Meet two innovators changing the face of Northern Michigan’s wine scene at 2 Lads Winery.

This story is featured in the October 2018 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy. 

Sharp October light filters through the leaves spattering asymmetrical shadows on the curves of Sleepy Hollow Road. The land itself is a sine wave here near the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, dipping and rolling before it flatlines into the watery plane of East Grand Traverse Bay. Coming around the last bend, the curves give way to a stunning hilltop geometry.

Two L’s made of steel, concrete and glass are transposed on an axis made by the rising sun. Symmetrical rows of cabernet franc, pinot noir and chardonnay vines spider out along taut linear trellis wires. The angular steel silhouette of a tractor is parked next to stacked cubes of bottle pallets. It’s not even 10 a.m. and already the parking lot is starting to fill. Four twenty-somethings roll out of a Subaru. A middle-aged couple in shiny white Range Rover coo over the vista. Inside, the tasting room staff are polishing glasses and popping the crown caps from cold bottles of bubbly. Welcome to 2 Lads, the new shape of Old Mission.

Cornel Olivier and Chris Baldyga

What is now arguably the edgiest endeavor in Northwest Michigan’s wine scene began with two lads. Chris Baldyga and Cornel Olivier met at Chateau Grand Traverse where they worked as “cellar rats” in 1999. The two connected through wine and rugby and became friends before Baldyga moved to Grand Rapids to work in retail wine shops and Olivier continued his training and became opening winemaker at Brys Estate.

Raised among cabernet vines in his native South Africa, Olivier’s focus from day one was to produce high-quality red wines in the sandy soils and erratic climate of Northern Michigan. “Cornel brought some of his first bottlings from Brys down for me to taste. My first reaction was ‘holy crap,’ what’s happening in Traverse City?” Chris recalls as we sip the lads’ pinot noir Cuvée Beatrice on a patio overlooking East Bay. Putting $30 bottles of Northwest Michigan cabernet franc and merlot on his retail shelves next to wines from established regions like Napa Valley and watching them disappear in the hands of customers eager for something new led Baldyga and Olivier down a Bacchanalian rabbit hole that would lead to a hilltop cherry orchard replanted to thriving grape vines beside an ultra modern multimillion-dollar gravity-fed winery and tasting room.

Construction began on the property in 2007. Baldyga and Olivier worked with Traverse Architecture Group to manifest their vision of a facility that would embrace modernity and communicate their youthful dressed-down perspective on wine. “We were really young when we started. The whole project was designed to capture that youthful irreverence and let our disruptive attitude flow through the whole thing from top to bottom: bold labels, bold wines, bold building,” Baldyga says. “This all pointed to a modern, angular facility. We really like the juxtaposition of a modern glass and steel building next to a green farm.”

While 2 Lads’ artfully sexy temple of contemporary vino and their hip, matte black labels and matching swag yield a multigenerational buzz to visiting wine tourists, it’s the byproduct of the “green farm” that has undeniably fueled their success.

The art and science of 2 Lads’ grape growing and winemaking is under the jurisdiction of Olivier. He attributes the wines’ purity and power almost wholly to the health of his vineyards. “These soils were almost dead when we found them,” Olivier recalls as we walk between rows upholstered in cover crops. “There haven’t been any pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers applied to these vineyards since they came online in 2008–2009. What we’ve done instead is work to build up the biomass so the vines are existing in a healthy environment. Instead of a sprayer we use a hoe and weed knife to give the soil all the nutrients it needs. The cover crops provide food and habitat for insects, which in turn keeps them out of the canopy.”

Throughout the arc of the growing season, Olivier and his team work tirelessly to prune the vines and manage their yields for optimum phenolic ripeness and concentration. Once the fruit is picked and shuttled into the spotless crush pad, Olivier is just as meticulous, ensuring that yeast strains, maceration times and fermentation temperatures are tailored to the conditions of the grapes in any given year. “Winemaking every year is different,” he admits. “At this point, 10 years in, we’ve seen about all the possible chemical scenarios of the grapes and harvest and can react accordingly. It’s a matter of staying on top of processes in the cellar and making sure everything is meticulously clean and sanitized. Most of the problems that happen with winemaking can be traced back to dirty housekeeping.”

While downstairs in the cellar stainless steel tanks house a living universe of yeast, skins and must as newly harvested pinot gris percolates in the first stages of fermentation, the upstairs tasting room has come to life. The clink of crystal and the excited echoes of 2 Lads wine club members ricochet off polished cement floors.

While 2 Lads produces exquisite chardonnays, rieslings, pinot gris and rosés, the tasting room buzz, by design, is mostly geared toward red wines and bubbles. Tasting room staff pour bottle-fermented sparkling pinot grigio, inky reserve merlot and three distinct cuvées of pinot noir. The cross-bar banter is friendly and unpretentious. Residual sales seem brisk with bottles and cases constantly leaving the door. However, Baldyga says, this, the 2 Lads experience, is the next platform for innovation.

“Right now this works and it’s profitable, but it’s also raucous and loud. We want our guests to really be able to connect with the wines, to change the environment, slow down and have conversations about dirt and winemaking and wine and let the wines be tasted in their best light.”

This best light is going to shine through a new system with seated tastings. Staff will curate personal 20- to 40-minute sessions for small groups with five to six wines and a food component. “We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘how can we change the conversation?” Baldyga says.

And, just like that, 2 Lads takes a new shape.

Experience Old Mission Wines

Of course, 2 Lads is just a taste. There are nine wineries on the Old Mission Wine Trail and a 10th not on the trail, Bonobo. Book a tour bus. Grand Traverse Tours, Brew Bus, and Traverse City Wine and Beer Tours offer a variety of options. Or plan on having a designated driver (you can treat them a bottle or two to enjoy at home).

Traverse food and drinks editor, Tim Tebeau, writes from Petoskey. // Jesse Green shoots commercial, wedding and lifestyle photography from Detroit and Leelanau County. 

Northern Michigan Wine

Photo(s) by Jesse Green