Giving Up the Doctor Track for a Life in Wine — This Winemaker Found a New Unexpected Path at Michigan State

We're Talking Grapes With Joe Nielsen

BY // 04.01.21

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and soil types, terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot.

In Wine Talk, I introduce you to friends, acquaintances, and people I meet as I make my way around the world, individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste, who farm and make wine. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

Joe Nielsen has a wine story that I love. It’s the tale of how his journey as a winemaker began. The teenager was living in Lansing, Michigan, and in 2003 enrolled at Michigan State University, planning to become a doctor and enter the medical field.

At Michigan State, Nielsen was introduced to an exploratory winemaking program the university was conducting, but his age prevented him from taking classes in it. He was too young. He was not going to let that inconvenient fact stop him, however, so he took up the study of viticulture on his own, and received permission from his parents to plant some vines in the family’s 20-acre backyard. A career was budding. . .

He was eventually admitted into the program at Michigan State, and graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture. Next came a winemaking position at Black Star Farms, located in northern Michigan. In 2008, Nielsen moved to California for a yearlong internship at Merryvale Vineyards. Then, in 2009, at 23, Nielsen was named cellar master at Donelan Family Wines. In 2013, he was promoted to the head winemaker position at Donelan — and also finished the Executive Wine MBA program at Sonoma State University during that time.

Which brings us to the present, and Ram’s Gate Winery. Nielsen has been the director of winemaking at the Sonoma estate since 2018, and from what I’ve tasted recently — chardonnay and pinot noir, reviews to come — he’s found a great home (and one that he is pushing to become 100 percent organic in the next five years).

The Berler Vineyard, from which comes some great cabernet sauvignon.

Ram’s Gate is owned by Michael John, Jeff O’Neill, Paul Violich and Peter Mullin, and their 28-acre estate is the ideal laboratory for the winemaker’s craft.

Nielsen tell us more in the latest edition of Wine Talk.

James Brock: How has COVID-19 changed your work and life?

Joe Nielsen: I think COVID-19 has shown me how connected we are as a civilization and how globally we are all connected. Personally, I have traveled much less and enjoyed fewer great meals at restaurants, but overall I know personally I am very lucky. Professionally our job continues as grape growers and winemakers. It is an agrarian process that does not stop for anything.

In addition, in the last year our team at Ram’s Gate has really grown our digital presence in order to connect with our consumers. I am finding myself participating in a lot of content creation for our winery, from long-form videos, to TikToks and Reels. I hope that through these social-media initiatives we have been able to educate and connect with people during this year.

JB: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one?

JN: 2018 Ram’s Gate Estate Chardonnay ($75): I really love the way this wine is tasting. It was my first vintage at Ram’s Gate Winery, and it was my first chance discovering the estate terroir. What make’s this wine special is that in my opinion it is a study in the art of nuance and balance. We elected to do to minimal malolactic fermentation, and it is neither the heaviest nor most alcoholic of our lineup, yet it is subtle, engaging, and elegant.

Time in bottle has been terrific for this wine and we are currently serving it at our Tasting Hall, as well as selling it on our website. The wine is paired with Dungeness Crab Spaghettini and it is simply a dynamite pairing.

2017 Ram’s Gate Berler Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($115): This wine is the second vintage of what originally started out as a passion project between my wife and I. Prior to my start at Ram’s Gate, I began making this cabernet from Berler Vineyard in Fountain Grove District. The vineyard is nestled up into the Mayacamas Mountains on the back side of Spring Mountain in Sonoma County about 1600 feet above sea level. The location continues to blow me away; it’s a Shangri-La oasis tucked away that is fairly exposed to the cool ocean breezes coming up through Santa Rosa.

The 2017 Berler captures my desire to craft wines that are timeless; this wine reminds me of the elegance and refined pleasure of old California Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1970s and 1980s. I recently tasted this wine, and I am thrilled with the quality and that many of the primary notes are so vivid still. I can’t wait to see how this wine develops with several more years in bottle. It can be purchased on our website. I would pair it with braised beef short ribs and honey-glazed carrots.

2011 Felsina Rancia Chianti Classico Riserva ($50): I love the wines of Italy and they make up a very large percentage of my cellar that I did not personally make.  The wines of Chianti are rustic and delicious to me, with plenty of verve and focus on the palate. I tend to gravitate to wine regions where the cellaring time of the wines can range several decades.

As a collector I like the notion that whether I open it tomorrow or in 10 years I’m going to find joy in that bottle. And it’s something I also strive to produce professionally. Felsina is a great producer, and ever since visiting, in 2012, I have been a loyal follower. I recently opened a bottle with friends and paired it with their homemade brick-oven pizza, a total must. This wine can be purchased on the K&L website.


JB: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why.

JN: If cost were no consideration, I would want an unlimited supply of Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc. This is one of the most intensely texture wines I have ever had and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of drinking it.

JB: What is your favorite grape, and why?

JN: Hard to have a favorite when I enjoy making so many different varieties. Ultimately, the grape I am often the most passionate about is syrah. It is such a complex wine that can be made in so many different styles. Not to mention, I think it is so transparent with terroir. We are looking forward to releasing our 2018 Hyde Vineyard Syrah and the 2018 Durell Vineyard Syrah in the next month.

JB: How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day? 

JN: From a cellar-worthy standpoint, I believe our Estate Pinot Noir is going to be one of those wines that continues to reward patience. It is an ethereal wine that continues to evolve long after it leaves the barrel. I have multiple different formats of the 2018 for this very case; it is the birth year of my son and I feel comfortable that we will be enjoying that on his 21st birthday.

Joe Nielsen, who was raised and educated in Michigan, has found his home in California. (Photo by Dawn Heumann)

JB: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle (outside of your home and workplace)?

JN: Quite literally, outside of my home on my patio is a great place to have a glass of wine. Honestly though, my favorite place to enjoy wine is with friends, wherever that may be.

The tasting hall at Ram’s Gate Winery (Photo by Dawn Heumann)

JB: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

JN: Wine continues to evolve, and not all wine will last forever. I’m guilty of this, too, but sometimes people hold onto wine well beyond its peak and miss out on all the fun. I love making wine that can age, but part of the joy is checking in, popping a bottle, and seeing where it is at. Cellaring is not an exact science, and it ultimately depends on a ton of factors. I drink wine that is often too young (side-effect of the job), and I also enjoy really old wines, but it is OK to drink them somewhere in between.

JB: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

JN: I have told this story so many times that it has become my “big fish” story, but simply put, my friend told me in college that I should not pursue medicine. Rather, he insisted, I was destined for something interesting like being a winemaker. Being from Michigan, and seeing that winemaking was not a common profession in the area, it was such a strange comment that I had to “Google” it.

From that moment, I was introduced to an exploratory winemaking program. However, because I was underage, I was not permitted to apply. After some research, and with my parents’ blessing, I planted an experimental vineyard in their 20-acre backyard. While at school, I continued to lobby for entrance to the university’s winemaking program.

Eventually, the faculty granted my request. For whatever reason, my first “Google” search was enough of a catalyst that, roughly 18 years later, here I am.

JB: What has been the strangest moment/incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

JN: That is a tough one. . . I can’t think of anything too strange. I suppose what is kind of strange is the ability to travel the world and taste wine with people who don’t speak the same language that I do. Despite that, we are able to have a meaningful exchange entirely based on gestures and sound effects — apparently there is a universal way to describe wine without the use of actual words.

(Bartolome Esteban Murillo, ‘The Marriage Feast at Cana’, 1672)

JB: Your favorite wine reference in a work of literature?

JN: Still impressed with the whole water into wine reference!

For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out his Mise en Place website.

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