Sonoma’s First Family of Wine

Sonoma's First Family of Wine

In their second century, the Sebastianis blaze new trails

“I was born 14 feet from a wine tank,” August Sebastiani was fond of joking. And if there’s any truth to it, then you might say that the Sebastiani kids—Sam, Don and Mary Ann—were born and raised in wine barrels. “We always had a little wine with our 7-Up,” remembers Mary Ann, the youngest daughter of August and Sylvia Sebastiani.

The Sebastiani family has been called the First Family of Sonoma wine. For 100 years, their saga has been compelling, even in an industry dominated by colorful characters. In 1904, August’s father, Samuele, launched the winery in Sonoma Town, after having emigrated from Tuscany. “He bought himself a 500-gallon wine tank and started from there,” August once recalled.

Over the decades, the winery followed the usual path: shipping grapes back east during Prohibition, and making bulk wine for others. After Samuele’s death in 1944, August and Sylvia took over.

August was one of California’s first famous winemakers, with a flair for promotion. He wore trademark bib overalls and could often be found pushing barrels. But despite his pokey image, “he was the consummate professional,” say Mary Ann. Her son, Marc, 27, agrees: “People thought of him as a dumb old farmer, but he wasn’t.”

During the decades he ran the winery, August built it into a powerhouse, with production hitting 500,000 cases annually. In 1975, he made history when he became the first vintner in California to put varietal wines into 1.5-liter bottles.

But August’s health was declining, and so was the winery’s. In 1977, three years before he died, August observed, “We don’t want to become so large that we lose control of quality.” Yet that’s exactly what happened. By the mid-1980s, with jug wines out of style, Sebastiani was struggling. The next 10 years would see the winery go through a difficult phase of reinvention and rediscovery. Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, that phase is paying off.

Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo and Richard Cuneo protect the legacy
When August died, in 1980, his wife, Sylvia, took over, aided by her three children Sam, son Don, and Mary Ann and Mary Ann’s husband, Richard Cuneo. During this time, the company grew even larger.

No shrinking violet despite her grandmotherly image, Sylvia could be fiercely protective of the business. This put her on a collision course with Sam. Increasingly aware of the boutique winery revolution sweeping the industry, Sam urged the family to invest the money needed to upgrade vineyards and winemaking equipment.

But “if Sylvia felt that anyone was moving in a direction that was too expensive, she said so,” Mary Ann recalls. In 1986, Sylvia fired Sam for his free-spending ways, and replaced him with Don.

Sylvia, Don, Mary Ann and Dick Cuneo continued to grow the company. Moving beyond Sonoma County into the Central Valley, they started up inexpensive jug brands such as Turner Road, Talus, Vendange, La Terre, Heritage, Farallon and Nathanson Creek, elevating production to millions of cases.

But these were not wise decisions. The family winery lost its focus, and couldn’t compete against the likes of Gallo and Robert Mondavi. By the late 1990s, it was clear that something had to change.

In 2001, with Sylvia moving into the background, Sam (who still owned his share of the company) and Don decided to unload the non-Sebastiani brands. “I had skepticism about that,” Mary Ann recalls, “but Sam and Don were interested in selling, and Dick and I had to agree.” Constellation Brands’ Canandaigua Wine Company paid $295 million for six of the Sebastianis’ brands—a total of 7.6 million cases.

Sebastiani could now concentrate on what it did best: making premium wine under a single label. Today, production is 190,000 cases, and is expected to rise to 225,000 cases before leveling off.

Sylvia passed away in late 2003, at the age of 87. Today, Mary Ann is president and CEO; her husband, Dick, remains board chairman.

Ironically, Sam’s push to upgrade the wines, which got him fired, now is Sebastiani’s policy. “Sam was heading in the right direction,” Mary Ann concedes, “but the timing wasn’t right.”
“The old policy, which was to move boxes and make a lot of wine go out the door, is gone,” confirms Marc, who is director of grower relations. Vineyards are being upgraded, while longtime winemaker Mark Lyon has carte blanche to spend what he needs.
Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery now has four tiers of wine: The popularly priced Sonoma County series; the Appellation Selection Wines, a single-vineyard series; and two proprietary wines, the well-regarded Cherryblock Cabernet Sauvignon and, soon, a Bordeaux blend called Secolo. “Even though we’re 100 years old, we have a totally new product, a new deal,” says Marc.

Mary Ann is as protective of the family business as her mother was. “I feel it’s a legacy that’s been given to my brothers and myself,” she says. Mary Ann and Dick’s two younger sons, Angelo and Joe, aren’t yet in the business, “but I think, eventually, everyone will come back,” Marc predicts.

Don makes way for the next generation—and forges a new path
In 2001, Don Sebastiani was CEO and chairman of a winery approaching its hundredth year. Business was good, and the future was bright. So it came as a surprise to many that at age 51, instead of celebrating, Don stepped down.

The family business, it turns out, was getting crowded with the fourth generation of Sebastianis. “All of our kids were coming of age,” Don explains. “Donny [his older son, now 27] was working with me already, and [younger son] August [now 25] was in college. [He and his wife Nancy also have a daughter, Mia, who is 17.] Meanwhile, my sister’s and brother’s kids were about the same age. So my leaving was an opportunity to make some more space.”

Don may have left to give his sons a chance of their own, but starting his own company also provided him the opportunity to be a brand builder. It was a challenge this natural born risk-taker couldn’t resist.

He’d tried his hand at importing Pinot Noir from Kosovo, wine from Barolo, even beer from China. “I’ve failed at more things than I can recall,” he laughs, sitting in the company boardroom on West Napa Street, a block from the Plaza and the old Sebastiani Theatre.
This man’s life has taken enough twists and turns for a movie. In the early 1980s, he was a rising star in the California Republican Party and served three terms in the State Assembly. A devout Catholic and conservative, he soon earned a reputation as a provocateur. “I would privatize the fire department!” he roars. But a failed attempt at winning the GOP primary for state controller, in 1986, put a self-imposed end to his political career. “After that, it was up or out,” he says. When he couldn’t move up, he moved out.

“Out” meant returning full time to the management of Sebastiani Winery after Sam was fired. It also meant a side venture, Cecchetti Sebastiani Cellars, which he’d started with his brother-in-law, Roy Cecchetti. CSC were négociant-purveyors of value-priced wines, a model Don returned to when he started Don Sebastiani & Sons 16 years later.

The négociant concept is at the heart of the new company. “We buy fruit on the spot market, we have contracts from what goes into the ground all the way to production, we buy lots of wine and blend together our own cuvées,” Don explains. “We just don’t own any assets.”

It’s an approach that echoes something his father once said. “If I could have my way,” August remarked, “I wouldn’t have a grapevine, because a farmer can do a better job than I can while I’m trying to run a winery.” Being a négociant means Don & Sons has multiple brands, and can turn on a dime if one of them doesn’t work out, or a new opportunity arises. The grape glut of the early 2000s, which Don calls “the hen that laid the eggs,” was helpful to the fledgling business.

Some of the brands are whimsically named and highly innovative in concept. With their colorful, modern labels, they’re meant to attract a younger audience and meant to generate, in Donny’s words, “excitement”: Mia’s Playground, Aquinas, Fusée and Screw Kappa Napa. Young August, a musician who once dreamed of an acting career, is taking charge of the more creative aspects.

But Don Sebastiani & Sons’ cash cows are Pepperwood Grove and Smoking Loon. “Coke and Pepsi” is how Don characterizes them, describing their growth as “beyond control,” while Donny says, “We really have a tiger by the tail.” Driven by these two tigers, production of all brands this year will be over 1 million cases, making Don Sebastiani & Sons, in only three years, one of the two dozen biggest wine companies in America.

Don seems bemused by his success. The company lost “a ton of money” the first year, he says, and expected to lose more in 2003, but ended up in the black, “not by much, just a hair, but we were feeling pretty celebratory.” Where will things level off? “We are a growth company,” replies Donny, who studied to be a CPA, “and I don’t necessarily see volume for us leveling off anytime in the near future.”

Sam gambles on a unique marketing concept
On a rainy winter day in 1989, Sam Sebastiani held an umbrella over his mother’s head as he led her through the big wooden door of his new winery, Viansa. (Viansa is a combination of “Vicki and Sam”—Sam’s wife’s name is Vicki.)

It was a symbolic moment in several respects. The door had been crafted from an old redwood wine tank owned by Samuele. And for Sylvia and Sam, the day marked a reconciliation, three years after she had fired him from the family company.

With the rain pounding down and the “winery” only a raw stucco building surrounded by a sea of mud, it was a dream that hadn’t yet been realized. But Sam, already 48, was taking the first step of the rest of his life.

Viansa was a huge gamble. Sam’s plan was to bypass the system of distributors selling wine to retailers, who then sold it to the public at wine shops and restaurants. Instead, Sam and Vicki had the radical idea of selling wine directly to consumers.
“It was a decision not to get involved in the three-tiered system,” Sam explains. With nearly 1,000 wineries in California alone, it was hard if not impossible to get distributors to pay attention to a new little winery.

Sam’s idea was to emphasize Italian varieties, attract tourists to the winery, sign them up for the mailing list, and build a repeat business. But with eight kids to support, Sam and Vicki struggled. “We sold our house, and lived for 11 years in a trailer,” Sam recalls.
The turnaround finally came in the 1990s. Sam is reluctant to discuss his financial details. But without having to pay middlemen, he gets 100 percent of every dollar on each bottle of the 50,000 cases Viansa sells annually. And Viansa prices aren’t cheap, ranging from the high teens to over $100. Viansa’s Tuscan marketplace is one of the biggest tasting rooms in California. With more than 4,000 square feet, it attracts a quarter-million tourists a year and sells thousands of different kinds of food and gift items. Sam strategically located it on busy Highways 12 and 121, which he calls “the throat to the brain” because it’s one of the main thoroughfares from the south into Sonoma County.

In April 2004, Sam and Vicki announced that they were giving ownership of Viansa to their seven children, three of whom, Lisa, 39; Jon, 34; and Joe, 35, already are involved. That will give Sam time for his great passion: wetlands restoration. He owns a 2,000-acre spread on the North Platte River, in Nebraska, on a major flyway where ducks, geese, swans, wild turkeys and pheasants roam.

Sam gives away a clue to his inner self when he explains what he likes about birds. “My dad was one of the world’s biggest dove breeders. He kept his birds in cages, and I’d always think, ‘these birds want to fly.’ So I said, someday I want a place where I can see them free.” At 63, after building up a successful business for his children, Sam himself is finally flying.

Published on August 1, 2004