A little Italian Village along the highway in Sonoma is VJB Vineyards

VJB Vineyards and Cellars along the highway in Kenwood, CA is like a little Italian village. Photo by Jonathan Farrell

An unexpected respite from the apocalyptic wildfires of the past two weeks this reporter made a visit to VJB Vineyards in Kenwood on Friday.

After so much devastation from wildfires fires and the setbacks due to COVID-19, it was a surprise to see people out and about respectfully wearing face masks and following protocol. It was uplifting to be enjoying a bit of sunshine and fresh air here in Sonoma Valley.

For those unfamiliar with the up valley area of Sonoma away from the historic old mission town, Kenwood is a little hamlet situated along the highway on route to Santa Rosa.

VJB is more than just another winery with vineyards. It’s a little village, an authentic replica of a place a visitor could find in Tuscany or Umbria. Northern California’s Mediterranean-like climate lends itself to the experience.

As soon as you pull in you will feel welcomed. The open courtyard (or piazza) is charming and makes one relax and feel at home.

La Cucina deli within the piazza at VJB Vineyards and Cellars offers a wide selection of authentic food items certain to delight even the most finicky of eaters.

For lunch this past Friday afternoon I had the Sicilian burger. Italy is known for its various preparations of pork, be it the familiar prosciutto or something where pork is added like osso bucco. Pork dishes in any form are a specialty.

The menu offerings at Red Rooster and La Cucina at VJB do satisfy and will make a trip to Sonoma wine country memorable. For those eager to go on a wine tasting tour, VJB is a good deal.

La Cucina has a selection of cheeses and traditional Italian “cold cuts” served on a cutting board along with fresh fruits and nuts to enhance the pallet of a full-spectrum wine tasting experience. Sandwiches, Panini, ribs, chicken skewers and salads are available, they’re made fresh each day.

And, yes there’s pizza, wood-oven baked pizza, starting with the traditional pizza Margherita. Everything is provided including deserts like gelato and gourmet chocolates for a visitor’s picnic or sit-down lunch.

With my burger and fresh-made potato salad, I had a glass of Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine. I’m partial to anything bubbly. Yet take the time to sample VJB Cellars’ array of wines. At present, there are more than 20. If you join VJB’s wine club you get a 20 percent discount. Daily specials are available and visitors are encouraged to come by for morning coffee and pastries as VJB opens at 10:AM.

The idea for this “piccolo villaggio“ (little village) along the highway is the work of the Belmonte family; in particular brothers Victor and Henry. The brothers made their first harvest of Cabernet grapes in 1999. Yet, before that wine was ever bottled, Victor passed away unexpectedly.

The pizzeria kitchen at VJB Vineyards is able to offer delicious fresh made wood-oven baked pizza. Photo: Jonathan Farrell

Although filled with grief, Henry, along with his parents -(Vittorio and Maria) was determined to keep his younger brother’s memory and passion for making wine alive. VJB Vineyards and Cellars, named for Victor Joseph Belmonte was born.

In 2002, the Belmonte’s sold their restaurant in Santa Rosa and began renovating an old home and garden store on Highway 12 in Kenwood. They opened their tasting room on Memorial Day weekend in 2003. There were five wines on the wine list for that grand opening, including their flagship wine called Dante.

Dante is a Cabernet Sauvignon-Sangiovese blend, which they still produce. It was given high marks by Wine Enthusiast magazine. 

Wanting a space where visitors could experience not only wine, but also food and an atmosphere that spoke to their Italian heritage of hospitality, the Belmonte family established the current tasting room and marketplace in 2012.

A glass of Prosecco – Italian sparkling wine is refreshing on a hot summer day in wine country. And, it was delicious with the Sicilian burger served with fresh-made potato salad. Photo: Jonathan Farrell

In doing so, they planted more vines for their popular Montepulciano and Aglianico wines. They transformed the existing ranch-style home on the property into a stunning Tuscan-style villa that houses their tasting room, marketplace and La Cusina deli, as well as an outdoor pizza kitchen. The piazza is the heart of the VJB experience.

In only a few short years, the “piccolo villaggio” of VJB has quickly became a must visit destination in the Sonoma Valley. To learn more about VJB Vineyards and Cellars visit the website.