With a smart, new tasting room on the bay, a new state-of-the-art winemaking facility near completion, and new acres of vines in the ground, Michigan’s Leelanau Cellars has still more bragging rights: It has snagged a top-notch winemaker from California.
Succeeding Shawn Walters, who moved on to the new Forty-five North winery in Lake Leelanau, is Nichole C. Birdsall, formerly the organic winemaker at Bonterra Vineyards in Mendocino County.
“We couldn’t be more pleased, and we did an exhaustive search,”
said Bob Jacobson, president of Leelanau Cellars, one of Michigan’s largest and oldest wineries, with production nearing 100,000 cases.
“For a variety of reasons, she rose to the top,” Jacobson added.
“Her competency and credentials are tangible. We felt she’s the right fit.”
Birdsall has been on the job for a little more than two months, overseeing the harvest of white wines, which leaves little time to get used to her new home. So what made her trade a great job in California for Michigan?
“It was almost harvest in California, and I wasn’t looking for a new job,” she explained, “but a headhunter came to me with this position. I talked to the Jacobsons, and [decided] this is a great opportunity.”
Birdsall is a native of Healdsburg, Calif., in the heart of Sonoma County wine country, and graduated from California Polytechnical State University in San Luis Obispo with a degree in nutritional science. She shocked her parents when she used her degree to land a job making beer at a brewery.
“I fell in love with fermentation,” she said, but soon found out that opportunities for advancement in the beer-making world were slim unless you owned the brewery: winemaking offered a better future. She went back to school and earned a degree in enology at Cal State Fresno, and went on to a stint at Korbel Champagne Cellars and an internship at Bronco Wine Co. She then joined Bonterra Vineyards, where she was organic winemaker for six years.