Growing up in Lafayette, Indiana, Nancie Oxley had no idea that she might one day make wine. It was while she was attending Purdue University and majoring in Food Science, that she became involved with Dr. Richard Vine and the university’s grape and wine research program. Oxley also assisted Dr. Vine with the Indy International Wine Competition. This experience led to Oxley’s unwavering determination to pursue wine as a career.
Dr. Vine subsequently arranged an internship at Geyser Peak in California in 2001. Oxley then interviewed for a position at St. Julian Winery in Southwest Michigan, where she was hired as an enologist and assistant winemaker.
Producing 250,000 cases of wine annually, St. Julian is by far the state’s largest producer and allowed Oxley opportunities for advancement. In 2010, Oxley was promoted to head winemaker and became the first woman to hold a lead winemaking position in Michigan. In 2017, Oxley was promoted to vice president.
On many levels, Oxley’s background gives her a unique line of sight in to a region that is only beginning to be discovered. WTM recently caught up with her in the midst of production and asked a few questions.
WTM—Who has had the most influence on you in your current career?
Nancie Oxley—There have been so many over the years, but three people were instrumental in shaping me into the winemaker I am today. Dr. Richard Vine encouraged me from the beginning and has supported me every step along the way. Daryl Groom, his infectious personality and passion fueled me to be the best winemaker that I can be. He has the most incredible palate and being able to start my career training alongside one of the greatest only pushed me beyond my winemaking limits. Finally, David Braganini, gave me my first opportunity to be a professional winemaker. His warm welcome into the St. Julian wine family was the beginning of a career and a winemaker’s dream of free reign on creativity along with the support to take risks.
WTM—What do you love most about your work and why?
Nancie Oxley—I absolutely love working with Michigan grown fruit. Currently, we work with over 40 varietals of grapes ranging from classic vinifera to native varietals. We also ferment cherries, blueberries, raspberries and peaches grown right here in the fruit belt of Michigan. It’s a true expression of what Michigan has to offer—real Michigan Wine! Then watching people enjoy the “fruits” of our labor is incredibly rewarding.
WTM—What do you think would surprise someone about Southwest Michigan?
Nancie Oxley—We make world class, award-winning wines that compete and win on an international level. We grow classic varietals like Riesling, Pinot noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, but we also grow cool climate varietals like Vidal, Marquette and Chambourcin. Michigan has 13,700 acres of vines, making Michigan the sixth-largest grape producing state in the nation. 3,050 acres are devoted to wine grapes, ranking Michigan in the top ten wine grape producing states in the country. And yes, we really do grow grapes and make fabulous wines in Michigan!
WTM—What challenges does Southwest Michigan face?
Nancie Oxley—After 17 harvest seasons here in Southwest Michigan, I can honestly say no two vintages have been alike. Mother Nature has a huge impact on grape quality and she is always throwing us a curve ball. In in order to catch her pitch, we must be present to observe her impact, but the reward of producing remarkable wines far outweighs the challenges.
WTM—Can you make a single prediction about the future of Southwest Michigan?
Nancie Oxley—I whole heartedly believe we will be a well-known wine region before the end of my career. As we continue to impact customers that walk into our tasting rooms and win awards at an international level, consumers will continue to seek out our wines. In the near future, Michigan wines will be a part of the same conversations as California, Washington, Oregon and New York, especially those made in the Lake Michigan Shore Appellation.
WTM—What advice can you give someone thinking about becoming a winemaker?
Nancie Oxley—Stay true to who you are, but push the limits of exploration.