The Quietest Winery : Belvedere Has Made a Name for Itself--Everywhere but on Its Labels

The word belvedere rings with loveliness in sound and meaning. Yet today, in its wine parlance, the Belvedere Winery of Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, is downplaying its name so that it is virtually unnoticeable. On winery labels, the emphasis is wholly upon the names of the vineyards from which the grapes for these outstanding wines have been taken.

By its own definition, "Belvedere is a group of outstanding professionals dedicated to the art of fine wine making." The story of the chief protagonist, Peter S. Friedman, begins in New York with his longstanding friendship with Rodney D. Strong, when Strong was the choreographer of a Broadway hit, "New Faces," and Friedman was a director of marketing for one of the country's most trend-shaping advertising agencies. As wine lovers know, the Broadway choreographer became one of the leading California wine makers, with a whole odyssey of marketing adventures, from the initial mailbox appeal of Tiburon Vintners to Windsor Vineyards to Sonoma Vineyards, with its French connection with Piper-Heidsieck, and now the distinguished Rodney Strong varietal wines.

In 1963, as Friedman recalls, Strong's enthusiasm for potential wine sales in California was nothing short of contagious. One conversation was all Friedman needed to change his life. He resigned from the agency, moved to California and joined his friend in marketing Windsor Vineyards wines on that now well-known direct-to-the-consumer program. Friedman remembers that Strong told him: "Fine wines are made in the vineyard." In my early years along the wine trail, I heard that wisdom from my own mentors, Herman and Ernest Wente, Louis Martini, Andre Tchelistcheff and Richard Peterson. It's an unassailable truth. Fine wines can be made only from fine grapes.

When Friedman struck out on his own with a "Wine Discovery" program, his own version of the French negociant pattern of buying unusual bargains in the bulk market for top varietal wines, he logically looked to premium vineyard sources. Belvedere, as he called his "winery," could give consumers substantial savings. His choice of Pinot Noir from Rene di Rosa's Winery Lake Vineyard in the Carneros district in 1981 skyrocketed his program when that wine won the sweepstakes award at the San Francisco Exposition in 1984. The label for the wine was stunningly beautiful as well--a wraparound watercolor painting of grapes on the vine, by the grower's wife, Veronica di Rosa. The large print on the face of the label read "1981 Winery Lake Pinot Noir--Los Carneros." On the back, in very small print, it said: "Belvedere Wines are presented only under the name of the vineyard or its proprietors."

In the beginning, Friedman used the wine-making facilities of Rod Strong's Sonoma Vineyards winery (later Souverain) and other leased facilities for fermentation, bottling and storage. In 1982, he and his partner, William R. Hambrecht, and wine maker Donald Frezer began construction of their own winery in Healdsburg. Today, it's a handsome reality in the verdant, rolling hills of Sonoma County and truly a belvedere winery. Presently, the winery enjoys a production / sales figure of 21,000 cases, with a steady growth towards a 35,000-case goal.

Recently, I sat down to a tasting of Belvedere Winery offerings currently on the market. The leading vineyards that Friedman had brought into his portfolio are all of the highest repute: Bacigalupi in Healdsburg (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir); Robert Young Vineyards of the Alexander Valley (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot); Winery Lake Vineyards, Carneros, whose Chardonnay grapes become the top-price-setting levels of each vintage year (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir); and York Creek Vineyards, Fritz Maytag's Spring Mountain vineyards above the Napa Valley (Cabernet Sauvignon).

Following are three Belvedere Winery selections with which to start your search for their outstanding wines. Winery Lake 1984 Los Carneros Gewurztraminer ($7): A lovely, distinctive wine for Sunday afternoon aperitif sipping, a hospitality wine, it's almost lyric in its bouquet-address from the grape. The label offers that charming watercolor painting by Veronica di Rosa. Robert Young Vineyards 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon--Alexander Valley ($12): Swirl the glass of this garnet-jewel wine and its bouquet will herald the fabulous quality of the complex claret that invites sip after sip, swallow after swallow of maximum pleasure. An elegant wine, it has immediate drinkability and fine aging potential. Bacigalupi 1982 Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($12): This is a deep, translucent, macho wine, redolent of the smoky pungency that lovers of Burgundy wines seek from California wines but don't often find. WINE OF THE WEEK: When I first discovered the Morgan Monterey County Chardonnay in its dead-leaf-green French bottle a few years ago, it was from a winery wholly unknown to me. The 1982 vintage, its debut, was a stunning wine. The 1983 edition was good, but not as great. I tasted the 1984 at the Central Coast Wine Festival and re-tasted it at the recent Meals-on-Wheels American Wine & Food Festival at the Pacific Design Center. I think that it's wine maker Daniel Lee's best yet--and that's a rave notice. This golden wine is a benchmark of quality for California Chardonnay ($12.50).

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