Ten Years On, Balderdash Cellars keeps getting better and better.
By Liam Gorman
Photos By Jake Borden
It’s one thing to have a wine cellar; it’s another to start an entire winery in a basement beneath a Subway sandwich shop in Pittsfield. But a decade ago, that’s just what Christian and Donna Hanson did with their winery.
Situated on a beautiful plot of land on State Road in Richmond, Balderdash Cellars is a popular spot for local wine lovers who appreciate the community and the venue as much as the vino.
“We’re not in Napa Valley. So I want people to feel like when they come in, they’re walking into their own living room,” Donna says with a smile.
In charge of the marketing and booking events for the winery, she understands the importance of building community and catering to tourists who might be a bit skeptical of wine born in the Berkshires. “We’re not just selling wine; we’re selling an experience,” she says.
On any given weekend, hundreds of people may stop by to experience the wine, the music, the picnic opportunities, the food trucks, the occasional public wedding, and the spectacular location. Perched just above Richmond Pond, the winery offers a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, the pond, and their property—which consists of a budding vineyard, an amphitheater, a restored barn, a patio, and a huge tasting room for the winter months.
“We come probably every month or two,” says Pittsfield resident Andy Manzer as he sits outdoors one recent afternoon, watching his Great Dane pup, Maverick, play with another Great Dane. “We like all the wines. It’s a good chance to meet a lot of people, listen to good music, and enjoy a beautiful view. Today you can see Mount Greylock.”
First-time visitors Michael and Heather Jefferson, also from Pittsfield, have set up a little picnic while keeping tabs on their young son running around and their baby napping in Heather’s arms. “We’ve been wanting to come here for a while. We heard it was kid-friendly, and this is a huge area where he can run around and play while we enjoy it, too,” says Heather.
Donna and Christian have come a long way since their days beneath the Subway on East Street in Pittsfield. “It was a small location, but just enough to get us started,” says Christian.
He had a vision for the space, but Donna’s first impression was less than stellar. It was full of cobwebs and the size of a two-car garage, she recalls. “I said, ‘Are you insane? Have you lost your mind?’ He said, ‘No, I can see it.’ And boy, he took that little spot and used every inch of that location to get what we needed.”
The basement was an upgrade from their garage, where Christian really got his start. After brewing some beer, he woke up one day and decided it was a fine time to make wine.
“There was nothing other than an interest in doing it,” he recalls. “Our wine is better now, but it was definitely drinkable. All the neighbors would come over and hang out in their lawn chairs in our garage and drink wine. It was perfect.”
Ten years ago, Donna and Christian Hanson, above, started Balderdash Cellars in the basement below a Subway sandwich shop in Pittsfield, but today the winery is all about open spaces and community on their beautiful property in Richmond. “The best part about it is when you walk on the property on a beautiful day, and you see kids throwing frisbees and playing ball with their fathers. It’s just awesome” says Donna.
“That’s actually how the thought got into your head,” adds Donna, “A couple of the neighbors said, ‘Hey, you should open a winery.’ And he just started thinking about it. And then one day, he said, ‘Maybe I will do that.’ ”
Christian, who has degrees in mechanical engineering, economics, and French, knew that the key to success was knowledge. So he enrolled in a winemaking program at the University of California, Davis, where he spent two years learning and living the wine life while Donna continued working at GE Plastics in Pittsfield—which was where they first met, and where Christian continued to work part-time, remotely.
For Donna, the daughter of Italian immigrants, the thought of starting a winery from a basement in the Berkshires wasn’t exactly unique. Her father used to make wine in the cellar of a property they owned on North Street in Pittsfield. “I grew up with it, and it was a normal tradition at Sunday dinner at a fair- ly young age to have some pasta and sample the wine with your family,” she says.
While the Berkshires is known for a lot of amazing farms, vine- yards aren’t exactly the area’s expertise. Where do the Hansons get their grapes for such a venture?
Donna’s father used to source his grape supply from somewhere in Springfield, but given the quantity and quality needed for Balderdash, Christian tapped into his California connections.
“Our process is definitely different from maybe almost every other winery in the world,” says Christian. “We have contracts with vineyards in California, where we’re allocated acreage out there. We can direct how to farm it and when to harvest it. We’ll even go out there and taste the grapes.”
Once the grapes are picked, they’re sent to a custom crush facility, where the grapes are crushed, or pressed, in the parlance of the industry. From there, everything is put in 55-gallon drums and frozen.
“When we’re ready and we have space in our facility, we bring stuff out from California and start fermenting,” says Christian.
When the Balderdash team was working in the basement, they would do wine tastings at local farmers markets and some guerrilla marketing, including the time Christian sat out on Park Square in Pittsfield to point people in the winery’s direction.
“He took out a barrel, he put on a beret, had a newspaper and a glass of wine,” laughs Donna.
Christian corrects her. “It was cranberry juice.”
“People were waving and honking at him. I was mortified. After that, I thought for sure we were done,” she says jokingly.
Their tenacity paid off, though, and the business thrived. Christian had his eye on an old farm, formerly known as Clover Hill, that had been in the same family since the 1800s. Donna was again a little skeptical.
“There was a chicken coop right out the front entrance. There were a lot of the older remains of the barn, like where the cows were and stuff like that. And the train tracks. I honestly did not like it. I thought it looked very farm-like,” she says.
Eventually, Donna came around to seeing the potential, and they built from the ground up. Using the dirt from the excavation for their main building, they created the amphitheater and restored the old barn, turning it into an event space and building a patio for people to congregate and for food trucks to set up shop.
“It’s been an exponential change from when we were in our old location,” says Christian. “It’s just a completely different experience. I’d say just in terms of number of bottles, we were previously maybe selling 10,000 bottles a year. Now we’re up to 30,000 to 40,000.”
More growth is in their future. Christian would like more room for his wine, while Donna is looking to add more fun options for families. “This year, we’re putting in an official size bocce ball court—for the Italians,” she laughs.
Constantly on the move, the couple hasn’t had much time to reflect on their ten years in the wine business, but they know that they’re building upon something that people will enjoy for years to come.
“We have an incredible community who supports us. I want families to someday look back and say, ‘You remember when we grew up our parents used to take me there?’ ” says Donna. “The best part about it is when you walk on the property on a beautiful day, and you see kids throwing frisbees and playing ball with their fathers. It’s just awesome. It’s what keeps me going, because I’ll tell you on a Monday, I can’t function. But on Friday—let’s do it again!”