VJB Vineyards & Cellars
A FAMILY AFFAIR
The Belmonte family story began in the little town of Bonito, in the Campania region of Italy, where young Vittorio picked grapes in his family’s vineyard and Maria learned to cook the traditional recipes of the region from her mother and grandmother. Bonito is almost 6,500 miles away from the little town of Kenwood in Sonoma County and yet, when you’re sitting outside in the Italian Marketplace of the Belmonte family’s VJB Vineyards & Cellars, eating Maria’s carefully crafted food, drinking the family’s Italian-style wines, southern Italy doesn’t seem so very far away at all.
On a recent visit to VJB and its nearby sister winery, Wellington Cellars, we were impressed by the sense of familial devotion, adherence to tradition and deep love and respect for the kind of food and wine for which Italy, as well as Sonoma, is justly famous. VJB is a family business in the truest sense. Henry Belmonte, Vittorio and Maria’s eldest son, is the proprietor, along with his father, while Maria is firmly at the helm of the kitchen. The names of other family members grace both the wines and menu items, as well as the winery itself.
Upon their arrival in the U.S., Vittorio and Maria Belmonte first settled in Boston, where both of their sons were born, but a visit to Sonoma County in 1976 convinced them that this was where they wanted to make a life. It was not long thereafter that they made their way west.
Initially, Vittorio, who was in the construction business, built Maria a small café and deli in Kenwood, directly across from what is now VJB Vineyards & Cellars. There, Maria beguiled locals and tourists alike with her traditional Italian dishes, served with the family’s welcoming hospitality. Eventually outgrowing the space, the family sold the café and opened the larger Caffe Portofino in downtown Santa Rosa, where for 15 years Maria continued to run the kitchen, while Henry and his younger brother, Victor, worked the front of the house and dreamed of making wine together that they would serve to restaurant guests.
In 1999, the brothers realized their dream, but, tragically, Victor passed away suddenly just after he and Henry had completed their first harvest. Devasted by the loss, Henry decided that continuing to make wine was a way for him not to have to say goodbye to his brother.
The family purchased property in Kenwood, just across the road from their original café, and Henry and his father planted vines and converted the existing ranch house into a Tuscan-style villa fit for a Renaissance painting. They named the winery VJB in homage to Victor—his initials being VJB for Victor Joseph Belmonte. Even the wine glasses at VJB have Victor’s signature etched onto them, lifted directly from his driver’s license.
“The idea was simple,” said Henry. “It was nothing more than, like a family in Italy, to have a trattoria with a bit of winemaking in the back. We began with 50 cases and I never thought I would make any more than that. That 50 quickly became 200, which became 1,000 and then 10,000. It went beyond our expectations.”
In the planning of VJB, it was important to the Belmontes to retain the conviviality and social aspect of Caffe Portofino, and that meant great food, as well as wine, and a comfortable space in which to enjoy it. At the heart of VJB is the Italian-style piazza, seamlessly blending the aesthetic of Italy with California Mission. The piazza is flanked by their Red Rooster Pizzeria Italiano with a wood-fired oven, a chocolate and gelato tasting room, the Italian Market, Tasting Room and the Barrel Room. Maria’s food draws from the authentic cuisine of her native Italy, translated through the rich abundance of her adopted California. You can purchase her signature sauces, pestos and tapenades, as well as her cookbook, Cucinare con Amore (Primer Wine Press, 2008), in the retail shop.
At a table in the piazza, we were guided through a leisurely tasting by Bob Alpaugh, a semi-retired wine professional who clearly enjoys his role as wine educator and ambassador at VJB. The wines, in true Italian fashion, were all accompanied by food. First, a salumi and cheese selection to go with the 2016 Gabriella Ranch Chardonnay, a crisp, refreshing quaff named for Henry’s oldest daughter. The menu advanced with the wines as we sipped our way through the 2016 Rosso Family Blend, a 2015 Primitivo (the name by which Zinfandel is known in southern Italy), the 2016 Negro Amaro and 2015 Sagrantino. Finally, the 2016 Estate Montepulciano proved a brilliant match for a succulent plate of Enrico’s Ribs, one of the specialties from the wood-fired oven that is named for Henry’s young son.
One varietal we didn’t get to taste was Natalia’s Blend. Bob related the story that when Henry’s middle daughter, Natalia, was 6, she wanted to know why she didn’t have a blend of her own. The vineyard manager picked six grapes, told her to choose her favorites and he would make her a secret blend (she didn’t want her sister to know the recipe). The irony is not lost on Henry that both his daughters now have their own namesake wines, even though neither of them is old enough to consume them.
“Our parents created an opportunity for my brother and me,” said Henry, “if we chose to take it. I want to do the same for my children. If they want to go into the business, the opportunity is there for them. If not, they will be free to choose whatever life they want.”
Running two wineries and a bustling food service operation seems daunting (although lively enough on a Monday afternoon, the piazza is packed on weekends), but Henry chuckled as the idea was put to him.
“We were in the restaurant business for 20 years, working six or seven days a week from early in the morning to late at night. We had a full bar, so when the café closed we had a night business. We were used to extreme hours, so to do what we do now, to open at 10am and close at 4:30 or 5 in the afternoon, it’s a real luxury,” Henry shared.
The family’s dedication to their culinary roots is neatly summed up on a sign that hangs above the entrance to the Italian Market and Tasting Room. It reads Vivere per mangiare, or “live to eat!” Sitting in the sun-washed central piazza on that June afternoon, sampling VJB wines and eating Maria’s delicious food, I raised my glass in heartfelt agreement.