BRIDGMAN — Cousins Lauren Kniebes and Melanie Owen just get each other.
“We are different people so we kind of compliment each other,” Owen said. “Sometimes we say the exact same things without realizing it. Like I’ll say something to someone and they’ll be like, ‘Lauren already told me that.’ At least we’re consistent.”
This, they say, has made them very successful owners of Lazy Ballerina Winery. The pair grew up together in Coloma, and worked together before breaking out on their own in 2013.
“My mom and Lauren’s dad are brother and sister. Our family had a farm, quite large at one time, on the corner of Becht and Hagar Shore Road in Coloma,” Owen said. “My mom lives on one corner, our one uncle lives a couple steps down, and Lauren’s dad lived around the corner. He runs what’s left of the farm: Grape Vine Nursery.”
Their Grandma Nita used to live on the nursery as well and some of the wines they make are named after her. They get some of the grapes used in their wines from the family farm.
The name of their business comes from a trellis system that grapes grow on.
The original tasting room at 315 State St. in St. Joseph opened in June 2015, through the help of the Kickstarter platform. Their second site, at 4209 Lake St. in Bridgman, opened in spring 2017.
The two had gotten their start in the wine industry at Contessa Wine Cellars in Coloma.
“I started when I was 16 just washing glasses, restocking, then eventually became the tasting room manager and worked there all through college,” Kniebes said. “And Melanie worked there for eight years and took over as manager when I graduated from college, but I still worked there part-time.”
Owen said the two would work all day at the winery and drink wine all evening and talk about what would be fun, what they could do better or what was bad.
“Opening our own place was just something we constantly talked about and enjoyed,” she said. “It was many many conversations probably repeated, because you know when you’re drinking you repeat yourself, and just different ideas over the years. We just kept getting more and more serious, and after having to go out and do desk jobs, we decided that’s just not for us.”
Kniebes earned a degree in sales and business marketing from Western Michigan University, and Owen obtained a hospitality management certification and a general associates degree from Lake Michigan College, then went back and got a business and marketing degree from Sienna Heights University.
“We like to do things differently,” Owen said. “We’re the only woman-owned winery in Southwest Michigan. We wanted to have a very inviting and friendly atmosphere that was fun.”
Kniebes said it’s all about listening to the customers and not exactly what the wine industry says.
“You don’t have to like dry wines no matter what people say about ‘real’ wine drinkers,” she said.
When they first opened, it was just the two of them.
“We couldn’t do anything outside of work together because if one was gone, the other had to be there,” Owen said.
Now they have hired additional staff, though most of them are family and friends, they said, so it’s impossible to separate their home and work lives.
“Melanie’s husband is our wine maker. He works for us full-time, so I guess it’s more balancing how much you work with each other,” Kniebes said.
The two split their time between their Bridgman and St. Joseph locations, which has proved to be challenging, but they’ve found what works for them.
“In our industry in particular it’s very regulated, the alcohol industry can be a challenge for that reason,” Kniebes said. “There’s a lot of rules and laws you have to follow.”
One thing that changed for them when they hired employees was trying to convey their procedures to them.
“We knew them in our heads, we didn’t have to tell each other,” Owen said. “We knew what we were doing, we knew where to put the box. So communicating that, and creating all these systems and procedures from scratch was a challenge. It’s not something I would have thought of, going in to it.”
Kniebes said they have been fortunate to have amazing people to help them.
“And the customers,” Owen said. “That’s our favorite part. It’s something we don’t get to do a lot because we’re so busy doing everything else, but we love working the tasting room.”
When it comes to expanding more in the future, Owen said there are definitely have some plans in the works.
“They’re not final detailed yet. We’re just outgrowing our space, especially for production and storage,” she said.
When it comes to long-term goals, Kniebes said it’s always been their hope to open more tasting rooms.
“And to see where this brand can really take us,” she said.
Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman