Saluti to a Giant

St. Julian’s David Braganini helped cement Michigan’s reputation for excellence

The Michigan Wine industry has lost one of its giants. Dave Braganini, who headed St. Julian, the state’s largest and oldest continually operating family-owned winery, died in July. He was 65.

Braganini and the three generations of St. Julian owners are to Michigan what the Mondavi family is to wine in California’s Napa Valley. And like the Mondavis, they’re rock-solid Italians.

I first met Braganini in the early 1980s when I began writing wine columns for the Detroit Free Press. A few years earlier, he had gone to work for his father, Apollo, at St. Julian.

The Meconi family, Braganini’s maternal grandparents who founded St. Julian, had done well. Starting in out in Windsor, Ontario, they moved it to the Detroit area briefly, and when Prohibition ended in 1933, found their way to Paw Paw.

Braganini was a native of Kalamazoo, a graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., and served on various boards, including the Michigan Wine Producer’s Association and WineAmerica.

Braganini was affable and handsome — trim with crinkly, smiling eyes, a wide grin, and jet-black hair that turned more silver with each harvest. He loved antiques and old cars, and for several years drove a bright blue convertible with a white leather interior.

When Braganini took over from his father, St. Julian’s had a solid niche market with fruit wines, highly sweet whites, and fortified ports and sherries that appealed to the “little-old-lady” market.

St. Julian had held on through Prohibition by making sacramental wine for the Catholic Church, and also sweet wines made largely from Concord grape juice, under the name Sholom Kosher Wines (they still use the name for a sweet Concord wine).

However, by the 1980s, the market headed toward serious and more expensive fine wines. There were dry reds and whites, and of different grapes than Michigan was growing at the time.

A company St. Julian’s size is not a ship that can turn on a dime. That was part of Braganini’s challenge. When Michigan winemakers began experimenting with the vinifera French varieties, Braganini became convinced and took the plunge, easing St. Julian into chardonnay, cabernet franc, merlot, and, of course, the big winner: riesling.

One wine cemented both Michigan and St. Julian’s reputation: St. Julian Solera Cream Sherry. It began taking top honors in multiple California competitions. The medals kept coming, signaling repeatedly that Michigan was a serious player.

Braganini’s legacy may also be the line ushered in 1999 that bears his name. There are 15 upper-end Braganini Reserve labels, including Meritage, Cabernet Franc, Chancellor, various rosés, Chardonnay, Traminette, late harvest Vidal, and Vignoles.

They’re all invariably top picks in blind tastings every year, and still improving.

Braganini is survived by his daughter, Angela Braganini, his two sisters, Diana Statsman and Marianne Barthel, and his two brothers, John and Thomas. His son, Gene Braganini, died in 2007.

A statement on St. Julian’s website said: “His passion for our mission and love for his employees is what makes St. Julian what it is today. As we mourn Dave’s passing and reflect on the impact he’s had on us; we know that Dave’s memory and spirit will live on through our Family and through each and every one of our products.’’

He’d like that. Saluti e mille grazie, David.