Four years ago, Lauren and Nate Belden were at the peaks of their respective careers, she as the director of innovation at branding agency Redscout, and he as a partner at private equity firm American Industrial Partners. But burned out from their punishing travel schedules and grueling workweeks, they left their fulltime jobs and jumped headlong into creating their own wine label, Belden Barns, which started to take shape when Lauren was pregnant with their first child, Olivia.
“We like to joke that we have three under three—our three-year-old daughter Olivia, our 19-month-old son Milo, and a one-year-old wine baby,” Lauren says.
The idea to start a label had developed over time. Nate, 45, grew up on a Colorado horse farm, and years earlier had purchased 55 acres of rolling, vine-friendly hills outside Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, and oversaw the vineyard’s replanting on weekends. “Nate had always thought he might make his own wine,” says Lauren, 40. “When I met him, he was selling 100% of the grapes to other labels, like Carlisle, Donelan Family, and Eric Kent. But once we started to taste these unbelievably good wines that were coming out of here—and with his background in finance and mine in brand strategy and innovation—we were like, if we can’t do this thing, shame on us.”
So a few months after their wedding, with their first baby on the way, they started to think about how that might work. Lauren launched a public contest for the design of the wine label, Nate cleared out the property’s dairy barn, and they picked a few varietals they could start with. Fast forward another year and another baby, and Belden Barns launched in 2014 with a mission to produce unique wines and create a small-scale farmstead that keeps them (and their visitors) connected to the land.
“I have a background in finance, business operations, and strategy, and Lauren is just sort of a world-class creative mind. We felt like we really had a good shot at building something that could support our family, and help us live a life that we thought was more meaningful and interesting. And we went for it,” says Nate.
By any measure, their first year has been a runaway success: 14 of San Francisco’s top restaurants pour Belden Barns wine, including Frances, State Bird Provisions, Lazy Bear, and A16, which recently won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program. The wine club has more than 400 members, production grew from 500 to 1,000 cases in the last year alone (with a projection of 1,500 cases for 2015), and they’re bottling seven varietals, including Sonoma’s only estate-grown Grüner Veltliner.
And somehow, amidst the never-ending work of launching a new business and taking care of two kids under the age of three, Lauren also found time to write a book. She and Nate recently self-published Oh, The Places You’ll Feed!, a Dr. Seuss-style sendup of the challenges new mothers face when breastfeeding.
Their schedule is packed—if anything, they work harder than they did before they quit their high-powered jobs. But they reap the dividends of increased flexibility, and a permanent investment in their own family. Says Nate, “We had very go-go-go careers, but we knew that we wanted to step back and do something more meaningful and proprietary.”
Nate grew up in a family of farmers and ranchers, and then spent 18 years in private equity, so managing the day-to-day and finances of a rural vineyard is well within his wheelhouse. Lauren, by contrast, is a self-professed right-brainer—a creative force who spent years studying market opportunities and dreaming up products to fill them. Good things happened when they summed their skills.
Lauren brings so much to the table. We’re just really a good pair. Even though this is a really hard business and we’ve got a long way to go, we feel like we knocked it out of the park. Lauren surprised both of us—probably mostly herself—by being very good on the front end. And I mean very. She’s assertive, and, in the case of dealing with restaurants, necessarily relentless in terms of salesmanship, to a point where she likes it and enjoys the challenge of it. And I’m good at sort of making everything else happen. It just works. —Nate
Nate does a lot of the heavy lifting like the wine production, fulfillment, management, and finance. But I do a ton of the strategy, event-planning, building our wine club, and getting our wine into restaurants. So we really divided it up and figured out what our skills are. I think of these big, fun ideas all the time, but when it comes to actually executing them, it’s like the left side of the brain is atrophied. For example, I had always wanted to publish my own book, and I wrote Oh, The Places You’ll Feed! in about two and a half hours. But it would’ve just sat on my desk forever if it weren’t for Nate being like, “You know, this is really good. Let’s get in touch with a book designer and figure out how to get it printed.” I’m just so grateful we met because I think I could have had 70,000 ideas in my life, and none of them would’ve seen the light of day. —Lauren
The Beldens each grew up in what Nate calls “financially precarious” households. It taught them to be frugal, but launching their company with complete ownership also required them to commit to a big personal investment. They relieve the stress of it by setting a dollar amount on what they can survive to lose—and making sure it doesn’t compromise separate financial goals—and by having a backup plan.
We worked really hard, and were both at very high levels within our respective careers. Frankly, we each left at the top of our earning potential. But we wanted to do something else, and we had saved enough to plug something into another pursuit. Money is a big stressor, particularly for Lauren, so we allocated a specific amount to apply to getting these things off the ground. We circled an untouchable number because we want to be able to put our kids through college. Everything else can be out there to plug into our dreams. We’re not ostentatious people, but we believe in our ideas, and that’s what we’re investing in. —Nate
We both have a list of things we could do if we needed to earn more. We could go back to freelancing a lot more. We can always dial up work, or we can always dial back property. —Lauren
Like most working parents, the Beldens owe their professional lives to good child care, and their careers revolve around the needs of their kids. They split time between Sonoma and San Francisco, and their nanny works calendar miracles to keep everyone’s timetable intact. Then, during summer weekends spent running the farm and hosting wine tastings, the Beldens arrange work sessions around their kids’ schedules.
Our nanny, Shea Kelly, is a huge part of our lives and success. She helps us out four days per week, and pitches in beyond when needed. Her positive attitude, and especially her flexibility, are invaluable. Lauren and I think success comes from good ideas and hard work, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought we’d be holding the ship together without great childcare. —Nate
We learned from early mistakes, and now we do tastings during the kids’ nap times, from 2 to 4 pm. So the kids are sleeping in the house, and we bring the baby monitors with us to the barn when we do the tasting. Olivia, our older daughter, knows to find us if she gets up, and I check on our son Milo every 20 minutes or so. But when we first launched, we would have them with us in the barn during tastings when they should have been napping, and they’d be melting down and acting extra needy the way kids do when they need attention. —Lauren
Cooperation is key to the Belden’s career success, and work- and home-life frequently bleed into one another. But their relationships as a couple and as a family need some separation from their business in order to thrive, and they set aside time when business and family don’t mix.
We’ve been able to stay excited about both the business and our relationship, but to Lauren’s credit, she strives to get us out on a date once a week. That becomes a pretty important part of our whole equation, because it is a time to step back. It’s something we both really look forward to. We try to give each other gratitude toast each week and say a little thank you in it—that ends up being a big deal. While our projects are exactly what we want to be doing and they’re exciting from a different intellectual standpoint, it is work. You can get frustrated with each other. So trying to carve out that time that’s just about you as a couple—and not necessarily the business—is pretty necessary. —Nate
We went to New York this summer for a wine trip and had nine events over ten nights. The events would go on past midnight, plus the kids were on the wrong time zones and waking up at 5:30 am. So Nate and I were getting like four hours of sleep, and the kids were unraveling because it was a strange place and mom and dad were gone every night. By the end of the trip, we were all a wreck. So we went as a family to Martha’s Vineyard, and it was like medicine. We had zero plans. We spent a ton of time with the kids and then they were fine. They just needed us. Sometimes you underestimate how much they need you. —Lauren
Facebook may have coined the phrase, but the Beldens have adopted a practice of launching projects with the big picture in mind—and without having finalized every detail. They add objectives or fix things as they grow, and don’t take imperfection too seriously.
We’re trying to connect people to the land and each other. It’s so informal right now—we’re in the permitting process for a tasting room—but we’re working on growing it into a farmstead as well as a winery. We just partnered with farmers-in-residence who planted an organic vegetable garden and orchard. We’d like to start a creamery too. It’s going to be very small-scale, but Sonoma is all about agriculture, so that’s what we’d like to highlight. —Lauren
Our home’s bathroom was the only bathroom on the property for a long time, so for each tasting, I scrambled to clean the house and find a corner of the bathroom where Milo could sleep without being very disturbed when a stranger went in there to use the bathroom. Then one day Nate was like, “I’ve got a really big surprise for you.” We went out to the barn and it was a giant, really fancy porta-potty with air-conditioning, like the kind you have at weddings. Super fancy. I literally burst into tears. It is so nice not to have to clean the house every time somebody calls and says they’re coming for a tasting. —Lauren
There are times when the kids are running around in the barn when we happen to be pouring for someone, so it can’t be a precious sort of wine-snob situation. It’s about connecting people to our place and our wines, and our kids are a part of that. —Nate