, balance, aromatics, tannin extraction are all sensory aspects in winemaking that vary year to year, and the fun part of winemaking is making sure all of those aspects are in balance to make the best wine possible.”
Currie and Burgdorf concur that the realities of winery life require a blend of left brain and right brain skills, both behind the scenes at the winery and while interfacing with the public.
"Modern commercial winemaking is an intersection between science and marketing," said Currie. "It is important to know where the science ends and the marketing begins."
Nearly all of the winemakers citied specific mentors that helped guide, encourage and inspire them. Dr. Vine nudged Oxley to apply for her internship in California and the job at St. Julian that led to her current success. Currie worked with Ellie Butz, a retired microbiologist from Purdue, and Linda Ungersall, a renowned winemaker from Illinois and Missouri.
Hosmer cites one specific, memorable wine as her motivator: the 2002 Manigold Vineyard Gewurztraminer made by Bryan Ulbrich, then of Peninsula Cellars, now owner and winemaker at Left Foot Charley.
“Best bottle of wine ever!” she raved. “(My husband) and I even purchased property adjacent to the vineyard in 2007. I will strive to make wine like that for the rest of my life.”
No gender divide
While female winemakers are relatively rare thus far in Michigan, Currie said that's not the case elsewhere in the wine world. At UC Davis, she said, half of the students and professors alike were women.
"Having worked in other industries (music and computer science) where sexism is rampant, I have found the wine industry pretty open in comparison,” she said. “I admit, I cheer a little when I see gal winemakers promoted to key positions — especially the big players.”
Within the industry, Burgdorf agrees that she feels on equal footing with her peers. From a customer standpoint, however, it's sometimes a different story. David and Deborah are frequently seen side-by-side in the tasting room and at wine festivals, and visitors meeting the duo for the first time often automatically turn to David when the subject of winemaking comes up.
"They always look at my husband, David, as the winemaker, and are very surprised to find that I make the wine," said Burgdorf. "So, I guess we do have barriers to cross."
Balansag said she doesn’t feel her gender plays a role in her job, “although many customers are pleasantly surprised that I’m the winemaker.”
“I like to think I bring intuition, creativity and sensitivity to my winemaking,” she added, “but I’m not sure it’s fair to say that it is a strictly female characteristic.”
Hosmer said there was only one brief period during her tenure at Bel Lago when her duties deviated from those of her male counterparts: during the 2010 vintage, when she was pregnant with her son, Dylan. "I drove the forklift every day, and rarely had to do the late shift," she said.
Otherwise, she's "treated just like 'the boys,'" though she's proud to possess "one special quality that the boys don't have."
"I have a magic touch when it comes to resetting/adjusting the labels on the bottle line — her name is Gertrude," she quipped. "Anyone who bottles knows how hard it is to get the labels perfect."
With women comprising a significant segment of wine’s consumer base, Hosmer said it only makes sense that they have a major role in the creation of the product itself.
"Something like 80 percent of wine is purchased by women," she said, "so yeah, I think women have a place on a winemaking team, for sure!"
For other women looking to enter the field, Hosmer’s advice is concise: “Start tasting, visit with winemakers, be patient and willing to start at the bottom and work your way up.”
All of the women warned to expect hard work, but Oxley said the rewards are worth the commitment and effort.
Life at the winery is “better than I could have ever imagined!” she said. “I think I have the best job in the world.”
Meet the Winemakers
Name a wine you've been involved with making that you feel is particularly impressive, unique and/or representative of your winery: "The 2012 Braganini Reserve Albariño. Being a new varietal, I think we hit the nail on the head with this one! Our team pulled together for its first vintage, and I couldn't be happier with the outcome!"
Name a wine from another Michigan winery that you love: "Larry Mawby anything! My two favorites are his Blanc de Blancs and Cremant Classic, both fantastic wines."
Name a wine from outside Michigan that you love: "There are many — it's hard to choose one!"
If we peeked in on you on a typical weekend night, what would you be sipping? "At this time, probably a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc! If not that, I never know — I love tasting wines from around the world, so it could honestly be just about anything."
Name a particular varietal or style of wine you enjoy working with: "Love working with Albariño! It's a new varietal to Michigan, so it's been fun researching its characteristics, working with our grower in the vineyard and experimenting with this new variety in the cellar! It's amazing how its characteristically similar to Sauvignon Blanc on the aromas, yet it's a completely different wine. We currently produce both Sauv Blanc and Albariño, so it's been interesting comparing the two! As for challenging — Pinot Noir! I think many winemakers can agree with this varietal for many of the same reasons, but when you get it right, it's a wine that makes you smile and be proud!"
What would you say to critics of Michigan wine? "Give them a chance! We are not California, so don't expect our wines to taste like a Napa Cabernet! We make world-class wines in Michigan that are competing on a national stage and winning numerous awards! Have an open mind and truly enjoy what the wine has to offer."
What advice would you offer aspiring women winemakers? "Go for it! Be confident and always be respectful to those in the industry. You never know if you need that person in the future! Be patient: You will find the perfect position that 'fits like a glove,' but it may take longer than expected. Be proud of your abilities and never give up on your dreams or aspirations."
Winemaker and "Vineyard Wench," Blue Water Winery and Vineyards, Carsonville, Mich. (Port Sanilac/Lexington area)
Name a wine you've been involved with making that you feel is particularly impressive, unique and/or representative of your winery: "Oh, I have to say my Cab Franc, because we won a gold medal in San Francisco. The vines took almost six years to produce, and now they are one of the most impressive parts of the vineyard. They are really beautiful and aromatic to work with."
Name a wine from another Michigan winery that you love: "I really liked Fishtown White, from Good Harbor."
Name a wine from outside Michigan that you love: "To paraphrase Dionysius, 'My favorite wine is one purchased by someone else.'"
If we peeked in on you on a typical weekend night, what would you be sipping? "Blue Water Winery Cab Franc 2010, or my 2011 Pinot Noir."
Name a particular varietal or style of wine you enjoy working with: "Chambourcin is my 'go to' wine for blending, and actually a very popular single variety. It has great color, aroma, and is ready to drink quicker than any other red."
What would you say to critics of Michigan wine? "Aside from try mine?" (laughs) "I pick my battles on this topic. If someone is adamant that they only drink California Cabs, I say, 'Kroger and Meijer have a great selection and they are only 20 miles away.' But if someone is truly open to discussion, I remind them that winemakers who happen to currently reside in Michigan have varied skills, level of grape and wine quality. And our styles differ as well."
What advice would you offer aspiring women winemakers? "Know your science; that way, you will have a better ability to weed out people’s opinions and guessing. Also, have fun with it. We are not doing AIDS research or saving lives; we are making a commodity product that should be enjoyed and enjoyable to create.”
Winemaker and Owner, Burgdorf's Winery, Haslett, Mich. (Pioneer Wine Trail)
Name a wine you've been involved with making that you feel is particularly impressive, unique and/or representative of your winery: "Our dry Vidal Blanc that won Gold and Best of the Class in the Indy International Competition. Also, Perfection, a black raspberry-cherry (wine) that is unique to our winery. This wine has won Double Gold, Best of Class and Gold almost every year."
Name a wine from another Michigan winery that you love: "Serendipity, which is a Bordeaux-like blend from White Pine Winery."
Name a wine from outside Michigan that you love: "I enjoy many of the Petite Sirahs from California."
If we peeked in on you on a typical weekend night, what would you be sipping? "(Burgdorf) Cabernet Franc, which we call Faye, named after our first grandchild."
Name a particular varietal or style of wine you enjoy working with: "Presently, my favorites are Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, but I also love working with fruit wines. We have some very unique styles that are very popular: Red Raspberry, Black Raspberry-Cherry and Blueberry."
What would you say to critics of Michigan wine? "Just give it a try. We've come a long way in the last 20 years. Don't let past bad experiences get in the way of discovering some wonderful wines right in your own backyard."
What advice would you offer aspiring women winemakers? "I would say, go for it! Expect a lot of hard work, long hours, yet an opportunity to be both scientific and creative in producing unique and likable wines.”
Winemaker, Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Mich. (Pioneer Wine Trail)
Name a wine you've been involved with making that you feel is particularly impressive, unique and/or representative of your winery: "840, a port-style wine made with estate-grown Chambourcin and Frontenac."
Name a wine from another Michigan winery that you love: "Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc."
Name a wine from outside Michigan that you love: "It's too difficult to pick one, but I love a good, rich Zinfandel."
If we peeked in on you on a typical weekend night, what would you be sipping? "It varies!"
Name a particular varietal or style of wine you enjoy working with: "My favorite is Vignoles. I love the nose when it is fermenting in the fall. And I love the beautiful wine it becomes. I find Pinot Noir to be particularly challenging. Everything is rewarding, especial the new blends and creations I come up with."
What would you say to critics of Michigan wine? "Just try them. Our wines have so much to offer."
What advice would you offer aspiring women winemakers? “Go for it — it’s a great industry. Be prepared for hard work.”
Operations Manager and Assistant Winemaker, Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery, Cedar, Mich. (Leelanau Peninsula)
Name a wine you've been involved with making that you feel is particularly impressive, unique and/or representative of your winery: "2008 Auxerrois (my first vintage) and 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir (exquisite Dijon clone blend). We have a Pinot problem at Bel Lago."
Name a wine from another Michigan winery that you love: "2002 Manigold Gewürztraminer from Peninsula Cellars (made by Bryan Ulbrich, now of Left Foot Charley) … also love the 2010 Pinot Gris from Chateau Chantal."
Name a wine from outside Michigan that you love: "Shinn Estates, North Folk Long Island, Anomaly White Pinot Noir."
If we peeked in on you on a typical weekend night, what would you be sipping? "I work every weekend. My normal after-work drink is Auxerrois or Pinot Noir."
Name a particular varietal or style of wine you enjoy working with: "Auxerrois in neutral barrels, my Dessert Island wine."
What would you say to critics of Michigan wine? "We grow 100 different grape varieties at Bel Lago, and make 40+ products. If we can't find one wine you like, then you don't like wine."
What advice would you offer aspiring women winemakers? “Start tasting, visit with winemakers, be patient and willing to start at the bottom and work your way up.”
Article by Cortney Casey, MichiganByTheBottle.com. We strive to be your definitive source of information on Michigan wines; therefore, we welcome you to link to this page or print an excerpt that leads back to our site. However, as our work is copyrighted, we kindly ask that you do not copy and paste this or any other portion of Michigan By the Bottle in its entirety on another site. We appreciate your cooperation. For reprint inquiries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.