Like many, Michelle Rulmont arrived at a career in the wine industry unexpectedly. Having dabbled in teaching, and raising twins with husband Marc, Michelle found herself working as the sponsorship coordinator of the Red & White Ball in Sonoma one year, contacting wineries for donations. (The ball is a fundraiser for Sonoma Valley schools.)
She had never considered working in the wine industry at this point but was enchanted to find most wineries she contacted were very enthusiastic to support her and the ball with donations of wine. Their open-hearted nature and easy-going manner struck Michelle as refreshing.
When the Rulmonts got a Mercedes Sprinter several years ago, one of their twins suggested to Michelle that she get into the winery tour business using the van (like a friend of theirs was doing). And the more Michelle thought about it and discussed it with Marc and their friend, the more the idea appealed to them. La Belle Vie Tours was born!
Today, Marc and Michelle take turns driving up to seven tour guests at a time through the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. As they say, La Belle Vie Tours started over a glass of wine, as they love exploring local wineries while enjoying picnics with a glass of Zinfandel in their hometown.
The company name, of course, came from a sense that they feel so fortunate to live ‘the good life’ in the Sonoma Valley. They love to share the local secrets and what they love about wine country with their guests.
Michelle smartly realized they needed a unique hook to stand out from the many wine tour businesses in the North Bay. And she found it almost accidentally when queried about vegan wine opportunities. She realized no one was offering vegan wine tours and that many visitors would often turn to the one vegan in a group of visitors to say, “You pick where we go; we can go anywhere to be happy.” Thus, Michelle began querying winemakers about whether or not their offerings were vegan. And she compiled a list of vegan wine providers for her tours. (To learn more about vegan wines and food, visit barnivore.com.)
Realizing that many visitors fatigue of the “rinse and repeat” process of visiting one winery after another, Michelle also introduced another unique offering that has become a huge hit with her clients: a visit to Charlie’s Acres Farm Animal Sanctuary.
With well over one hundred forty rescued farm animals (that would have otherwise landed on someone’s dinner plate), the nonprofit sanctuary dedicated to the care of rescued farm animals offers Michelle’s tour guests an opportunity to get up close and personal with pigs, goats, cows and numerous other four-legged residents.
Now Michelle’s Vegan Wine Tours, with a stop to visit Charlie’s Acres, has been featured in United Airlines’ Hemispheres in-flight magazine. This has provided La Belle Vie Tours greater exposure and brought guests from as far away as Germany.
Besides this unique niche, the hosts asked Michelle about the keys to her success. She cited a number of things that all add up to La Belle Vie’s continued growth and success. First, Michelle says she loves the match-making aspect of her job, i.e. listening to what her clients are looking for in their custom tour. Many visitors are not vegan, but she says that doesn’t deter their interest in visiting Charlie’s nor does it make a difference to non-Vegans that the wine is vegan as long as it tastes fantastic and the experience is memorable.
Second, she’s inspired by her own clients and loves to see how happy they are while on the tour and admiring the beautiful surroundings. She says it drives her to seek out even more wonderful experiences for guests. Lastly, she said her partnerships with about a dozen wineries help her do a better job, and membership with organizations like Wine Country 2.0 provide resources to expand her offerings with other members. (Listen to our show with Alison Kilmer from earlier this year about Wine Country 2.0 here.)
As to what’s next, Michelle and Marc are planning to add new tours and locations down the road and even take their services abroad! Vive la tour—La Belle Vie Tours!