With wineries, seemingly open on every corner like Starbucks, there’s just not enough time on a weekend to see and taste more than 3-4 a day.
When faced with setting an itinerary, what are things to look for in selecting a winery to visit? Certainly, the quality of the wine is one, but that barely shrinks the sample size if at all.
My go to quality that has never failed me, is the quality of the experience.
If we are going wine tasting, I want to find the place we enjoy visiting. A place where you can relax, enjoy the wine and enjoy the vibe. A place like VJB Cellars in Kenwood.
From July of 2012, when all services were up and running, VJB brings a true wine tasting experience. Producing Italian varietals, VJB has a pair of tasting rooms that are on either side of a nice sized courtyard – a piazza – that gives the feeling of sitting in a old-world village in Italy.
VJB is a family owned winery – another nice sign in a corporate controlled environment – and the story is an entertaining one.
Vittorio and Maria Belmonte were both raised in Bonito, Italy before coming to the United States and settling in Kenwood in 1976 with their two sons Henry and Victor.
In the late 1990’s, the Belmonte Family owned a popular restaurant in Santa Rosa by the name of Caffe Portofino. Maria was the cook, with Vittorio, Henry and Victor running the front of the house, entertaining customers with conversation.
It was Henry and Victor that came up with the idea of making their own wine to be able to sell to their diners. Their first harvest of Cabernet grapes was in 1999, but before they got to the point of bottling the wine, Victor passed away unexpectedly.
Henry, along with Vittorio and Maria, launched the name VJB Vineyards and Winery to honor the fallen Victor – Victor Joseph Belmonte. Today there is a wonderful painting of Victor in the front tasting room, further keeping his legacy alive.
The family sold the restaurant in 2002 and bought an old home and garden store right off Highway 12 in Kenwood. By Memorial Day in 2003, the renovations were done and the first VJB tasting room was open with five wines.
Things were going great and in 2010, the Belmonte’s started building their current tasting room and marketplace, turning the house on site into a Tuscan-style villa that houses their tasting room, marketplace and deli, as well as an outdoor pizza kitchen. The pizza oven is a thing to see and can cook 10-11 pizzas at a time.
There is also a Gelato store and for the fashionistas, a Tommy Bahama shop!
The grand opening came in 2012 with 15 wines made of several Italian varietals that are rarely produced in California.
It is hard for words to describe the incredible vibe one gets from sitting in the piazza, enjoying great food with wine. From May to November, the fun increases each weekend as the Wine Country Tenors roam around the piazza from 1-1:45 p.m. The trio made up of Peter (accordion player), Jorge and Dave, put on an incredible show with their booming voices serenading tables around the piazza.
There are no retail sales for VJB so either pick up some while visiting or join Club Enoteca, the VJB wine club.
We sampled eight wines during our visit and I came away impressed by the 2015 Barbera and the 2015 Estate Sangiovese. The 2015 Rosso Family Blend is a very solid table wine. The Chardonnay Port was an excellent way to end our tasting.
The Sangiovese won a gold medal and was voted Best in Class at the 2015 Los Angeles Time competition.
The family is moving forward with another venture after purchasing nearby Wellington Vineyards. There will be French Burgundy’s produced at Wellington and it will be exciting to see what sort of vibe the family can produce.
Make sure that VJB is a stop on your wine tasting adventures the next time you are in Sonoma and if possible, make it a weekend from May-November so you can catch the Wine Country Tenors.
By Dennis Miller