INTERESTED IN JOINING US THIS NOVEMBER? NOMINATE YOURSELF OR SOMEONE ELSE. WHO WILL BE THERE IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS WHAT WE’LL DISCUSS.
Sonoma County is home to many weekend warriors who enjoy the farm fresh food, bucolic landscape, relaxed style, cycling, rugged coast, artist culture and fine wines. Aside from owning second homes, a growing number of weekend warriors are drawn to the vineyards and become winegrowers. A brave few set out to make their own wines and create experiences. Nate and Lauren Belden did just that.
In 2004, while still toiling away at his city job, Nate spent a holiday weekend with friends in wine country and decided to steal away to look at an available farm in Sonoma. Despite the fact the property was beyond his budget and would require time he didn’t have, it was love at first sight. What was a dairy farm, a prune orchard and a rural retreat, complete with attendant dance hall and stagecoach stop, is now the home of Belden Barns Farmstead & Winery.
While balancing their day jobs (Lauren as a brand strategist and Nate, until recently in private equity), they set out to revitalize the 150+ year old Sonoma County farmstead to create a sustainable, family-owned business.
We sat down with our Harvest Council Members Nate & Lauren Belden, to discuss the challenges of working with family, their love of Sonoma County and how innovation plays a role in their approach to their business and the land. Visit them in Sonoma and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Is innovation important in winemaking?
Innovation is very important in winemaking. The life cycle of innovation can seem long in our industry given that the results of certain experimentation can really only be reflected in once-a-year harvest outcomes and extended further by waiting for the ultimate end product (the wine) to reflect changes. In the world of wine, there are many pressures that foster innovation: wine quality, water conservation, worker health, and economics to name just a few. In each of those areas, there are considerable ongoing efforts to innovate and improve. One of the more exciting, innovative efforts was recently launched by Randall Graham of Bonny Doon fame. Randall’s project, Popelouchum Vineyard, was created to breed 10,000 new grape varieties in an effort to produce vines that may be more drought and disease tolerant to exist in a future California climate, while also enabling distinct new wines of high quality. He also funded it through a crowdfunding platform, rather than traditional routes.
What are the challenges of running a business with family?
Beyond the general challenges of trying to successfully get a business off the ground, with a two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, we’re also in the thick of parenting. The most challenging parts of running a family business are when the two separate worlds get a little too close for comfort, and you feel like you’re not doing your best on either front. In order to ensure that our kids are happy and that we have enough hours in the week to dedicate quality time to Belden Barns, lining up wonderful, caring and flexible childcare has been key to our success as both a business and a family. Another thing we’ve prioritized is taking time out from work to focus on our family relationships. Between doing everything ourselves (production planning, branding, sales, marketing, website, accounting, delivery), and the unusual work hours of the wine industry –we make a point to carve out time to spend as a couple and with the kids that has nothing to do with Belden Barns. Doing so keeps us sane and helps maintain our family foundation.
What makes Sonoma County wine different?
Sonoma has a wide range of micro-climates providing perfect growing conditions for a broad variety of grapes. Those great growing conditions, combined with a concentrated talent base and innovative attitudes about how wine should be made here, produce an amazing array of unique wines produced at a very high quality level.
How has technology changed the way people talk about wine?
Technology has provided for an expansion of platforms to talk about wine. From wine-specific media, all the way down to individual communications, there are now countless new outlets for sharing information about wine. For the wine industry, this access has taken some of the intimidation out of discussing wine, and allowed the world of wine to become more accessible. Further, there’s less of a gatekeeper scenario with concentrated distribution of critical reviews – now the enjoyment of wine is much more democratized. Specific to Belden Barns, technology through social media allows a little guy like us an economical way to project our Sonoma Mountain estate to far away locals and gives those that have visited us ongoing touch points to our site. Because the heart of our business is direct-to-consumer sales, this connection is vital for building and maintaining our following.
Can the California wine industry play a leading role in reducing water use?
The California wine industry, together with wine-related educational institutions, play a continual role in reducing water use. Given California’s existing water resources, combined with growth in population and industry, there is no choice other than to pursue conservation efforts. Innovation surrounding the fine-tuning of water usage in the vineyard, as well as reduction of use for cleaning and sanitation purposes in the winery, has witnessed particular progress in recent years.
Is local food sourcing key to Sonoma’s sustainability?
The term “sustainability” can have a number of meanings depending upon who you speak to. We feel that local food production has a positive impact on our carbon footprint. Distributed, small-scale food production plays a role in enhanced food security, quality, and variety – all factors in sustaining community. We are big believers in providing opportunities within local agriculture to promote livelihoods that will ultimately preserve the essence of Sonoma’s rural character. So yes, we think that local food sourcing is key to Sonoma’s sustainability from a carbon footprint standpoint all the way through to sustaining the ethos of Sonoma County.
As stewards of a historic Sonoma estate, does innovation play a role in maintaining a historical link with Belden Barn’s heritage?
Absolutely. Our site has a 150-year history of hospitality and diverse agriculture beyond grapes. The challenge is being able to bring those different activities forward in a way that’s both economically and environmentally sustainable. This would arguably be easier to do if we were focused solely on wine. But the easiest approach isn’t always the best one. We love the challenge of celebrating a diversity of agriculture in a meaningful way (not just “agri-landscaping”). In addition to supporting our own family, we’re committed to supporting the livelihoods of people dedicated to non-grape farming and artisanal food production on our site. Specifically, we want to create enough opportunity for a farming couple to be able to earn their living entirely “on farm,” without the need for supplemental off farm jobs. We would also like to establish a micro-creamery to be an incubator for upstart cheesemakers – providing the facilities and resources necessary to hone their craft on a small scale before they move on to bigger and better things. To do all of this, we will need to apply innovation to create compelling products and experiences, build profitable demand for those products and experiences, and develop ways to compensate the people who help us bring those products and experiences to life. And with the reality of the Bay Area market, we will also need to provide subsidized housing to make our vision work. Some of our friends in the wine industry like to playfully ask us how our Belden Barns “commune” is coming along. All kidding aside, while we may not be attempting anything earth-shattering, we hope to create an innovative model that supports diversity of agriculture and plays a part in preserving the Sonoma we all love and appreciate.
Reservations must be made for private tastings at their Sonoma Mountain winery where you can even add a wish to their wishing tree.