Ashley Schram’s first job was at her dad’s bowling alley, which she says instilled in her an early desire to be her own boss. After various jobs in media, real estate, and financial services, Ashley (alongside her husband, Aaron) launched Minnesota’s first singly owned and operated winery and brewery: Schram Vineyards. As both a small business owner and mother of two, Ashley certainly has her hands full, but she says that pursuing her dreams is worth the hard work and busy schedule. Keep reading to learn more about Ashley’s career path and the charming story of how Schram Vineyards came to be.
Tell us about your company.
My husband and I own Schram Vineyards, which is Minnesota’s first—and currently only—winery and brewery. From growing grapes to making and selling wine and beer, we do everything on site. We’re one of the few businesses to take the product from plant to retail, all in one spot.
What was your first job growing up, and what did you learn from it?
I worked at my dad’s bowling alley in Minnetonka. He owned Aqua Bowl, a 16-lane bowling alley and restaurant. I wore a lot of hats while working there—I worked with my grandma in the kitchen as a breakfast chef, cleaned old bowling shoes behind the counter, and helped out with kids’ birthday parties. Everything I now know about entrepreneurship and how to run a business with integrity, I initially learn from my dad and how he ran his business. I really honed my customer service skills there, too.
Tell us about your career path before starting your company, and how it got you to where you are today.
I graduated from college with a journalism degree and moved to New York City to work for the Hallmark Channel. Living in Manhattan was quite an experience, but I quickly learned that it just wasn’t the lifestyle for me, so I moved back to Minnesota about six months later.
When I was 23, I got my real estate license and worked with my mom to sell houses. I also worked on many condo projects in Uptown during the condo boom. When the market went south, I moved into financial sales and worked for Allianz for about six and a half years. That was the last job I had until I made the move to working full-time at the winery.
I’m just not cut out for a desk job! Perhaps because of how I grew up, I always envisioned working for myself. However, the jobs I had prior to being self-employed taught me a lot about planning, sales, and how to successfully run a business.
Tell us the story of why and how you started your business.
On our first date, my husband, Aaron, told me that his dream was to open a winery. I thought that sounded so romantic! I had always liked the idea of living in a place where I could entertain friends and family, so a winery was very appealing to me.
Aaron grew up on a farm, so he had a great agricultural background. While we were dating, I started searching for a rural property with at least 10 acres and a house where we might be able to start this journey together. We wanted to be close to the Twin Cities, since we both worked full-time jobs there. I also had a lot of family in the west metro, so Waconia seemed like a good fit. When we first saw the property we’re at now, we knew it was special—we loved the south-facing slope, lake views, and cute little farmhouse. It was the perfect place to live while starting the vineyard.
In 2008, we started planting the vineyard, and we spent the next five years remodeling the building and transforming the property. In 2013, the vineyard opened to the public, and in 2014, we added the brewery.
What is a typical day like for you?
After I get the kids off to school, I jump on the computer to check emails, tasks for the day, and what our employees are working on. During the week, I’m going to meetings, planning for the weekend, and doing all kinds of behind-the-scenes work.
People think we only work when the winery is officially open, but the truth is, it’s a 24/7 operation. There are workers here all week to prune the vineyard, landscape, bottle wine, prepare the tasting room, clean, order supplies, etc.
I have my hands in many pots, but we have good managers in place now, which frees up my time to focus on business planning.
Tell us about a hard time in your life. What did you learn from it or how did it make you stronger?
There are always challenges running a business like this, but the most challenging time was when Aaron and I were first trying to launch the winery. We both had full-time jobs and two young kids. We’d work 40 hours during the week, spend evenings with our kids, and stay up late to work on winery stuff after we put the kids to bed. On weekends, we’d open up our backyard to winery and brewery guests. It was a really crazy time, and we didn’t sleep much during those years! I actually wrote this blog post during the peak of that insanity, because I wanted to capture what it was like to be a working mother of two toddlers while running a business on the side.
If you were to start your business over today, what would you do differently?
To be honest, there is a lot that I’d do differently if I had to do it over again. The biggest thing is spending more time thinking about the big picture and creating long-term plans. At the same time, however, Aaron and I have both learned a lot from those growing pains. I think being intentional about learning from our mistakes along the way is part of what makes us easy to support. Customers have seen us grow and invest back into our business.
What’s next for your business? What are some of your short-term or long-term goals?
Aaron and I always looking for new opportunities to help our business grow, and we’ve explored many potential paths throughout the last couple of years. We feel that the market for wine is among the greatest in Minnesota, and we’re well-positioned to take Minnesota wine to the next level. There are a few things currently in the works, and we’re planning some exciting new developments, but it’s not something that I can share yet. Stay tuned!
What do you believe is your single strongest skill that’s helped you succeed?
Passion! I think that’s the base of it all. You can do anything if you’re passionate enough about pursuing it. I may not have a master’s degree, but I have the desire to figure things out and make my business succeed.
Tell us about your life outside of your business.
Since we live on-site at the business, Aaron and I try to get away when can. It helps us keep our sanity and gives our family quality time together away from all the chaos. Right now, our kids are 5 and 7, so it’s nice for them to have gotten to the age where it’s easy to travel. We try to find fun and unique opportunities for them to experience different things. We like boating in the summertime, going to baseball games, skiing, and taking road trips.
Oddly enough, we still love going to wineries on our vacations! It’s always nice to be on the other side of things. I also love to shop—buying new clothes and shoes is how I spoil myself while living on a farm!
How do you balance your career and family/personal life?
This is a great question! Since our home is right next to our business, our personal lives and our business are intertwined. Our kids have gotten to know many of the regulars at the winery, and our employees are like aunts and uncles to them. The winery is a very natural place for them to be, because it’s all they’ve ever known.
Even when we’re at home, we’re still technically at work, so it’s hard not to get pulled back into the winery. There’s always someone there we know or something that needs attention. We’ve learned that if we really want quality time, it’s easiest for us to go somewhere else. We take advantages of Mondays, when the winery is closed, and do something special as a family—like go boating in the afternoon or go out to eat. We also make time to enjoy the property ourselves. Sometimes after we close on Sunday, we go out to the vineyard and hit golf balls with the kids.
QUICK FUN FACTS
What age do you want to retire at?
I’m not sure we’ll ever fully retire!
One travel location on your bucket list?
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
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