Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc. --> Sebastiani Winery

Sonoma and Napa Spring Break Tour 2005
A day at the Sebastiani Winery

Linda and I decided to take our own spring break this year in Northern California. Along with associate Wine Guy Tom Landshof (his cards actually reads "The Wine Geezer") and his wife, Suzanne, we spent six days in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys visiting wineries and eating way too well. Over the next few months we will use the newsletter to tell you what we found, and what wineries and restaurants you might want to try when you visit.

We based ourselves in the town of Sonoma at the southern end of the Sonoma valley. Sonoma is a town that I have always enjoyed because while it is still filled with interesting shops, wonderful restaurants and quaint places to stay, it still has a very local feel. While towns like Healdsburg and St. Helena have been flapping their skirts at the tourists for years, Sonoma has retained very homey atmosphere. The restaurants are great and prices a fraction of what you find in the trendier areas. In Sonoma, they have to depend on the their customer coming back and you are more likely to be dining in a restaurant full of winery executives than tourists.

Unfortunately, we won't be able to give you any tips on where to stay since the folks at Sebastiani graciously put us up in a lovely little arts and crafts cabin overlooking the famous Cherry Block vineyard that we assume must have once belonged to the founder and his wife back in the 1920's. Which leads us to our first winery visit...

A Visit to Sebastiani

In the mid 70's, fresh out of college and running my first store, I attended my first trade show in San Francisco. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of flying into San Francisco without a room reservation and literally, the Shriners were in town. The closest room I could find was a Holiday Inn 35 miles north, near Sonoma. After a day of fighting traffic on the Golden Gate bridge I resolved to blow off the second day and explore the town of Sonoma. While exploring the quaint square surrounded by shops and restaurants a shopkeeper suggested that we tour the Sebastiani winery just a few blocks away. At that point my only wine experiences were unfortunate Friday night exposures to Boone's Farm Apple wine at college parties. But, what the heck, it sounded interesting.

The Winery was in a very old, imposing fieldstone building just off the square. It was very quiet that day and we were treated to a tour and tasting by an elderly gentleman wearing a worn pair of striped bib overalls. It was only when I saw a stained glass depiction of August with his swans in the tasting room that I discovered that it was August Sebastiani himself who had given us the tour. I hate to confess that my first taste of Cabernet left me a bit cold, but their "Eye of the Swan" Pinot Noir Blanc (Sebastiani's answer to White Zin) helped me begin a life long love affair with wine.

The entire winery I visited then is now just the tasting room and visitor center, and Sebastini has been through big changes over the last 30 years.

Sebastiani wineries is one of the oldest wineries in continuous production in California. Founded by Italian immigrant Samuele Sebastiani in 1904, the company is still in family hands and being directed by members of the third and fourth generations. Unlike almost all of their competitors, Sebastiani managed to survive 14 years of prohibition by selling sacramental wine to the catholic church and canning vegetables in the winery.

Samuele only produced bulk wine that was sold under a variety of labels. However, when his son August and his wife Sylvia took over in 1944 they began producing wine under the Sebastiani brand and were among the first in California to bottle wines using a varietals label.

After August's death in 1980 his three children took turns running the company. First Samuele ran the company but left in 1986 to found the Vistana winery in Sonoma. Then it was Don's turn. Under his leadership the company grew from a two million case winery in Sonoma, to a eight million case company. They added two additional wineries in Woodbridge, California called Turner Road, all producing popularly priced "grocery store" wines. Their labels included Vendage, Talus, Nathanson Creek and Heritage.

Between 1999 and 2001 however, the Sebastiani winery returned to its roots. Wine giant Constellation Brands purchased Sebastiani's Turner Road division for $265 million and the family was left with their original winery and vineyards in Sonoma. Don left to form Don Sebastiani and Sons, a negotiant winery, producing value brands like Pepperwood Grove and Smoking Loon.

Mary Ann, the third of August's children to run the winery, along with her son Marc Cuneo, took the helm and returned Sebastiani to its quality roots, by once again becoming a single label producer of fine wines. Going from 8 million cases to only 190,000 must have been quite a transition. But, if you have tasted any of the Cabernets or Merlots we have been raving about for the last year or so, you already understand... they are currently producing the best wine values in California, no contest! Most of these wines are superior to many of their Napa and Sonoma valley competitors selling for twice or even three times the price!

We were given a tour and tasting conducted by Pat Cassalini, an Italian immigrant himself and retired San Francisco restaurateur. Pat was a fascinating guy who had spent his life around food and wine and was doing a bit of the same thing Tom is, spending part of his retirement working around something he loves, wine. I had my second opportunity to spend time with a member of the Sebastinai family after the tasting when we enjoyed an interesting and educational lunch with

August's grandson, Marc Cuneo. Marc, now director of grower relations (when he is not doing endos on his mountain bike - he arrived on crutches which was why Pat had to do the tour), spends his time in the fields monitoring the vineyards that supply the grapes to produce Sebastiani wines. Many of those relationships with other family growers can be traced back to his great grandfather, Samuele. At lunch we tasted through the results of those relationships and managed to discover something that has not been distributed in Indiana before. Their limited production Appellation series Barbera is about as good a California Barbera as I have ever tasted and stylistically very similar to the incredible 1999 Merlot. Look for it as a wine club selection in the coming months.

It was easy to see that this is a winery headed in a very positive direction. If they can only deliver the same price to quality ratio we have experienced over the last two years, I predict nothing but continued success for this winemaking family.

If you are in the valley, Sebastiani is certainly worth a stop. The tasting room and visitors center are beautiful, not to mention historic. It contains one of the largest collections of hand carved oak and redwood barrels in the world depicting everything from winemaking to Bacchus and includes a 101 year old, two story,65,000 gallon carved redwood tank that was still in use six years ago.


Sebastiani Winery
389 Fourth Street East
Sonoma, CA
(707) 938-5532