There are few cities in the Twin Cities’ surrounding metro that still cling to their rural roots. Lake Elmo is one of them. Most of the area within Lake Elmo’s city limits is farmland. Cornfields border its roadways. If you’ve got a good arm, you can throw a baseball from one end of its main street to the other.
Back in the 1880s, Lake Elmo was Stillwater’s popular little sister, luring city dwellers as a peaceful summer getaway. These days, the city has to rely on other bait. Interestingly, if you reel ‘er in, you might find a bottle on the end of the line.
The Lake Elmo Wine Company was opened during the summer of 2010 by owner Kim Ommerborn (above). The shop is located across the street from the most famous (and most long-standing) joint in town, The Lake Elmo Inn. While many businesses have come and gone on Lake Elmo’s main drag, this one seems to be settling back on its haunches and getting comfortable.
Walking into the Lake Elmo Wine Company feels like entering a local barn’s open loft. Tall cedar wood ceilings with skylights arch over barrels and bins showcasing wines from all regions of the world. While some wine shops concentrate their inventory on one or two regions (Solo Vino favors Spain and Portugal, for example), this wine shop makes an effort to represent a cross section of the world’s vineyards. Maps line the walls, highlighting hills and valleys in France, Italy, or California. Beyond the bottles, you see shelves of spirits and a sign pointing you toward the beer cave.
The shop’s owner, Ommerborn, is behind the tasting bar most days of the week. Within the first minute of being in the shop, she’ll be asking if you’d like to taste a bright zinfandel or a crisp pinot grigio as you peruse the selection. At this point, it’s likely you’re engaged in conversation with her — talking about which wine might go best with the pasta carbonara you’re making tonight.
If you stick around the Lake Elmo Wine Company long enough, yarns will start to unravel. Then — as is common when one shares conversation over wine — the subject matter gets interesting.
“When I was living in Alsace, I learned that you want a ribbon connecting the start of your meal to your finish,” Ommerborn says. “If you eat chucrute, for example — an Alsatian dish with sauerkraut, potatoes, pork, and other meats — you are going to drink a dry white wine. Maybe a Riesling or a Pinot Grigio from the region, which will allow the acidity and tartness of the dish to marry with the flavors in the wine.”
Ommerborn’s experiences in viticulture come from across the globe: fodder for a tome of red, white, and rosé-stained stories. Pursuing a career in the wine industry was never the plan, though.
Growing up in New Jersey, Ommerborn attended college on the East Coast, studying business. As French was one of her language requirements, she spent a year in Alsace, where the family she lived with introduced her to French cuisine, regional flavors, and the intrigue of pairing food with wine. Since the Alsace trip, Ommerborn knew she loved wine, but reasoned that her path was ultimately in the business world.
“After school, I was hired at a finance company in New York,” Ommerborn says. “It was a Fortune 500 company. Wall Street-related. I was wearing a suit and high heels to work in this high security building, passing heads of state in the hall. For me, at the time, wine was just a hobby.”
She kept her hobby (read, “passion”) alive by going to wine-tasting events and taking classes, constantly driven to learn more. One night, she met a wine importer at a wine tasting that would change her life completely.
“I talked to him for about fifteen minutes and he said, ‘ You know, you should come work for me. ‘And I said, ‘You know, I should.’ And the next day I quit my job in finance,” Ommerborn says, wide-eyed, as if she still can’t believe it. “When I started my new job as a wine representative for T. Edwards Wines, I thought to myself: ‘What did I do?'”
Despite her retrospective shock, the decision to quit her finance job came easily for Ommerborn. Wine is something she genuinely loves, and hey, if we can make a living doing what we love best, the offer doesn’t have to be dangled long. Kim traded in a straight-laced and sterile desk space for an artist loft with stone stairs, grooved from years of use. Her new office had a freight elevator operated by a superintendent named José whom you had to call for if you wanted to go up or down: “José!” you might yell from the ground floor.
There was no lack of character at the new office, to say the least.
“My new boss took me out on the first day. We went from restaurant to restaurant with business cards, Ommerborn says. “He showed me how to meet clients, and he gave me a lot of French restaurants to visit because of my background. I was intimidated because French dining was big at the time. All the New York restaurants had French sommeliers who spoke mostly in French. And New York’s a competitive market! They make it hard for you to get in,” Ommerborn says. “But I got in, and it was great.”
During her years as a wine rep in New York, Ommerborn earned her certification as a sommelier, sold wines to 4 and 5-star restaurants, and traveled extensively to Italy, France, New Zealand, and Napa Valley.
“It was real important for my boss that I went to the actual vineyards to learn about the products we were selling,” Ommerborn says. “I became immersed in the world of wine.”
In a lot of ways, this immersion meant that Ommerborn was up to her elbows in dirt: conversations with growers focused a lot on soil, le terroir, and microclimates. It meant, too, that her hobby became demystified. An early morning in the Bordeaux region, for example, might find Ommerborn tasting barrel samples of premature wine, spitting after tasting, and forecasting the grape flavors ten years down the line. This is decidedly not the same experience as munching a croissant with an espresso on a French terrace, but what the trips to France lacked in typicality, they made up for in breadth of wine education.
After ten years working as a wine rep in New York, Ommerborn bid T. Edwards Wines goodbye, took José’s freight elevator down for the last time, and made another bold, unanticipated move. This time, to Minnesota.
Getting married and following her husband to the Midwest to start a family was no small change from the life Ommerborn was living in New York. The culture shock hit hard with the shift in dialect, in particular. Ommerborn remembers a cashier at the supermarket asking her if she wanted a bag (read, “Baig.”) The question had to be repeated, and in order to clarify an actual paper bag was pointed to. There was also, of course, the wine selection: the East Coast carries more European bottles, while the Midwest tends to supply more domestic wines from the West Coast. It’s a matter of proximity. New York is just plain closer to Europe than we are.
Since moving to the East Metro area of the Twin Cities, Ommerborn discovered the city of Lake Elmo and developed a soft spot for the modest downtown strip with its surrounding rural spaces and farmhouses. Deciding that she’d like to see a spark of life on that strip, Ommerborn found a way to make her hobby-turned-career a part of her life again. Opening the Lake Elmo Wine Company was another easy choice for her to make.
Having made the move and opened a wine shop here, a question is begged: what does she have to say about wines made in the Midwest?
“I don’t always recommend those wines,” Ommerborn says, carefully. “Not because it’s not good wine on its own merit — but because when I ask a customer what they’re looking for, Minnesota wine isn’t always the best fit.”
Ommerborn’s wine shop concept is to keep a tight selection of wines that can fit all budgets and preferences. In many cases, she’s visited the vineyards or personally knows the growers whose wine she sells. At her shop, you don’t see aisles of wine like at Surdyk’s, but you do see the labels changing frequently as Ommerborn orders new wines to fill the emptying bins.
“I like to get to know my clientele. I like to find out what they like and expand their palate from there,” Ommerborn says. “This way, I can recommend bottles that are a little different from what my customers are used to.”
Discussion and education about the bottles she sells is very important to Ommerborn, too. You might see her asking a customer to identify why they like the wine or beer they’ve just tasted. Hosting book clubs, wine classes, or beer seminars, she is eager to keep the conversation flowing, just like the wines and beers she sells.
“What makes wine intriguing is that it’s a balance of two worlds: art and science,” Ommerborn says. “This is what makes people want to study, read, and write about wine instead of just drinking it. Wine is special because you can’t replicate it. You can imitate it, but you can’t replicate it. And there’s always more to taste and more to learn about — you can never know everything.”
Lake Elmo Wine Company
3511 Lake Elmo Ave N
Lake Elmo, MN 55042
HOURS: Mon-Sat 10am–7:30pm
OWNER: Kim Ommerborn