courtesy The Cabinet Press
Thursday, October 29, 2009
By Dean Shalhoup
AMHERST – Cesar Arboleda was quite skeptical, he admits, when the woman who would become his wife told him she was about to hop off the corporate merry-go-round and turn her homespun hobby into a wildly successful business.
Then he tasted her homemade blueberry wine.
“I said, ‘you made this?’ ” Arboleda said, recounting the moment that dashed his preconceived notion that hard-working corporate attorneys should be enjoying, not making, wine.
So when Amy LaBelle proudly nodded her head, Arboleda knew he was sold.
“She made a believer out of me,” Arboleda said, as he and LaBelle maneuvered around stacks of boxed-up wine bottles and giant, stainless-steel vats sprouting miles of hoses, the tools of their trade for the last five years.
While LaBelle Winery’s roots actually go back to the summer of 2001, when LaBelle whipped up her first batch in her South Boston brownstone, its widespread popularity and impressive string of strong showings at big-time national and international competitions began in 2004, the year LaBelle and Arboleda met.
Today, a smallish, oblong barn, high atop Chestnut Hill, just about where Amherst gives way to neighboring New Boston, is home to the comparatively tiny winery with the rapidly rising reputation.
Inside, Arboleda and LaBelle are already starting to run out of wall space for their medals and certificates, an impressive collection to which 12 more were added just this year.
They brought six of those medals – three of which are gold – home from one event, the annual Indiana International Wine Competition, which just happens to be one of the largest in the nation, LaBelle said.
“They had something like 3,200 different wines from 15 different countries entered,” she said. “Judges came from all over the country, they sampled around 120 wines each day.
“Needless to say we were thrilled with the results,” she added.
Then there was the International Eastern Wine Competition, an annual springtime event in upstate New York and one of the nation’s oldest, at which LaBelle’s Dry Apple and Apple Cranberry wines scored medals.
LaBelle Winery makes more than a dozen fruit wines, many of which are under $15. Wines are available at dozens of locations statewide, including several in the Souhegan Valley. A full list is available at www.labellewinerynh.com.
The first seeds of what would become LaBelle and Arboleda’s labor of love were sown back in 2001, when LaBelle was a single, career woman, just turning 30 and on vacation in Canada’s exquisite Maritime region.
It was in a tiny winery in Nova Scotia, LaBelle said, that she “had one of those moments.”
“They were making this wonderful blueberry wine …everyone seemed so happy, and it just hit me: ‘I can do this. This is what I want to do,’” she said.
Despite having no background in wine making – and the fact that ”nobody in my family was a big wine drinker,” LeBelle said she was confident that her love and appreciation of good food would make up the difference.
A month later, a fragrant concoction on its way to becoming blueberry wine filled the brownstone condo, delighting her neighbors, she said. “I was on the top floor … the whole building smelled so good,” she said.
But then came that infamous Tuesday morning that no one will ever forget.
At work in her office in a Boston high-rise, LaBelle was among the thousands ordered to immediately vacate the financial district and downtown area. With traffic impossibly snarled and motionless, she walked home and watched the horror unfold on TV.
Soon, she said, the man she was dating at the time called, worried, as many were that morning, that Boston might be on the 9/11 hijackers’ list of targets. “He told me we should evacuate the city,” LaBelle recalls.
Grabbing a sturdy box and pillows for padding, she gently readied for evacuation her brand-new love: That first jug of blueberry wine.
“I felt so connected to my wine, I had to take it with me,” she said.
Boston, her condo and LaBelle all emerged unscathed, as did her wine. “We drank it a year later … it was very good,” she said.
LaBelle, 38, had just launched the business when she and Arboleda, 37, met in 2004. Both worked at Fidelity’s Merrimack facility – she as a company attorney and he in information technology.
LaBelle started small, making three kinds of apple wine and selling them at Alyson’s Orchard, a 500-acre apple and fruit farm and conference center in Walpole, just north of Keene.
She sold out. Returning with a larger stock in 2006, she sold out even faster.
The couple married that year and moved to the large, Chestnut Hill Colonial, underneath which they carved out their wine cellar. The local climate is such that Mother Nature keeps the temperature a near-constant 55 degrees year round, LaBelle said, a perk that saves plenty on supplemental cooling.
Since, Arboleda has given up his “day job,” but LeBelle said she’ll hang onto hers just a bit longer.
Arboleda recalls their initial conversations. “At first I thought, ‘that’s so cute, she makes wine,’ ” Arboleda said, graciously admitting, with a big smile, how he grossly underestimated his wife-to-be’s determination and business sense.
“I don’t think like that anymore, that’s for sure,” Arboleda added.
The place where such palate-pleasing delicacies as Heirloom Apple, Granite State Red, Seyval Blanc, and Red Raspberry are created and perfected is an interesting little space, complete with two tasting bars – one for red wine, the other for white – on opposite walls.
At least once a month, the space is abuzz with eager wine enthusiasts, who flock to the couple’s popular tastings. There are always plenty of peripheral attractions, LaBelle said, including presentations by guest winemakers, cheese tasting, and other goings on.
Entertaining their visitors, they say, is right up there with winning medals – and maybe even better.
“It’s really gratifying for us, because we’re so small, when we win at competitions,” LaBelle said. “I’m happy if we come home with just one bronze (medal).
“But I think we enjoy these tastings even more.”