Business NH Magazine: Business Leader of the Year: Amy LaBelle
Most people visit a winery and walk away with a couple of bottles to enjoy. Amy LaBelle walked away with a life-changing plan. A business lawyer at the time, LaBelle was vacationing in Nova Scotia in 2001 when a visit to a small winery altered her career trajectory. She made a plan to ditch law and become a wine maker.
Every day after that she did something to advance that dream. It took her 4,083 days to accomplish it. She knows because she lives to make each day count.
“When I was in my twenties, I had this moment where I thought about how many days I had left in my life. I assumed living to 106. It is a shockingly small number of days when you do the math,” she says.
LaBelle taught herself everything from developing a business plan and studying regulations to producing wine and running a restaurant and event facility. She began making wine part time at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole in 2005. As sales rose, LaBelle purchased 11 acres of land in Amherst in 2011 to build her own winery. There were not many wineries in NH at the time, and she was the first woman in New England to run her own winery. Getting a loan was not easy, and several banks rejected her loan application until she eventually secured a $5.3 million loan.
By the time the pandemic shut down the hospitality industry in March 2020, LaBelle had built a successful business with 102 employees, a winery, a vineyard with 2,000 vines and tours, a restaurant, wedding and event venue, cooking workshops, The Winemaker’s Kitchen brand of culinary products, and a LaBelle Winery storefront and tasting room in Portsmouth. And she was moving ahead with building a marketplace across the street from the winery.
When pandemic closures derailed that last project, LaBelle went into survival mode. “It was a rough day. My son had broken his arm and was having surgery that morning. I got him through that and settled him and then went to the winery and laid off my people,” LaBelle recalls with emotion in her voice.
She started writing daily notes on the company message board, posting resources for her employees and updating them on her plan. “This is what I am doing to save the business this day.” She also coordinated social media fundraising efforts for her laid-off employees.
Seeing how stressed families were, LaBelle served takeout family meals people could pick up at the winery and she eventually offered delivery as well. She created special family menus for Easter (and received 200 orders) and Mother’s Day and even had an employee in a bunny costume greeting families as they drove up. The Family Meal helped LaBelle Winery survive and proved so popular the winery continues to offer it. “We got enough orders to get to 8% of our typical revenue, but it was enough to keep the wheels spinning,” she says.
By May, the winery offered outdoor dining and set up a restaurant in its parking lot. LaBelle teamed up with NHPBS during COVID to tape a series of online cooking lessons for children, “Amy LaBelle’s Cooking with Kids.”
While most restaurateurs fought just to keep their doors open, LaBelle actually expanded, acquiring the Brookstone Event and Golf property in Derry in December 2020. After five months of renovation, she opened LaBelle Market, The Links at LaBelle Winery golf course, a mini-golf course, Americus Restaurant and an event venue at the Derry property in May 2021.
“Never waste opportunities,” LaBelle says of taking the risk.
And indeed, she has not squandered this one. This past winter, she set up a walkable outdoor light display so families could enjoy a safe outdoor activity and had 20,000 people come to enjoy it. She was not only able to hire back all her employees (except two who chose not to return due to health issues) but has increased her staff to 270.
Throughout her entrepreneurial journey, LaBelle has always made a point to give back to the community. To date, LaBelle Winery has donated more than $125,000 and made in-kind event donations totaling more than $250,000 to local nonprofits.
LaBelle hosts a Christmas Tree Lighting Celebration every year, collecting donations for a featured nonprofit, and The LaBelle Lights supported Toys for Tots, End 68 Hours of Hunger, and Empowering Angels.
Empowering Angels is a nonprofit LaBelle founded to encourage young people to embrace entrepreneurship by teaching business skills and techniques, and pairing them with mentors. She frequently offers workshops where young people build mock companies, complete business plans, develop prototypes of their product or service, and pitch to mentors who role play as investors.
She created a school lunch assistance fund to supplement lunches for students who had forgotten their lunch money, wanted a second serving or whose family was unable to pay for their child’s lunch program. LaBelle has served on the boards of the Palace Theatre and Front Door Agency and is currently a member of the NHPBS board. She saw her generosity repaid during the pandemic as people flocked to support her business. “What I saw on Facebook was LaBelle always supported our causes and now it’s time to support them,” she says. “That was incredible.”
LaBelle, as always, is looking to the future and will open a production house for a line of sparkling wines at the Derry location this summer. She’s also planning to double the size of the winter light display this year and she would like to take The Winemaker’s Kitchen brand national. “I’m going to have to live to be 200 to do it all,” she jokes.
However, she doesn’t want to grow her business just for growth’s sake. “I build the brand so that I can give back in my community. The bigger I can grow LaBelle, the more impact I can have in the community,” she says. “I do not wish to grow a business to make a pile of money. I want to grow a business to be impactful in my community so my existence matters.”
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