Conversation with Lauren Belden, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Cultivator of Belden Barns Farmstead & Winery
Building a Life and a Brand Together
December 20, 2017
1. What is your business?
Three years ago my husband Nate and I launched Belden Barns, a winery in Sonoma County. We started with six wines: two Pinot Noirs, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, late-harvest Viognier, and the only Grüner Veltliner grown in Sonoma. Now we offer ten different bottlings—including Rosé, Blanc de Noirs (sparkling), Syrah, and Grenache. Every Belden Barns bottle is made from estate-grown grapes. We just got scores back from publications, and every single wine we offer got above a 90 (scale of 1-100). We are so beyond grateful for the recognition, and we are really proud that we can offer such high-quality wine at such reasonable prices.
If we were to use all of the grapes we grow in Sonoma, we could produce 5,500 cases. We currently sell 1,500 cases of Belden Barns wine. 5,500 cases is not enough for us to have a massive retail channel, so we focus on the direct-to-consumer market. We sell a few cases to our favorite restaurants in the Bay Area and wine shops, like Bi-Rite in San Francisco and Astor Wines in New York, but our main business is selling through our wine club. We have around 650 wine club members, and we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can build an experience for them that will be iconic and groundbreaking.
We are working on a 360-degree agriculture, farm-to-table vineyard experience. We just got permitted for a tasting room, but we don’t want it to be your typical commercial tasting room. We have a partnership with a young farming couple named Jenny and Vince Trotter, where we provide acreage to farm and access to our equipment, and we are in the process of building subsidized housing for them. They are bringing on cows and will teach vineyard guests about farming and cheese making. In a few years, we envision people picking farm-grown asparagus, pairing it with our Grüner Veltliner, and making a fresh cheese tart with an in-house chef.
In addition, most wineries don’t think about kids as a component of their experience. Because we have young children and so many of our friends are in the same stage of life, we want to create an option where parents can relax, kids can immerse themselves in nature, and families can have a great time together. We are starting to think about kids’ programming and educational experiences that give parents time to enjoy themselves while their kids are occupied on our site.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
When I met Nate, he already owned the Belden Barns land, which he had purchased five years earlier. He had taken farming and viticulture classes and worked hard to redevelop the property, planting new grapes, and selling the fruit to other vineyards. He had been studying and fine-tuning the grape quality and pick dates since he purchased and replanted the vineyard. Nate would share with me the bottles of wine made from the site’s grapes. When he would bring out these bottles, I would always spontaneously say, “This is the best wine I have ever tasted!” Not to mention that nearly all of the wines made from his grapes would receive 90s ratings and critical acclaim. Finally at one point, we had a revelation. With Nate’s private equity background, my career in brand strategy and marketing and these amazing grapes, if we couldn’t get this business off the ground, shame on us.
Plus, at the time Nate and I got married, we both had travel-intensive careers that took us all over the country and the world. We grew up within family businesses, and it was our dream to run our own. It was obvious to both of us that the lifestyle we were leading before we had children wouldn’t be possible once we had kids. Plus, we got married later in life. I was 35 and he was 40, and we knew that we wanted to spend a lot of time together. When you run a business with someone, spending a ton of time together is pretty much your only option!
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
It was when we launched our wines at a wine event called Pinot Days. It’s a wine tasting and education event where winemakers from around the world offer their wines to the public, trade buyers, and sommeliers. This was going to be our debut, but it was a crunch. We were up until 4 am getting our website to work the night before, and we had just finished designing the label for the wine bottles.
Once we made it to the event, all of these people were lining up telling us that our Serendipity and Estate were the best pinots at the event. Two different writers wrote about our wines, and all of a sudden we were on the map.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
I still don’t think of myself as an expert. Wine is one of these fields where there is always so much more to learn. I know more than I did a year ago or than I did three years ago, but every time we add a new varietal or blend, it is a whole new learning curve. I don’t have the pre-kids luxury that Nate had to take winemaking classes because I still have my branding consulting business. I learn from experience and have my key sound bites that give me a certain level of credibility. Of course, I understand the process to make all of our wines, but if you were to start talking to me about the art of Pinot Grigio or Cabernet, which we don’t make, I’m useless.
My main trade-off in everything we do is being a mom. It is so hard for me to feel like I am not falling short in one area. My issue with being an entrepreneur is the same as my friends’—it feels like life is moving so quickly. How is our oldest daughter already going to kindergarten? I remember bringing her home from the hospital. As a business owner, I have the flexibility to participate in any activity I want to with the kids. But the flip side is that I poured wine for 100 people almost all of this past Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes I have to be working, but now the kids are old enough that we let them have an independent experience or play with other visiting children while we are talking to prospective customers. Any event we pour at usually has so many of our wine club members who are friends attending that they will grab us if there is a problem or one of our kids needs us.
5. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
Not this summer, but the summer before, when Olivia was almost four and Milo was a year and a half, we went to New York City. We have grown our business through word of mouth and through wine pouring parties. We emailed ten friends that we would be in town and asked if any of them would want to host a party. Well, eight people offered, and we did eight parties. We brought our babysitter with us—thank god. We didn’t see our children for 8 nights in a row. Each day we were prepping for the next show. We were getting home at 2 am. The good news was that we got over 100 new wine club members in a week, and we built a lot of excitement about the brand in a city where we don’t live. The bad news was that we felt terrible about how we were spending time as a family. It was an amazing learning experience. We have to pick and choose events and put family first. I am a person who loves to hit the ground running, and I often don’t think about the consequences of moving so quickly. In this instance, we paid a price. We now try to take breaks between our wine events and not sign ourselves up to be “on duty” multiple evenings in a row.
6. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
So helpful. Without friends and family, we could never have made this business what it has become. We got people involved really early on: we had our friends vote on the bottle label designs and people were sampling wines at our wedding even before we launched. When we launched, we sent out an email to our friends about the wine club. A lot of people who had never tried our wines signed up for 6 bottles a year just to be supportive. But then once they tasted the wines, we got a number of calls from new customers asking us to increase their orders to 24 bottles a year. “I joined because I wanted to support you, but these wines are actually the real deal” became a pretty common refrain.
7. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
A lot of times people experience Belden Barns and will tell us that they had never thought of joining a wine club. People also tell us, “I didn’t taste a bad wine in my shipment.” And we hear, “I’m really inspired by what you are doing in Sonoma.” We get recent college graduates to be a part of this thing, but also a lot of 70-year-old men who think the farming aspect is cool. People visiting on site often tell us the trip to the farm is the best day of their year. One of my favorite times of year is when people post their Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve dinners on Instagram. When we search #BeldenBarns that day, we’ll find 20 photos of people’s tables with our wine bottles.
The other thing that makes me really proud is that our wines have been well received by the general public and critics. For instance, our Serendipity Pinot Noir was designated by Wine & Spirits Magazine as one of the top 6 Pinot Noirs from North America. Our Serendipity Pinot sells for $48 a bottle, but almost every other wine on the list was over $60, with two of the others on the list selling for over $80 a bottle. It makes me proud that we can offer high-quality wines at good value.
8. What are some of your current challenges?
One of the current challenges we face is that we’ve yet to hire a staff. Other than day-to-day winemaking duties (taken on by the fabulous Justin Harmon), Nate and I pretty much do everything ourselves. That often means busy weeks full of wine-pouring and planning and fulfilling orders, keeping up on Belden Barns social media, trying to find time for my own freelance brand strategy work, followed by busy weekends with lots of wine events and not always as much time one-on-one with the kids as we’d like. For the past few years, we felt that one of the reasons that our story has been so well-received and that the brand has taken off is the fact that it’s always Nate and me telling the story together, as our story. We now need to find a way not to do everything. It is that crucial point in growing a business where we have to figure out how to delegate things to others and create a culture where our staff cares as much about the business as we do.
We are looking at a model where we would bring on interns to work at the farm. They would live with us in housing we are looking to build on site. So many colleges have farming and internship programs that it might be a way forward for us. Our tasting room permit requires us to be closed Sundays through Fridays in January, February, and March, so that would make it hard to find a good solution for full-time employees.
In my brand management career, companies hire me to think of a new product or how to name it. I am really good at thinking about big ideas. But taking your own big idea and trying to implement it? That’s always been the harder part for me. Thank God I married someone who’s so good at this part or we’d never get anywhere with this business. Nate often jokes that if he ran the business alone we’d have only a handful of wine club members, and lots of really good wine to drink for ourselves. I say that if I ran Belden Barns, we’d have great marketing and hundreds of people who wanted to join the club, just maybe not any wine to share with them.
9. Do you use social media for marketing your business?
So far, we haven’t done any official marketing or public relations for the business. Other than word of mouth, the number one way we have brought in customers is through Instagram. I took a class on Instagram marketing via Hilary Rushford and that is my only real training. When we do a tasting, we ask people how they heard about us. 60% of the people say they heard about Belden Barns through friends, and 40% say they heard about us through Instagram. “I’ve been following Belden Barns for a year, and I finally made it to taste” or “The images are so beautiful, but it’s even more beautiful in person.”
For the Belden Barns Instagram account, I take all of the photos on my phone, and then I try to come up with a few compelling sentences or a story around the image. I try to give people a glimpse into the lifestyle, the property, and the winemaking process. I’d like to start thinking about PR because with the creamery, farm, and official tasting room plans, I think we’ve got a unique story to tell.
10. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
I am definitely willing to serve as a mentor. Every time I meet someone who has been in the business longer than I have been, I basically ask them to be my mentor. I take them to lunch and pick their brain. I would love to give that back to other people. We have good friends in Marin who are launching their own wine label in a few weeks, and we have been their go-to source for the little things like corks, bottles and where to get your labels printed. It’s been really fun to get involved and share some of what we’ve learned in the process of launching our own business.
Date of conversation: 9/20/2017
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