Kristy McClellan and friends Alaina Leech and Michael Topp always dreamed of owning their own business. That dream came true in May 2021 with the purchase of Bon Vin, a wine shop in the North Boardman Lake District of Traverse City known for European wine, from previous owners Ric Cerrini and John Dressler. Since then, they’ve renamed the shop Lake District Wine Co. and shined a spotlight on Michigan wines.
The three entrepreneurs bring extensive — and varied — wine industry experience to their new roles. Leech worked in marketing in the Michigan wine industry for nearly a decade before joining Lake District Wine Co., where she handles marketing, while Topp brings about 20 years of related experience to his role overseeing day-to-day operations and wine club program management. McClellan has a background in hospitality — and over a decade of wine industry experience — and she curates Lake District Wine Co.’s tasting events and works with distributors to procure the shop’s wines. She jumped from taking wine classes at Michigan State University and working at local restaurants to managing a bar in Denver to running the tasting room at Bowers Harbor Vineyards in Traverse City. Along the way, she soaked up everything she could learn about wine.
Here, McClellan discusses how she first developed an interest in wine, her path to co-owning Lake District Wine Co., and how the new co-owners are reinvigorating the wine shop.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get into the wine industry?
A: I grew up in Charlevoix, Michigan, a small tourist town here in northern Michigan, and in addition to working construction for my dad, I started working at the local restaurants and really fell in love with the hospitality industry. I decided to go to Michigan State University for hospitality business, and [in] the summers during college, I had the opportunity to work at a restaurant called Tapawingo, which is in Ellsworth. I was able to work with these phenomenal chefs [there, including Emeril Lagasse and Stuart Brioza,] and quickly realized that there was a very important aspect about fine dining to knowing your wines and that wines really brought people together — the story behind the wine, as well as the experience. You saw with people celebrating a special occasion — an anniversary, an engagement, a birthday — they didn’t order like Diet Coke to celebrate; they would splurge on a really special bottle of wine based on what they were eating or what they were celebrating, or maybe it was [from] a place that they had traveled or visited. And so I just fell in love with the fact that wine brought people together —and even the chemistry between the wine and the food pairings, how it enhanced the flavors in both the wine and the food and the experience.
Q: How did you come to co-own Lake District Wine Co.?
A: I was at Bowers Harbor Vineyards for almost 13 years, and then COVID hit. I had the opportunity to move on and work for Left Foot Charley Winery — I’m the director of sales. And then my friend Alaina and I also started a consulting business to help other wineries and tasting rooms with hospitality, sales training, wine club events, and marketing. So we’ve been doing that. Last spring the opportunity came up to purchase Bon Vin, it was called, and my friend Alaina and my friend Michael and I had always wanted to own our own business, and so we thought this was the perfect opportunity to be able to share local wines as well as old-world wines and use it as a place for education and to really bring the community together. It’s located close to downtown Traverse City in this wonderful neighborhood, and so it’s not just about selling a product — it’s really about being a part of the neighborhood and the community and educating people on wines from everywhere and why they’re unique and special.
Q: The business used to be called Bon Vin. What’s the significance of renaming it to Lake District Wine Co.?
A: We wanted something just to represent the community, the neighborhood, and that area of town is called the Lake District because it’s by the Boardman River. We wanted to give it a name that represented the area, and we liked the name Bon Vin — and they do have a ton of French wines, which we’ve been able to maintain — but we just wanted to represent that we had a little bit of everything.
Q: How has the first year of owning Lake District Wine Co. been going?
A: Really great. We’ve had our best year ever in the history of the store, and the events have been super well received — we’re selling out of our Thursday-night educational events with food and wine pairings. And we started a wine club. We’ve had great success, close to 100 wine club members already. We just love being able to collaborate with the local wineries as well as winemakers or importers from all around the world. And being a part of the local industry, I’m so proud of some of the wines that are coming out of the area, so it’s neat to be able to do a “45th parallel” tasting and try wines from all different areas around the 45th parallel and have Michigan wines taste just as great if not better than wines from everywhere.
Q: Will you make any other changes as co-owners? Have you made any changes so far?
A: The reputation for the store has always been old-world wine dominant, which I think is what made it unique. We didn’t want to take away any of those selections, but we have brought in many more Michigan wines and hard ciders. They had very few hard ciders before, but we wanted to bring in more local beers and hard ciders as well. So I would say mostly the expansion of the local offerings and then of course just doing more of the tasting experiences and events.
Q: Why the focus on local and Michigan wines?
A: I think it comes from growing up here, knowing that we are in such a unique spot in the world being on the Great Lakes. Our wine region up here is so young compared to so many regions throughout the world and even the United States, so I know that there’s so much more growth to be had here. And I think it’s really important, for people that have always just assumed Michigan only makes cherry wine or sweet wines, to open their eyes and let them know that we are making some world-class sparkling wines, dry Rieslings, unique varietals such as Kerner and Blaufränkisch, and just for our wines to be taken a little bit more seriously and appreciated for the microclimate that they’re grown in. It’s important to support the people in your community, too. We work with some local charities as well, and if we support what’s happening in our backyard, then the money stays in our area to give more local people jobs and support the economic growth in Traverse City and Michigan as a whole.
Q: What kinds of educational events do you host?
A: We do comparative tastings, [and] we just started with our wine club a once-a-month tasting event where we’re going to “go around the world.” We’re going to start with Austria and go into different countries each month and learn about their climate and their growing practices and what grapes they pride themselves on and why the tastes are different based on the different terroirs.
We’re also doing industry tastings every Monday. We’re really trying to support anybody working in the wine, restaurant, [and] beer industry and increase the education for them as well, because the more they know about wines from our area but also wines from around the world, the more that our whole area — all the tourists coming to the different wineries and breweries and distilleries — will see that people are taking it seriously, and they’ll be able to speak intelligently about what makes our wines special.