Cesar Arboleda stands atop a hill overlooking row upon row of grapevines and takes in the view. It’s early summer, a perfect 10 of an afternoon, and the land is bursting in 50 shades of green. By his own admission, Arboleda ’96 doesn’t often stop to soak up the scenery, a winery and vineyard on 11 acres of rolling countryside in Amherst, N.H., that he and his wife Amy LaBelle opened four years ago. Most days Arboleda is too focused on the work at hand — bottling wine, meeting customers and overseeing sales, among his other responsibilities as cellar master — to take note of the lush setting.
“If I stepped back and looked I would be amazed, but this is work. There are always things to do,” he says.
Located in southern New Hampshire, about 30 miles north of Lowell, LaBelle Winery has established itself not only as an award-winning producer of wine and gourmet products but also as a destination for weddings, corporate and community events, cooking classes and private functions.
“The biggest hurdle is having the courage to start. And you need the grit to keep it going.” -Cesar Arboleda
LaBelle produces 80,000 gallons of wine per year, and with an annual growth rate of 140 percent since opening in 2012, it is among the fastest growing wine producers in New England. Seven varieties of grapes are cultivated on site (LaBelle also purchases grapes and other fruit from local growers to supplement its harvest) and the winery produces 31 types of wine and counting. Its products are now sold in 300 stores in New Hampshire. The winery has a bistro and an art gallery and hosts tastings and events like weekly yoga classes in the vineyard.
Running a winery was never a career aspiration of Arboleda, who earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. The business was LaBelle’s vision — an idea she nurtured for years in her spare time while practicing corporate law.
“This wasn’t my dream, but I am blessed to be a part of it,” Arboleda says. “I take satisfaction in helping Amy fulfill her dreams.”
Born in Medellín, Colombia, Arboleda attended public schools. His parents, who worked in Lowell’s factories, set an example of hard work for him and his two sisters. After graduating from Lowell High School, Arboleda enrolled at UMass Lowell, where he could walk to campus and the tuition was affordable enough that he could put himself through school.
He had plans for a law enforcement career, but after graduation he took a different path when he applied for a temporary job at Sun Microsystems. It was 1996 and the tech business was booming.
“My brother-in-law worked there and told me they needed part-time help at night. It was a way to make some money,” Arboleda recalls. The part-time position led to full-time work and then promotions. Before he knew it, he had a career in information technology. Next came a job in network security at Fidelity Investments. The money was good and he was good at the work.
It was at Fidelity that he met his wife, a corporate lawyer at the financial giant who spent her spare time drawing up plans to open a winery.
LaBelle says she had an “a-ha moment” on a 2001 trip to a Nova Scotia winery.
“I walked in and it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is what I should be doing,” she says. But with a mountain of law school debt, she wasn’t ready to make a radical move.
“It wasn’t practical to quit my job but I couldn’t ignore the desire to open a winery. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
LaBelle started making wine in her Boston apartment and studied viticulture through online courses at the University of California Davis. In 2005, she began producing wine commercially at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, N.H., and selling it at farmers’ markets, local stores and wine tastings. After the couple married in 2006, she began making wine in a barn behind their home in Amherst. The wine production continued to grow and the couple had two sons, who are now 9 and 7. Arboleda left Fidelity in 2008 to devote his time to the business and LaBelle quit her job there in 2012 when the winery opened.
Now, LaBelle makes the wine and oversees product development, branding and marketing and business development while Arboleda is responsible for bottling, sales and customer relations. His approach from the start has been “one customer at a time.”
“We make them fall in love with us,” he says. “We create an experience.”
He enjoys interacting with customers. One afternoon in June, his seventh-grade teacher from Lowell’s Bartlett Community Partnership School came in for her annual visit to the winery’s bistro for lunch. Arboleda stopped by her table to chat.
“I think I found my calling doing this,” he says.
The couple is a model of perseverance. When they went looking for financing to build the winery, four banks turned down their loan application. In 2010, with the economy still shell-shocked from the Great Recession, credit was tight. Banks weren’t interested in taking a chance on a business that relied on growing grapes in New England’s unpredictable climate. The couple persisted and finally, Enterprise Bank in Lowell gave them the green light. In recognition of their success, the bank honored them with its 2016 Entrepreneurs of the Year Award.
Still, there are constant business challenges. One of the steepest is finding skilled workers. The winery employed 25 people when it opened in 2012. It now employs 85. While the number of wineries in New Hampshire is rising — the state’s winery association now boasts more than two dozen members — there still isn’t an established talent pool from which to draw.
“Recruiting, managing and retaining employees is one of the toughest parts of the business,” LaBelle says.
But that challenge isn’t tamping down their plans. They have a proposal before town officials for a 24-room inn and a distillery across the street from their current location. The expansion would allow them to move into the spirits market and offer lodging to customers who hold weddings and other events at the winery.
“The constant growth, the need for change, it’s almost like the tech industry,” says Arboleda. “You can’t stay stagnant. You have to keep innovating.”
The hillside opposite the winery entrance is called Arboleda Vineyard. A sign at the top of the hill bears the name and the notation: “Dedicated to the Pursuit of the American Dream.” For LaBelle and Arboleda, that pursuit unfolds every day, on the 11 surrounding acres.
“The biggest hurdle is having the courage to start. And you need the grit to keep it going,” Arboleda says.