LaBelle to celebrate new site ‘uncorking’

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Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

courtesy The Nashua Telegraph

November 16, 2011
By MaryAlice Gill

AMHERST – Like a fine wine, constructing a new, expanded business location depends on a careful layout, patient development and dashes of creativity on the path to the final product.

Nobody knows that better than Amy LaBelle, who will celebrate “The Uncorking of the Land” on LaBelle Winery’s future site off Route 101 in Amherst on Thursday.

In July, the local wine center, currently at 100 Chestnut Hill Road, got the green light on a major business expansion that will more than double its winemaking capacity, LaBelle said.

“I think we’re kind of a bit crazy,” she said with a laugh. “The truth is, we’re feeling a lot of different emotions about this project all at once. On the one hand, we’re so excited and so grateful to start something this positive and this huge during this crazy economy right now. … But we’re a tiny bit terrified. It’s such an undertaking, and we’re dealing with things we never had to deal with before.”

The winemaker is new to the challenges and regulations of constructing a building from the ground up, she said, but the development process – and its time frame – are not too different from winemaking itself.

The foundation and the fermentation

Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

The Amherst Planning Board approved LaBelle’s plans for a 20,000-square-foot building on the 11-acre site off Route 101 about four months ago. Throughout the winter, Amherst residents will see the building go up on Route 101, LaBelle said.

Following the “uncorking” Thursday, Fulcrum Construction will begin pouring the foundation, LaBelle said, which should take about four to six weeks.

Meanwhile, as the foundation goes down on the new location, over at the old winery, LaBelle’s wine will be in the fermentation process.

“In truth, the fermentation for the wine is the foundation for the wine,” LaBelle said. “If it goes well, the wine will be good. If it limps and staggers, you’ve got some struggles down the road.”

After the fall harvest of the grapes, raspberries, peaches and apples that go into Labelle’s wine, the wine takes about a month and a half to ferment, depending on its type, LaBelle said.

“The fermentation process will be nearing completion about the same time the foundation is being poured, which I think is kind of interesting,” LaBelle said.

Stabilizing building & wine

The exterior of LaBelle’s Winery, including the flooring, walls and roof, should be complete by February, LaBelle said.

Site plans on the new LaBelle Winery location include a wine cave, a tasting room, a terrace, an events center and a 3-acre vineyard. The entire project is scheduled to be finished in July 2012, LaBelle said, with plans for the vineyard to be planted by the spring.

LaBelle Winery currently produces about 16,000 gallons of wine a year, LaBelle said.

“We sell out every year,” LaBelle said. “So it’s been a struggle for us because we want to continue to grow and expand.”

The expanded Route 101 location will allow LaBelle Winery to pump out 60,000 gallons a year. The wine’s stabilization process, which LaBelle called its “calming phase” after fermentation, also takes about two or three months, LaBelle said.

“The wine goes into its calming down phase over the next two to three months, where we let it become very cold and do certain chemical things that need to occur,” LaBelle said. “The wine is getting its ‘wall’ and ‘roof’ in a way. It’s doing all of the chemical work that needs to happen in order to be stable in the bottle – and for the building.”

Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

The ‘pretty work’

Once the building’s exterior is in place, the spring will revolve around planting the vineyard vines, putting the final touches on the building’s interior and bottling the wine to be sold there, LaBelle said, details that she called “the pretty work.”

LaBelle plans to bring in consultants from New York to aid in the vine-planting process, who will use a laser to plant the vines straight, help space out each vine, teach them how to plant on parts of the plot that have a 15 percent slope, and decide which way the vine rows should face.

“I want to make sure we do it right,” LaBelle said. “There’s a lot of technology around spacing your vineyard. Whether you choose 8-foot spacing or 6-foot spacing between vines, it’s going to impact the grape you get in the end.”

LaBelle is still deciding which grapes to harvest at their new location, but plans on growing a white grape, likely, petite amie, and a red grape, possibly a noiret, she said.

“Now with the advances in technology, we’ve been able to see a huge improvement in grapes that will survive in cold winters,” LaBelle said. “Northern vineyard management has grown leaps and bounds over the last 10 years.”

The 3-acre vineyard probably won’t be ready for harvesting grapes for winemaking until three or four years after the vines are planted, LaBelle said. The vines on site will be used for some estate bottle of wines, while the winery will continue to rely on the local fruit vendors they’ve always used in New Hampshire and New England.

“The art of making wine is kind of one thing, and the art of growing grapes is another,” LaBelle said. “Ideally, a winemaker wants to control some of her grapes at some point. We think we can make better wine with a better control and understanding of the grape process.”

Inside the winery will be a 1,500-square-foot tasting room with a tasting bar for sampling any of LaBelle’s line of wines. On the weekends, LaBelle Winery will stay open later, LaBelle said, and serve “light bites” on the terrace located adjacent to the tasting room.

“We’ll have a very small menu for people who want to come and snack with a glass of wine and overlook the vineyard,” LaBelle said, “On the terrace, we’re going to have an embedded gas fire pit to add some ambience and hopefully extend our season a little bit.”

While LaBelle puts the final touches on the details for the wine cave, tasting room and terrace, in order to be ready for a July opening, LaBelle Winery will also be finishing up the bottling process – which is done by hand at their current location. The wine tanks at the old location should be emptied in time to move to the new location by late spring, early summer, just in time for the July opening.

“In the spring, I’ll begin to take the wine through the bottle process – which is the artistic part of the process,” LaBelle said. “When do you filter? What additions do you make? What wines do you blend? Do wines need any additions to make them perfect in the bottle?

“That’s what will be happening with the building as well. In the spring, the building will be getting its final touches, decorations, colors on the walls. That will be the fun part.”

LaBelle Winery’s expanded building will also include a bottling line to accelerate the amount of product that can be made and improve the wine itself, LaBelle said.

The winery currently offers 23 kinds of wines and plans on releasing “Dulce,” a white grape-based port-style dessert wine with cinnamon, maple and vanilla bean fusions in the spring, she said.

By eliminating the task of bottling 7,000 cases of wine by hand each year, LaBelle said the next goal will be to focus on taking the brand national. LaBelle wine is currently sold in 200 New Hampshire stores and 30 in Massachusetts, LaBelle said.

But while the new winery will certainly allow an uptick in business, LaBelle said the new location will also allow her family to return to an agricultural lifestyle.

“We have two small sons, a 4- and a 2-year-old, and we’re very anxious to see them run around in the vineyard,” LaBelle said. “We feel really beneficial to our community and our family. The agricultural way of life is the way my family survived the immigration to this country.”