As the saying goes, “Wine gets better with age.”
So, too, apparently, does St. Julian Winery.
Headquartered in Paw Paw with five additional retail and tasting room locations across the Lower Peninsula, the company has been running nonstop for 100 years — since 1921 — and has been family owned the entire time.
John Braganini, 68, has been president since 2016 and is among the third generation of operators alongside his wife, Sarah, who manages St. Julian’s Mountain Road Estate Vineyard. Until five years ago, Braganini was a shareholder and adviser, but had no hand in day-to-day operations, instead working full time as the owner of an insurance agency. That all changed when his brother David, the then-president, passed away.
“We had to make a decision whether to sell (St. Julian) or do something else with it,” he says. “Two of my children wanted me to continue on and they were willing to make career path changes.
“So along with them and my wife, we decided to buy the company from my brother’s estate.”
Passing the Torch
Growing up as the son of winemakers made many aspects of running the business intuitive, Braganini says, although the nuances of regulations and equipment were new to him. The first two years were difficult, but working alongside St. Julian’s veteran management team, he was nevertheless able to begin a multimillion-dollar expansion process that is now one-third complete.
Braganini says sales have been increasing exponentially. He plans to continue expanding storage capacity, harvest size and grower relationships while also upgrading or replacing equipment to help ensure the growth trend continues for the foreseeable future. The main goal is to reach 500,000 cases of wine produced annually; the company is now making roughly 300,000 — up from 150,000 in 2016.
The willingness to branch out with new varietals, blends and approaches is the reason St. Julian has endured for so long, says Vice President of Winemaking Nancie Oxley.
“From a production standpoint (and) winemaking standpoint, we’re continually creating new and different wines, thinking outside the box — especially for our Wine Club members, but not just for them, but as well as retail and wholesale distribution,” she says. “So we’re always wanting to be new, fresh and relevant, so continually pushing that envelope and planting new varietals.
“Michigan, I feel, is a very young industry, so we don’t know what can grow well here until we try.”
Oxley, who is 42, joined St. Julian in 2002. She was right out of college with a bachelor’s degree from Purdue University in food manufacturing operations. She has been working at the winery ever since and was promoted to vice president in 2017.
She says St. Julian has “a good, solid product mix of wines that have been around for some time” and that the combination of classic and new offerings allows the winemaking team to honor the company’s roots. It was founded as Meconi Wine Company in Ontario, Canada, by Italian immigrant Mariano Meconi. Post Prohibition, Meconi moved the company to Detroit and in 1936, the name changed to St. Julian and location to Paw Paw.
All along the way, the focus has been on continued growth.
“We’re going to process 59 varietals this year,” Braganini says. “We’re probably playing with a wider variety of fruit than any other winery, really, maybe in the world as far as I know.”
Many of the premium wines St. Julian makes are sold exclusively through its Wine Club, which has enjoyed immense success during the pandemic and contributed to the winery’s bottom line as tasting rooms remained closed or operating at reduced capacity.
While St. Julian’s ongoing success seems almost a given at this point, there is one major threat to grape growing that keeps Braganini up at night: climate change.
“We’ve had three damaging weather-related events in the last 10 years; the economics of fruit farming only plan on one,” Braganini says. “I would say (climate change) is the one component of our business that gives me heartburn and gives me great concern. Because of that, we have to process a lot more fruit than we use, so we have plenty of inventory.”
On the bright side, warming climates in the short term mean longer growing seasons here in Michigan. Institutions such as Michigan State University are helping to advise winemakers and grape growers on best practices in terms of dealing with polar vortexes and other natural disasters.
As threatening as the warming planet is for all aspects of the industry, Braganini trusts that St. Julian’s legacy is safe in the hands of his two sons — Apollo II, 35, vice president of sales; and Dario, 33, outside sales account executive — as well as his wife Sarah, 40, and everyone else who has expended so much blood, sweat and tears to ensure the integrity of the final products.
“I have great confidence in my children as well as the winemaking team and the management … there’s no doubt in my mind that they will be able to take the company into the next century,” Braganini says. “I put all my focus into teaching them everything I know about business and developing the management team, so I think the future is bright.”