courtesy Cabinet Press
Thursday, July 12, 2012
By MICHAEL CLEVELAND
AMHERST – As she prepares to move her winery to new, larger quarters, Amy LaBelle is looking to the future with great confidence, convinced that she, her husband, and the LaBelle Winery staff are doing everything possible to make their business a success.
Indeed, they have been so focused on getting it right that, in the midst of a recession, sales at LaBelle have continued to grow to the point where last year, the company saw a 100 percent sales increase.
“We’ve seen nothing but growth in our business, even throughout the last two years,” she said a few days after an open house at the winery’s current site on Chestnut Hill.
It’s a lovely spot, right behind the home she shares with her husband and winery co-owner, Cesar Arboleda, and their two children, but much smaller than the under-construction facility on Route 101 at Bragdon Hill.
“I think that folks will be more careful with their money (during a recession) but still willing to spend on a quality product,” she said. “They might buy less overall, but they will buy something made with quality that they truly enjoy.”
That is why they continue to buy her wines, LaBelle said: They enjoy them, and they are priced right, at less than $20 a bottle.
“The overall wine market is seeing similar reaction in the $20-and-under market,” LaBelle said. “That’s grown throughout (the downturn) rather than shrunk. Folks that were buying $60 bottles aren’t doing that anymore. They’re not eating out as much, so perhaps they’re buying a bottle at the grocery store, going home for dinner and drinking a glass there. That’s good for us.”
But it’s the care and caring that go into her wines that keep people coming back for more, she said. Indeed, the winery’s marketing strategy is pretty simple: make a great product and use word-of-mouth advertising.
“We have had a zero advertising budget for the most part, since the beginning of our business seven years ago,” LaBelle said. “It’s mostly been word of mouth for us. The fact is, from a consumer’s perspective, they will tell one or two people if they’re really happy with a product. If they’re unhappy, they’ll tell five or six. We’ve worked really hard for word of mouth.”
And with better than 100 percent growth in 2011, it’s obviously worked. She is convinced that it’s because of the winery’s commitment to quality and to using only local products.
“In a recession, many companies are looking to cut costs,” she said. “We’re no different in that we’re keeping a tight eye on our cost structure, but we haven’t sacrificed quality. We haven’t changed from using fresh, local blueberries in favor of Chinese concentrate. We’re still supporting local farmers, still working with people we trust. With other companies, hard times come and there are sacrifices. For us, that’s not an option.”
One key to the marketing approach is getting her wines tasted. To that end, she holds open house tastings – as she did late in June – but also brings samples to the stores that carry her wines.
“That’s one thing we’re committed to: making sure folks have an opportunity to taste it,” LaBelle said. “The proof is in the pudding, as they say. We need people to be able to sample this product.”
And that kind of personal marketing works, she said, as well as “telling the story” of her wines and how well the company is doing.
“People love to hear a good news story in these times,” LaBelle said, “a story about a business doing good, old-fashioned hard work, and letting them meet our employees, letting them know our company’s values.”
In the end, though, as is the case with all businesses, everything comes down to the product – and there, her winery has an advantage, LaBelle said.
“Our products are very different,” she explained. “We’re not just selling another cabernet. We produce wines that reflect New England. Everything is grown in New England, and (the wines) are reflective of the fruits and vegetables grown in New England.”
Indeed, her most popular wine is cranberry, sales of which “have grown and grown and grown and overtaken even the traditional grape wines,” she said. “We sell twice as much as anything else.”
One reason is that some people substitute it for vodka in a cosmopolitan drink.
“It’s lighter and so much fun to drink,” LaBelle said.
With the new, larger facility, even more wine could be sold. Soon, five 23-foot fermentation tanks will be installed at 361 Route 101, tanks they ordered from Italy because no U.S. company made anything that big, LaBelle said.
The super-tall tanks will be in the basement level, where the wine manufacturing will take place, but they will go through a hole in the floor to the tasting area so customers will have the pleasure of drinking wine close to where their 17 varieties are fermenting.
Among those wines are several award winners, including Americus, a red made from New England grapes, and Three Kings, a dessert wine made from blueberries, raspberries and French hybrid grapes.