Meet the ladies who are taking Michigan’s wine industry to new heights
By Markham Heid
In 1999, when Elizabeth Schweitzer passed her fourth and final exam and achieved the designation of Master Sommelier, she was just the eighth woman in the world to do so. Even now, 22 years later, only 28 American women — and 269 people worldwide — have matched her achievement. To put that in perspective, more than twice as many people have been to space. “Twenty years ago when I stepped into their ranks, the Court of Master Sommeliers was a major boys club,” says Schweitzer, who has been the in-house Master Somm and wine director at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island for the past 12 years. “I could feel some resistance — that I had to try a little harder or be a little better — but I just pushed through that.”
Only about half of U.S. states are home to a Master Sommelier, and just a handful can point to a woman Master Somm on its roster of wine professionals. Remarkably, Michigan is home to three Master Somms — all of them women. Schweitzer is joined here by Claudia Tyagi, a Southgate-based wine consultant, and Madeline Triffon, who runs the wine program at Plum Market and who was the first American woman to achieve Master Somm status.
Michigan’s enviable group of top-tier sommeliers isn’t the only way the state punches above its weight when it comes to women in the wine industry. From award-winning winemakers and restauranteurs to vineyard owners, distributors, and importers, women are undeniably at the forefront of the state’s wine scene.
This marks a noticeable shift from just a decade or two ago. “When I first moved up here 20 years ago, the wine industry and winemaking were largely the domain of men, but that picture has really changed,” says Amanda Danielson, a sommelier, wine educator, and owner of Trattoria Stella in Traverse City.
Like Schweitzer, Danielson can recall occasions when she ran up against condescension or haughtiness among the old male guard of Michigan wine. But for the most part, she and others say that they’ve felt mostly welcomed and encouraged in their wine-related pursuits, and that their gender hasn’t been a factor. “I think there are significant, positive opportunities here now for women who are involved in wine and hospitality, and there will be even more in the future as our community continues to grow,” Danielson says. “I hope all these talented young women recognize Michigan as a wine destination where you can spread your wings.”
From Nicole Roché Triplett, one of the state’s few winemakers of color and owner of Kalamazoo’s Twine Urban Winery, to Nancie Oxley, vice president and winemaker at St. Julian Winery and Distillery and beyond, there are countless profile-worthy women involved in Michigan’s wine scene. Here is a small sampling of those who are pushing it to ever-greater heights.
Winemaker, Shady Lane Cellars
After earning her master’s in horticulture and viticulture at Michigan State University, Kasey Wierzba worked at some of Napa Valley’s most esteemed vineyards, including the iconic Far Niente in Oakville. Wierzba’s winemaking CV could have earned her a job just about anywhere in the world — but Traverse City, where she was born and raised, drew her back in 2012.
Wierzba found a job at Shady Lane Cellars in Suttons Bay, where in 2016 she ascended to the post of head winemaker. Awards and accolades soon followed. At the 2019 San Francisco International Wine Competition, Shady Lane collected two gold and two bronze medals. Top honors went to the winery’s white wines — a Grüner Veltliner and a Riesling — but two of their red wines, a Cabernet Franc and a Blaufränkisch, also received medals. “I think Northern Michigan, because we’re a newer winegrowing region, is misunderstood as being a lesser winegrowing region,”
Wierzba says. “But we have all the attributes here to make beautiful, complex wines with distinction.”
Owner, The Royce Wine Bar
When The Royce Detroit opened downtown in 2016, the city’s thirst for natural and sustainably produced wines was under-nurtured, to put it nicely. But owner Ping Ho, a former music executive and native of Singapore, was committed to featuring wines made by independent producers, especially those who use biodynamic farming practices or other sustainable methods. “We offer a wide selection of wines, but we’ve always focused on small, family-owned, low-intervention wines that have not been manipulated with additives,” says Ho, who lives in southwest Detroit.
“When we opened, this wasn’t a popular category, but I think the wine-drinking community here has evolved and matured since then.” There are now many more local options for those interested in low-intervention and sustainably-produced wines, and Ho deserves credit for helping to lead that change.
Ho also owns West Village restaurant and butcher shop Marrow and boutique seafood spot Mink, which opened in 2019. She says that she moved to Detroit in part because she saw an opportunity in the hospitality sector. But she’s stayed and expanded her business because she’s felt welcomed. “I’ve benefited from the openness of Detroiters and the institutions here that want to support small businesses and women-owned businesses,” she says. “There’s so much growth here, and we’re proud to be a part of that.”
For the Goodell family, operating a vineyard and winery was a long-held aspiration. “My brother and I grew up around wine,” says Emily Goodell, who was raised in Grosse Pointe Farms but spent summers in Leelanau. “I can remember playing hide-and-seek with him in an Italian barrel room while my parents were at a tasting.” Goodell studied wine and plant science as an undergrad at Cornell University in New York, where she spent much of her time around the Finger Lakes, a winemaking region that many compare to Northern Michigan’s.
Later, she earned her master’s in enology and viticulture from the University of California, Davis, and then worked in vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Germany’s Mosel wine region. “Around that time, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, so the family winery idea was suddenly in the has-to-happen-now stage,” she says. She moved back to Michigan and, with her parents and brother, bought property in Leelanau in 2011, which they christened Amoritas Vineyards (the name is a combination of amore and veritas — or love and truth). They planted their first grapes in 2013 and opened their tasting room four years later.
Goodell’s mother passed away in 2016, but Goodell says she was able to taste the family vineyard’s first wines. “We’re most proud of our estate-grown whites — our Rieslings and our Pinot Blanc and our field blend,” Goodell says. “We’re making wines that reflect the fruit and the season, but are also easy to drink and pair well with food.”
Spend any time talking with Michigan wine insiders, and Madeline Triffon’s name comes up early and often. “For the last three decades, Madeline has set the tone and been the trailblazer for the wine community here,” says Michelle DeHayes, a fellow somm and former hospitality pro who now works for a Detroit-area wine distribution company. “I don’t ever remember feeling like it was an obstacle being a woman in wine here in Michigan, and I attribute a lot of that to Madeline’s influence.”
Unlike many of Michigan’s wine stars, most of whom grew up here, Triffon, who now lives in Southgate, is not a native. Though she’s American, she grew up in Greece, where her family moved when she was very young. She first came to Michigan as an undergrad at U-M, and she discovered wine while working at The Lord Fox, a now-shuttered Ann Arbor restaurant known for its cocktail service and wine list. Even before she became the first American woman to achieve Master Somm status, Triffon’s talent and work ethic landed her hospitality jobs typically reserved for men: She worked as a sommelier at The London Chop House and several other Detroit institutions that, at the time, had nearly all-male waitstaffs.
More recently, her work as wine program manager for Plum Market has made the chain one of the premier wine retailers in the Midwest. “I was always so fiercely determined to do my best that I really didn’t think about my gender much,” Triffon says. “Wine is traditionally a male-dominated field, but frankly I never felt like doors were closed to me.”
Sommelier and Hospitality Consultant
In 2019, Food & Wine named Liz Martinez one of its “sommeliers of the year.” At the time, the Corktown resident was running the wine program at Detroit’s Prime & Proper. She says that the recognition was in many ways an affirmation of her dedication and work ethic, as well as her commitment not just to wine but to the hospitality industry. “To be honest with you, it’s hard to find people who really care about hospitality, and I do,” Martinez says.
Before Prime and Proper, she spent years in Chicago, first at Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo and later as wine director at the Purple Pig, a James Beard-award winning restaurant that served 90 different wines by the glass and that she says “taught me a lot.” These days, when she’s not working for local wine distributors, Martinez spends much of her time educating and mentoring younger women in hospitality — a growing cohort. “Going into this profession as a strong woman is not always easy,” she says, “and finding that strength in other women has been great.”