On the Cutting Edge

Focused on its mission, 2 Lads Winery seeks a new wine-tasting experience for patrons. // Photography Courtesy 2 Lads Winery
Harvesting merlot

From the beginning, Chris Baldyga and Cornel Olivier envisioned something different, something bolder, something more modern for their boutique winery high on a hill near the tip of Old Mission Peninsula in northwestern Michigan.

Both had worked for older family or classic-style wineries before embarking on their own in 2006, purchasing a farm and vineyard on a winding stretch of Smokey Hollow Road about 15 miles northeast of Traverse City. They met as cellar rats at nearby Chateau Grand Traverse, where Baldyga once helped with vineyard work during high school summers.

Looking to play up their youth — they were both around 30 at the time — as well as their camaraderie on and off the rugby field, the pair came up with 2 Lads Winery, eschewing the traditional use of family or geographic names or “chateau” as part of their brand. They also created a stylish, distinct matte black label, foregoing bland or kitschy designs.

And breaking from the norm in Michigan’s then-fledgling wine industry, they built an industrial-style building to house their tasting room and wine-making operations. The 10,500-square-foot steel-and-concrete structure includes a 1,300-square-foot tasting room, accented with bright colors and shapes and a long bar fronting a floor-to-ceiling window with a panoramic view of the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, the shoreline just 1,000 feet away.

“Michigan is one of the emerging, more youthful wine areas in the world,” Baldyga said. “It doesn’t have a lot of street cred globally or around the nation, but we show well at the world-class level, comparing our wines against others. We wanted to capture the boldness, the energy of making wine in Michigan. It’s challenging but exciting.

Chris Baldyga
Chris Baldyga

“We’re pretty irreverent winemakers,” he added, noting winemaker and business partner, Olivier, a South African transplant, came to northern Michigan as part of a work-and-study abroad program and stayed. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to create a less stuffy feel.”

In the decade since, 2 Lads has exceeded their expectations, and they’ve managed to remain true to their initial goals, making a limited selection of quality sparkling and still wines from just six grape varietals, including riesling, chardonnay and cabernet franc, grown on the 58-acre “green farm.” They produce about 8,000 cases a year with limited distribution.

They’ve also refrained from making drastic changes. The parking lot has never been expanded and still has just 14 spots. They’ve resisted adding a deck on the lakeside, despite persistent requests from visitors who want to enjoy their wine al fresco.

Stepping into the winery’s second decade, the owners are rethinking one significant part of their operation: the tasting room experience of guests, as well as employees.

“It’s become a dull roar,” Baldyga said, noting servers have to shout over the tasting room clatter to communicate with guests during busy months. “It shouldn’t be a rip-roaring … experience for anybody. I think we’re plasticizing the experience. We need to decelerate. Our job is to slow things down, to create that moment of discovery.”

Plans have not been fully formed, but 2 Lads envisions a different, calmer tasting room in the spring. Guests will be directed to a table or the bar to take a seat and enjoy a wine flight, perhaps paired with food. There will be no more lining up at the bar or standing shoulder to shoulder in the tasting room waiting to elbow a spot.

Reservations will be encouraged, and walk-ins will be accepted for seating only. The tasting room will have six tables, five seating six people and one seating four. In addition, the bar, currently stand-up service, will have 10 seats.

Baldyga imagines some guests will be irritated to show up and not have space readily available or to be able to linger in the tasting room. He said he expects the interaction with a designated server per table will take a little longer, meaning guest turnover will be far less.

“You won’t be hearing a monologue. Our servers will be savvy and professional enough to tell whether customers want to talk about wine or engage with the people they’re with,” he said, pausing before adding, “If you have a better experience, you’ll want to come back.”

That move doesn’t surprise Michael Schafer, a sommelier and advocate of Michigan wines, who said 2 Lads has been cutting edge since the winery opened, succeeding on its own terms. Its selection of higher-end wines should enable it to prosper, even with a heretofore-unheard-of model for a Michigan tasting room.

“It’s a calculated risk for them, but I think it can work,” said Schafer, who bills himself as The Wine Counselor, offering educational classes on wine and spirits. “They’re in the upper echelons of Michigan wineries. If it doesn’t work, they can go back to doing what they were doing before. It’s a no-lose situation, really.”

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer. He writes frequently about Michigan’s growing wine industry.

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