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Mondavi co-founder pays return visit to Amherst winery

Union Leader Correspondent

January 30. 2014 9:28PM
Winemaker Michael Mondavi chats with LaBelle Winery owners Amy LaBelle and Cesar Arboleda during a tour of the Amherst facility. (APRIL GUILMET/Union Leader Correspondent)

AMHERST — Six years ago, Amy LaBelle was still working her day job, her hobby of making homemade fruit wines representing a seemingly distant dream.

But LaBelle had visions of one day opening a winery in her home state: a dream she shared during an encounter with wine maven Michael Mondavi.

Mondavi, of the Michael Mondavi Family Estate in Napa Valley, was in town at the time for the Winter Wine Spectacular, and at the urging of Nicole Brassard-Jordan of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, he stopped by LaBelle's table for a talk and a taste.

The two winemakers swapped bottles, and LaBelle passed along her recipe for the perfect Cosmopolitan cocktail, made with her cranberry brew.

"He was kind enough to stop by and offer encouraging words, just so gracious," LaBelle said. "We kept in touch after."

Since then, the annual wine event has blossomed into a weeklong affair, and LaBelle's business has, well, aged like fine wine.

On Wednesday afternoon, LaBelle had a very special visitor on the premises.

As the wine legend made his way into the sun-splashed tasting room, he had one thing to say.

"This place is beautiful," declared Mondavi, who is in town for Wine Week with his son, Rob Mondavi, Jr. "Just beautiful."

Like old friends often do when they get the chance to catch up, Mondavi and LaBelle started off with a glass of dry red.

A tour of the entire facility, and the chance to meet some of LaBelle's 40 or so staff members, soon commenced.

A former attorney, LaBelle made her first one-gallon batch of blueberry wine in her Boston apartment in 2001.

Several years later, she and her husband, Cesar Arboleda, were operating a small winery based out of Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, selling their products on weekends at farmer's markets and local shops.

"It just sort of blossomed from there," LaBelle said. "I'd became a mother, and I wanted to bring things closer to home."

In fall 2012, the couple opened their current, 20,000-square-foot facilities on their Amherst property, featuring an event center, retail shop, café and production area.

During the first year, they said sales had "pretty much doubled," and about 600 visitors flocked to the winery, located at 344 Route 101, each weekend.

Things have certainly come a long way since Mondavi's last visit to New Hampshire.

"Michael was so supportive and really gave her the confidence to see her vision through," said E.J. Powers, spokesman for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, which helped orchestrate the visit.

With $272 million in wine sales this past fiscal year at the New Hampshire Liquor Commission's 77 NH Liquor & Wine Outlet locations, New Hampshire is a significant player in the wine world.

This year's Wine Week began Jan. 27 and ends Feb. 2, with a variety of events being held around the state.

Noting that his own family's humble beginnings, Mondavi said he's grown fond of mentoring novices.

"All wine-makers have the same objective, and we encourage multiple vintners to get together and try each others' products," he said. "That's a pretty unique aspect of this industry."

Four generations of winemaking began in 1919 when Michael's grandfather Cesare was elected to find grapes and winemaking supplies for families to make legally during prohibition.

Michael's career began in 1966 when he and his father Robert co-founded Robert Mondavi Winery, establishing themselves as innovators in winemaking and accomplishing their goal of bringing world recognition to California wines.

"It's always wonderful to see someone else's dream realized," Mondavi said. "I think wine has been the one business where people can take a dream and really make it happen."

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