Raise a Glass to Amy LaBelle, Founder of LaBelle Winery

Some say that life is like fine wine--it improves with time. The same could be said of Amy LaBelle’s career.

Amy LaBelle, Founder of LaBelle Winery. Photo credit Lindsay Leigh Photography

Raise a Glass to Amy LaBelle, Founder of LaBelle Winery

Written by Crystal Ward Kent for New Hampshire Women Magazine

Amy LaBelle, Founder of LaBelle Winery. Photo credit Lindsay Leigh Photography

Some say that life is like fine wine–it improves with time. The same could be said of Amy LaBelle’s career. LaBelle, who owns LaBelle Winery and affiliated businesses in Amherst, New Hampshire, started her career in corporate law, working long hours in the hustle and grind of Boston’s legal scene. The experience gave her many valuable skills, but while she enjoyed her career and colleagues, she was ready to embrace something new.

In 2001, LaBelle took a vacation to Nova Scotia and wound up exploring a back road, way out in the countryside. She discovered a tiny little winery and as she savored their wine and looked about, she had an epiphany. 

“It struck me that this was what I wanted to do, was even meant to do,” she recalls. “I knew with absolute clarity that this needed to be my career path.”

LaBelle did not immediately rush home and quit her day job, but instead buckled down and began using every minute of her spare time to learn everything she could about the wine business. “I had always been interested in wine and wanted to learn more about what makes a fine wine, the growing, the processing and so on, but I had never previously seen myself as a winemaker,” she says. “I also had no budget for wine through most of my college and law school years, so I rarely got to even enjoy it! But, I had always loved to cook and create nice meals for family and friends. I saw learning about wines and wine pairings as an extension of that, as a way to up my culinary game. It wasn’t until I stood in that winery that I saw wine as a business.”

A closer look: LaBelle Winery Photo credit: Lindsay Leigh Photography

 

LaBelle started making wine on a part-time basis at Alyson’s Orchards in Walpole, New Hampshire. By 2005, she did her first commercial wine production, selling 400 gallons through the orchard. The wine was well received, so she doubled her production. Demand continued to increase, and she would double her production every year for the next several years. Encouraged by the upward trend, she purchased 11 acres in Amherst, New Hampshire in 2011 and went on to plant her first vines that same year.

It did not take long for LaBelle to need her own larger space for producing her wine. Now married, she and her husband, Cesar Arboleda, moved the winemaking operation into a barn behind their house in Amherst. They both were still working their day jobs, but would commit every free hour in the evenings and weekends to making wine. “When Cesar met me, I was already neck-deep in growing this business, but to my surprise, he married me anyway!” laughs LaBelle. “He has been my constant supporter and partner throughout all of my ventures.  He never dismisses my dreams as crazy, but always says ‘How can I help?’ I have been so fortunate to have him as my life partner.”

Those early years were challenging for the young couple, as they were growing a family as well as a business. “At one point, I was still working my day job, expanding the wine business, and had two children under the age of four,” recalls LaBelle. “I don’t think I slept more than four hours a night sometimes.”

Local Flavor    

Beautiful entertaining space inside LaBelle Winery. Photo credit Lindsay Leigh Photography

 

For LaBelle, New Hampshire was always her first choice for developing her winery. She never saw the need to move to California wine country, but instead wanted to create a unique product that would become a name, first in the Granite State, and later throughout the New England region. She has succeeded at both.

“Think about it, the wine is as much about the winemaker as it is about the land,” she says. “If a good French winemaker moved to New Hampshire to make wine, wouldn’t the wine be great? It would, because the skill involved with winemaking goes hand in hand with Mother Nature. It is the knowledge that is important. I knew the main ingredient I needed was knowledge. This endeavor is not a hobby for me; I’m serious about winemaking and producing great wine.”

     As the business grew, LaBelle realized she needed to learn more. She signed up for the online winemaking certification program at the University of California/Davis, an intensive program that is considered one of the best winemaking programs in the world.  “I knew that I needed to know more than just the viticulture and the marketing side of the business,” she says. “I needed to understand the labwork, the science of the wine from the molecular level, so that the wine’s chemistry is right. If you have the chemistry right, the flavor profile of the wine will be ready to confidently present to the public. “

Inside LaBelle Winery. Photo credit Lindsay Leigh Photography

     The winemaking certification course proved to be one of her more difficult undertakings and took approximately four years to complete due to the number of courses involved. “Because of the time difference between here and California, I was taking these classes at nine o’clock at night. I’d be up until midnight doing biology and organic chemistry—really tough stuff that I’d never had before, and this was after already putting in a full day’s work. When it came time for the actual labwork, I had to fly to California to do some of the labs, as certain ones had to be done onsite.”

     The dedication and hard work have paid off, as today, LaBelle Winery includes not just a successful winemaking business, but also daily wine tastings, winery and vineyards tours, a popular bistro, event rental space, culinary classes, and The Winemaker’s Kitchen line of culinary products. These are made with LaBelle wines, produced at the winery, and sold in the gift shop. Both the Amherst location, and the new Portsmouth, New Hampshire wine shop include The Gallery at LaBelle Winery, which showcases local artists. LaBelle Winery is now considered not just New Hampshire’s premier winery, but one of New England’s finest wineries as well.  “The goal was always to create a brand that encompassed wine, food, dining, entertaining, art—the whole hospitality experience,” explains LaBelle. “We want to help people create those memorable times with friends and family.  We have a fantastic team on board, and our bistro chef is amazing. You will find no finer cuisine anywhere in New Hampshire.”

    For all her success, LaBelle has faced a number of challenges along the way. “It can be a lonely business,” she admits. “The wine-making community here is far apart geographically—it’s not like California where there can be many vineyards close together. If you have questions about what equipment to buy or have a problem, there is no one to run over and chat with. However, thanks to my classes at UC/Davis, I have built up a community of mentors at a distance who are always there if I have a question. I can just pick up the phone or reach out to my fellow winemakers on FaceTime. That’s been a huge help. I also wasn’t prepared for how fast or how big the business would grow.

I never thought I’d have 130 employees, so that’s been a learning curve.  I know I’m responsible for people’s livelihoods and families, so that’s something that is always on my mind. I want us to succeed for everyone’s sake. I’ve also had to learn how to motivate employees. In the beginning, I naively expected everyone to jump on board with my dreams, but now I accept that sometimes people need convincing. It’s all made me a better businessperson.”

     LaBelle acknowledges that the wine business is still male-dominated, but sees things starting to change. “It is getting better, but worldwide, only 20 percent of wine is produced by women,” she says. “I was the only women in New England running a wine business when I started, and there was not a lot of support. Thankfully, that reaction didn’t discourage me, it galvanized me. The fire lit inside me helped me become one of the largest winemakers in New England.”

     Beyond the business, LaBelle’s winemaking career has given her personal satisfaction, such as more time with her children. “I’ve worked hard and still work hard, but I can be flexible and make my own hours. I don’t miss soccer games; I can volunteer at school and bake cookies for events. I get to have a life and be part of my kids’ lives.”

Toasting the Future

  

Amy LaBelle, Founder of LaBelle Winery. Photo credit Lindsay Leigh Photography

  For all of her success, LaBelle remains a visionary with more dreams in the pipeline. “I want to open a distillery and distill our own bourbons, vodkas and whiskeys,” she says. “We hope to build this very near the winery, and then add a tavern. We see the tavern as becoming a neighborhood pub where friends meet up and relax. We hope to have things like bocce ball and corn hole games, fun things like that.  Eventually, I hope to have a television show. I love teaching people about wine and wine and food pairings, and already host classes here, so doing it on TV is a logical next step. We are actually testing the waters with some short spots on topics such as wine cocktails and preparing the perfect cheese board. These will air on NHPTV in early 2019.”

     LaBelle has good advice for other women looking to chart a unique life course. “Save your money! I’ve always been a saver. As soon as I had a job, I started saving. I was so poor all through school, but once I had good work, I started saving. Building up that reserve meant I had the funds I needed to pursue my dream once I had identified it. It allowed me to buy the land for the winery and launch the business. Saving sounds old-fashioned, but it’s not and it can make a huge difference in terms of following your dreams.”

     “I also tell people to be patient,” she continues. “Rewards do not come instantly, even though our society wants that to be true. It took me 4,083 days, or 12 years, to make my dream of running a winery come true. Even though I was still working another job, I made sure I did something every day to get me further to my goal. Some days I could only spend 15 minutes on something related to the winery, but that was 15 minutes that got me closer to making it a reality. Perseverance is key. Sometimes there is a reason why things don’t happen right away. Maybe you don’t know enough yet; maybe the timing isn’t right.  If you work hard and don’t give up, you can make your dreams happen. I’m proof of that.”  

1 Comment

  1. I’m happy that women are being recognized in NH and that it includes supporting a growing wine industry in NH. However. this article insinuates that Mrs. Labelle is the most knowledgeable wine maker in NH and there aren’t any other wine makes within NH that have her knowledge is not only inaccurate it’s completely wrong. My wife Erin Wiswall has a PhD in BioChemistry, has a certification in the study of Enology & Viticulture from UC Dais, CA. and has had this certification longer than anyone else here in NH that I am aware. E rte in Wiswall is also owner of a NH commercial winery & distillery, Haunting Whisper Vineyard and Spirits. Erin is also Sr. Director of Analytical for Masoma Corp. a subsidiary of Lallemand Corp., which is one of the largest producers of yeast in the world, producing yeast for every market including for the product tion of wine and spirits. Erin works with the largest producers of alcohol in world including companies such as Diagio. Erin is not only one of the most knowledgable people in NH about fermentation but one of the most knowledgable people in the world about fermentation.

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