AMHERST — A lawyer by trade, Amy LaBelle’s life was turned upside down about a decade ago when she had an epiphany during a visit to a small winery in Nova Scotia.
“I don’t know if a light bulb went off above my head, but I knew from that moment on that I was going to learn how to make wine. It became my immediate passion,” said LaBelle, who eventually opened LaBelle Winery in 2005 with the production of about 400 cases of its flagship apple wine within the first year.
With help from her husband and business partner, Cesar Arboleda, the winery began producing more than 6,000 cases of 22 wine varieties annually. Their product is now sold in more than 200 stores across New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Demand became so great that two years ago the couple decided to expand their business and construct a new winery and function hall on an 11-acre site of farmland along Route 101 in Amherst near the Bedford town line.
Standing outside of the nearly finished 20,000-square-feet facility, LaBelle said last week that her American dream has finally come true. She has a tremendous vision for her new winery, which includes educating people about the wine-making process, providing them with a beautiful place to meet and offering them the highest quality wines.
“There is this mystique about wine that I would like to eliminate. It does not have to be intimidating — I mean, it is just a beverage,” said LaBelle, who has abandoned her business law degree and now dedicates her life to the complex science of making wine. “The wine is the expression of the grape, and we want to help teach people about this and educate them.”
Her new winery will encourage wine tasting, and will offer the area’s first wine aroma bar, where visitors can sniff and experiment with different flavors.
The $4 million winery, retail and event facility will officially open its doors on Oct. 3, with several grand-opening events coming that will promote the five varieties of grapes used in LaBelle products.
Five, 23-foot-tall stainless steel tanks and an automated bottling line will allow LaBelle Winery to increase its wine-making distribution from 18,000 to about 60,000 gallons per year. The new winery will enable the business to expand distribution beyond New England, LaBelle said.
New Hampshire is home to about 30 wineries, and the industry has weathered the recession well, said Peter Odak, president of the New Hampshire Winery Association.
“The people who are in this industry are good wine-makers, and it reflects well on the state,” said Oldak, owner of Jewell Towne Vineyards in South Hampton.
Oldak’s business sold about 7,000 cases of wine last year, and is on track to sell the same amount this year despite the struggling economy, he said.
“The trend today is towards local. People are looking for wines that will leave a small carbon footprint,” said Oldak, explaining they are also searching for quality wines at lower costs. “In the last five years, there has been a period of major growth for wineries in New Hampshire,” he said, with wineries recently established in Newfound Lake and Newfield, in addition to the LaBelle Winery in Amherst.
Oldak concedes that getting into the wine industry is a little risky, but it pays off for those winemakers who are top-notch and experienced professionals.
LaBelle Winery ultimately will make wine from its own fruit. About 1,500 grape vines were planted on the site in June, and another 500 plants will be added next spring, according to the owner. In about three years, they will produce a crop that can be used to make wine.
In the meantime, LaBelle uses grapes from the Finger Lakes and New Hampshire farms whenever possible, she said.
Their own crops will provide about 15,000 pounds of grapes a year, which is enough to provide some of the company’s estate wines.
“It is certainly beautiful,” LaBelle said of the view, and the new California-style winery with a large tasting room, French brasserie cafe and outside terrace complete with a fire bowl.
Perhaps the most spectacular feature of the winery is the large and bright ballroom, or great room, which is about 4,500-square feet and includes a large dance floor and french doors that lead out to a second terrace.
Two weddings have already been booked for this fall, and another 15 weddings have been reserved for next year, said LaBelle, who is planning several of her own events for the public. A harvest dinner is being organized, a local artist series, movie night on the terrace, live music events and more are all in the works.
Four spaces will be available for various business meetings, baby showers, parties and other functions, including the great room, vintage room, gallery and winery. The great room can seat about 230 people, while other, more private rooms can accommodate up to 60 people.
“I really designed this to become a true community gathering place,” said LaBelle, adding that a path will be built to connect the winery to the nearby sledding field that is a popular attraction for families each winter.
She is hopeful that families will enjoy their time sledding and then visit the winery’s outdoor terrace, which is heated, for some hot chocolate and small bites to eat. Table service of wine, cocktails and small plates will be available at the winery, which is open Wednesdays through Sundays and holiday Mondays.
BMA Architectural Group worked on the design, Fulcrum Associates is constructing the facility and Enterprise Bank is contributing financing. Fireside Catering is joining the LaBelle team to serve as the exclusive caterer for the new winery.
LaBelle is employing an additional 10 to 12 people with the opening of the new winery. Several ticketed events have been planned to celebrate the opening, including a cocktail reception on Oct. 18, a black tie gala on Oct. 20 and an artists’ exhibit brunch on Oct. 28.
For more information, visit labellewinerynh.com, or call 828-6862.
- - - - - - - -Kimberly Houghton may be reached at email@example.com.