For a Brother’s love
VJB Cellars— A living memorial to Victor Belmonte
The Belmontes—Henry, Maria and Vittorio— in the courtyard of their expansive winery.
space, the music, great food…it is how we would entertain you in our own home.'
Most wine is born of romance, some ineffable impulse to nurture grapes in willing soil, nurse the juice into fine nectar and share it with friends and strangers.
But VJB Vineyards and Cellars was born out of a different kind of alchemy, the transubstantiation of grief into celebration, of tragedy into triumph.
In 2000, just as the Belmonte label prepared for its debut, Victor Joseph Belmonte died. He was a brother, a son, and a well-known restaurateur; he’d been half of the dream but he was gone, felled by a rare genetic condition. Rather than wallow, his brother Henry re-imagined the fledgling winery as a tribute to Victor’s life and the Belmontes faith in food, wine, and family. Wine label “Victor Joseph Belmonte,” or “VJB Cellars,” was born.
Family, food, and wine are the three pillars of the Belmonte family. They are the load-bearing beams of their loud, happy, Italian-American house. From Naples, Italy, to the Sonoma Valley in 1976, the Belmontes have always labored to promote family and businesses rooted in the warm hospitality of their dinner table. From an early age, Henry and Victor learned to blend their culinary and enological heritage with the upstart capitalism of their family’s new country.
Focusing initially on cabernet, syrah, and sangiovese, the family planted 10 acres on their Kenwood property. “The mistake I made was thinking that I had to create some 100 point cabernet. And we didn’t need to! All along we had this rich heritage in Italian wines,” says Henry with a shake of his head, “and I couldn’t see it. Here [Italian varietals] were staring me in the face and here I was focusing on Bordeaux.” The label eventually found its footing, producing stellar estate-grown and hand-produced wines.
Today, 12 years later, the Belmonte family has kick-started a new venture. The Tuscan-inspired VJB Marketplace is a multifloored tasting room, market, and dessert shop within the mostly one-story, slightly sleepy town of Kenwood. While the new VJB Marketplace—designed and constructed by noted custom builder Jon Reiter—will expand the skyline, if not the character, of bucolic Kenwood, one thing is certain: it is the locals that are truly savoring every sip, bite, and sweet.
On a recent visit, the place was awash with friends and industry colleagues. Some were with their families, some had driven a fair distance for lunch, and others were gathering for al-fresco work meetings in the relaxed atmosphere of bubbling fountains and upbeat music.
“The local turnout,” says Henry, “that’s what’s been so humbling! Sure the tourism is definitely here but it’s the community that’s embraced the project.”
It’s hard not to.
Walking in, Vittorio, the Belmonte patriarch, booms out “Hello!” carrying on a lively banter while slicing perfectly cured salamis for made-to-order sandwiches. Henry floats from guest to guest, welcoming newcomers, catching up with regulars.
“We want you to feel welcome here. That’s the reason for our hospitality, this open space, the music, great food…it is how we would entertain you in our own home,” he says.
About the food: be absolutely sure not to miss the marinated artichokes and pasta alla Maria (fussili pasta with tuna and olives.) Everything is freshly made and sourced from as many local suppliers as possible. “The key, we think, is that we created this manageable menu and seasonal garden out back. This makes our deli delicious and fresh,” says Henry.
Henry takes in his family’s new venture and muses about how far they have come. “This has been a family dream since 2004,” he says, indicating the marketplace with a sweep of his arm. “We are very happy with how it turned out. Part tasting room, part deli and marketplace, part retail and culinary shop, part art gallery.”
He is not presumptuous enough to suggest it, but the prominence, the position and the presentation of VJB Marketplace makes it a sort of de facto gateway stop toward the top of the Valley of the Moon. And that seems to fit Henry’s vision for the future.
“We hope VJB will evolve to include weekly farmers markets and outdoor cooking demonstrations and boast visiting celebrity chefs… More important, we really want to continue being all about the food and all about the wine. It’s who we are as a family. To promote a true Italian-American experience here, we had to return to our roots. Italian wines and great food are what we know. It’s what we understand. It is simply who we are.”