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Belvedere Winery - Sonoma county

Belvedere Winery Joins Elite with New Chardonnay

“Our most valuable asset is our vineyards,” says Belvedere Winery owner, Bill Hambrecht. And Bill Hambrecht knows a good vineyard when he sees it. Over the last twenty years he has systematically accumulated a half-dozen different premium Sonoma County vineyards totaling more than 500 acres. “Good vineyards are as valuable as gold to a winery, and we have some of Sonoma County’s best vineyards,” he emphatically adds.

That “gold” he refers to just may be a reference to the multitude of Gold Medals won over the years for his Belvedere Chardonnays and Cabernets. Year in and year out, Belvedere consistently produces wines of exceptional quality—a tribute to his top-notch vineyards located in Sonoma County’s finest growing regions—Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, and Dry Creek Valley. And recently the winery added its first vineyard located outside of Sonoma County, in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley.
Belvedere was founded in 1979 by Peter Friedman and Bill Hambrecht. Friedman, in 1961, was a co-founder of Sonoma Vineyards, which over the years underwent a multitude of gyrations before ending up in 1984 as Rodney Strong Vineyards. Bill Hambrecht, in addition to being Peter’s friend and tennis partner, was (and still is) a venture capitalist. This was to be Bill’s first venture into the wine business (see Spotlight story). “Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a farming side of me that wanted to grow things, so this was an opportunity to do that,” recalls Bill.
Initially, Belvedere made their wines at other facilities until their own winery was built in 1982. The new winery is state-of-the-art, built in the coastal foothills overlooking the Russian River in Sonoma County. Friedman, who ran operations during the early years, started to produce and bottle a mainstream volume-line of wines called ‘Discovery’, which was later renamed Grove Street. This line of wines was what the industry used to call a “fighting varietal”, popular-priced and “fighting” with hundreds of other similarly priced wines for store shelf space. This brand mushroomed to more than 200,000 cases in a very short time. Out of sheer volume alone, the Belvedere line initially took a back seat.

In 1989, Bill purchased majority ownership in Belvedere, and became its acting President. Meanwhile, he began buying vineyard land. Naturally, these vineyards now supply the majority of grapes to the Belvedere operation. “We still buy some Chardonnay from a few growers who we’ve dealt with for over 10 years, says winemaker Kevin Warren. “But given the diversity and quality of our own vineyards, we use our grapes as much as possible.”
Bill Hambrecht saw good quality Chardonnay as the wine of the future in America. Upon taking control, he immediately refocused the operation’s efforts to producing super-premium, barrel fermented Chardonnay. The lower end Grove Street line began to scale back, and new energy was running through Belvedere Winery.

Winemaker Kevin Warren provides another strong link to Belvedere’s chain of success. Kevin joined Belvedere in 1983, after leaving Charles Krug Winery as their Assistant Winemaker. He was appointed the same title for Belvedere in 1984. In 1986 he became Winemaker for the Discovery Series of wines (later to be renamed as Grove Street). Then in 1994 he became Winemaker for Belvedere wines as well.

Current overall production runs about 60,000 cases. The vast majority of the winery’s production is devoted to 4 different bottlings of Chardonnay. A popular priced Sonoma Chardonnay is the biggest production wine at 35,000 cases. Two higher quality, smaller production Chardonnays are labeled as Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley. And yet a fourth is a high-end, Preferred Stock, sold only at the winery. Under 5,000 cases each are produced of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Merlot. Recently, winemaker Kevin Warren has added a Syrah, Sangiovese and Petite Syrah to the winery tasting room offerings which are not available in the retail marketplace.
“Over the next few years we plan to level off at around 80,000 cases,” predicts Kevin. And already in the works is the emergence of a new, sister winery located in the Bradford Mountain area where Bill Hambrecht owns three vineyards. “This will be a 10,000-case winery focusing entirely on red wine production,” says Kevin. “The terrior of these vineyards is ideal for varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel,” he adds.

Bill Hambrecht

So, how is it that a successful high-tech oriented investment banker ended up in the wine business’ As founder, President, and CEO of Hambrecht & Quist, a San Francisco based investment banking firm, Bill Hambrecht’s focus had always been on the high-tech industry.

In the late 1960s he and the late George Quist saw a big demand for a strong regional investment bank to service the small, quickly emerging companies of the Silicon Valley. This niche proved to be right on target. The firm at one point in the 1970s managed over a half billion dollars in venture capital for a handful of very successful companies. Then, in 1979, venture capitalist Bill Hambrecht, made an investment that would change his life.

It started as a personal investment to help his friend and tennis partner, Peter Friedman, open a new winery. Peter ran the winery while Bill’s fascination of this newfound industry led him to seek other wine-related investment opportunities. In 1982, he formed a partnership with Fred Peterson and began buying up hundreds of acres of prime vineyard land. In 1983, he invested in the Chalone Group, which at that time consisted of Chalone Winery and Carmenet Winery.

The following year his firm, Hambrecht & Quist managed Chalone’s successful public stock offering. With add-on brands, Acacia and Edna Valley, the Chalone Group was the first publicly owned premium winery operation in the U.S.

Bill has also been a major investor in a number of other wineries including Ridge Vineyards, Nalle Vineyards, and Saintsbury. In 1989, he sold his Chalone stock to Baron Eric de Rothschild, then bought majority interest in Belvedere where he remains an active and involved owner.

Bill Hambrecht was born in Oceanside, New York. He attended college at Princeton University and later studied at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. He has spent virtually all his career in the investment banking and brokerage business.

Bill’s profession as a venture capitalist and passion for vineyards fits neatly side by side, as both endeavors are certainly growth oriented, literally and figuratively. And he has no immediate plans to abandon either one. His firm Hambrecht & Quist, is today one of the most successful investment banking firms in the world, and his Belvedere wines are equally world-class.
‘What appeals to me,” says Bill, ‘is producing quality wine, doing what we do well, and sparing no expense on production. Our unique combination of vineyards, winery, and skill gives us an advantage in bringing consistent quality to the consumer.”