A tribute to Victor (VJB)
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
When two generations of the Belmonte family open the Tuscan-style VJB tasting room in Kenwood this month, it will be with joy tinged by sadness. The endeavor, years in the planning, is a tribute to son and brother Victor Belmonte, who died of an embolism in 2000 at age 34.
The story behind the Belmonte family, the VJB wine label and the new tasting room is also a tribute to the cherished immigrant dream of finding success in America.
In 1962, young newlyweds Vittorio and Maria Belmonte emigrated from Naples, Italy, to Boston, where other family members had preceded them.
“The driving force for the move,” said their son, Henry, “was the hope that they could make a better life for themselves. They had grown up in difficult times during the post-war years.
“Italy was magic then for tourists, but if you lived there life was very hard. They just took a leap of faith and came to the U.S.”
Vittorio found work in carpentry, and Maria worked as a seamstress. They had two sons, Victor followed two years later by Henry.
Life was good, but Vittorio and Maria missed the Italian countryside. They worked hard, saved money and all the while kept thinking about living somewhere with open space, hills, mountains, and valleys, a place whose geographic landscape reminded them of Italy.
And so, when the boys were 10 and 12, the Belmonte family pulled up roots and moved to Santa Rosa.
“After a year,” Henry said, “they bought land in Kenwood, and Dad built us a home. In the late ‘70s they started a deli, a breakfast and lunch spot called Belmonte’s, where Cafe Citti is now.”
The deli was successful enough that, in classic American Dream tradition, the Belmontes began to think of creating something bigger and better. In 1987 they opened a restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa called Caffé Portofino. Maria was executive chef, while Vittorio, assisted by both sons, worked the front of the house.
The restaurant was a roaring success, which Henry attributes to the fact that “we made people feel a little special every time they walked through the door.”
Caffé Portofino wasn’t the only thing going on. Victor graduated from Sonoma State University, Henry earned a degree at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, and both young men entered the financial world.
At the time of his death, Victor was a stock trader for Thomas Weisel Partners in San Francisco. Henry, a stockbroker early in his career, is today a registered investment advisor affiliated with a brokerage firm.
Despite college and subsequent careers, Victor and Henry continued working at the restaurant. They also became interested in wine.
“Dad was growing grapes, just like people did back in Italy, making wine for home use. So it was a natural progression,” Henry said. “Victor and I got the idea to make our own wine, with its own label, for the restaurant. Unfortunately, Victor wasn’t able to see that through.”
In September 2000, Victor tore a knee ligament while playing soccer. A blood clot formed in his leg, migrated to and lodged in his heart, and caused a coronary arrest. He was rushed by ambulance to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, but efforts to save him failed.
“When he passed away we had a vintage in the barrel,” Henry said. “I decided to continue going forward with the idea the two of us had formed to make wines for our family. But then I thought, ‘I’ll make wines in his honor.’
“So I came up with a label that uses Victor’s initials, VJB. I wasn’t thinking of a winery at that point, just a label in remembrance of him. Something to keep his spirit alive.”
The first VJB wines were so well received by the restaurant’s customers, “our most important critics,” that Henry increased production from 50 cases to 1,000 over the next three years. Today VJB Winery produces 5,000 cases each year, all sold direct-to-consumer through the tasting room or the wine club.
In 2002, the Belmonte family sold Caffé Portofino. “We had a great run,” Henry said, “but it was time for something new, a new challenge.”
When a 900-square-foot tasting room on Highway 12 in Kenwood became vacant in 2003, the Belmontes opened a tasting room for their own wine.
“We realized almost immediately that this wasn’t going to be enough to be successful,” Henry said. “Not because it wasn’t busy, but there wasn’t enough in just selling wine. We needed something else to flex our muscle, share our culture, our style of living.”
And so Henry and Vittorio began working on the nearby property that will open its doors this month.
“We built this for the community first, and tourists second,” said Henry. “It’ll be a place where you can pick up a pizza, take a rotisserie class, bring the kids for gelato or chocolates, or enjoy a panini sandwich in the courtyard.
“We’ll have a jug program, a throwback to the old days where people in the Valley can come in and fill up their own jug of wine. It’s going to be a little village.”
Asked what Victor would think, Henry smiled. “He’d say I’m a fool because Victor was a very bright, financially-attuned individual. He’s probably thinking, ‘Couldn’t you find a cheaper way to keep my spirit going?’ I’m sure that’s what he’s thinking.
“But at the same time he would be very proud that my father and I have continued to be in business together. You hear a lot about family businesses that have bad breakups, but you don’t hear about families like ours, a family that’s been in business, children working with parents, for 30 years.
“That says a lot. Victor would be proud of that.”
VJB Tasting Room, La Cucina & Piazza is located at 9077 Sonoma Highway in Kenwood, 833-2300, vjbcellars.com.